Sharon Whyte is a quiet force on stage. She seems satisfied to not be in the spotlight, but when given a solo or a lead vocal, she absolutely shines. I have known Sharon for more than a decade, but I only knew her in the context of gigs. From that context, I learned that she is extremely funny, very self-aware, and that she possesses a unique calmness of spirit. When I was given this assignment, I was interested to learn more, and I was not disappointed.
Not only is Sharon Whyte a mistress of musical energy, drawing on her experience in multiple bands as well as studio work to bring wonderful harmonies and smokin’ piano and accordion solos to the audience, she is also a lifelong animal lover and a Tai Yi practitioner working to understand how energy imbalances in the body can cause disease and how correcting the balance can heal the body. Sharon manages to balance these diverse interests with grace, humility, and passion.
“I think music in itself is healing. It’s an explosive expression of humanity. It’s something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we’re from, everyone loves music.”
– Billy Joel
Sharon Whyte was born in Washington DC; her family moved to Japan for two years when she was three years old and then settled in San Diego. She began taking classical piano lessons at age eight. “My Mom always made me practice, even when I hated it. She used to say, ‘You’ll thank me one day.’ Thank you, Mom. I think at one time she would have preferred that I become a classical pianist but, ultimately, she supported me. And Dad, too. He is very supportive. I think, if you do what you love, your parents will see that it makes you happy and come around.”
Sharon also gives credit to her early teachers, including Gerhard Betsche, who gave her the freedom to play what she wanted and showed her how to play with feeling, and Gilbert Sloan, her high school music teacher who was, and still is, very influential.
It wasn’t long before she entered the music business (along with some stints in corporate IT). “One of my first concerts was playing the William Tell Overture with many, many other pianists in Balboa Park. That was when I realized how fun it is to play with other people. We all have the ability to connect with others on this level. I just wonder why we don’t do it more often, and why it’s not taught in school. There’s mental IQ. What about emotional IQ? Spiritual IQ?” These deeper questions are not a stretch for Sharon as she is constantly in tune (no pun intended) with the greater workings of the mind and the body. But more on that later.
She was an accompanist for 11 years which is when she learned to sight read. The first “pro” musicians she played with were Steve Nichols, Bruce Stewart and Kelly Hodgin. “They are all great players and great people. They taught me a lot and I’m fortunate to still know them as friends and coworkers.” She also directed youth choirs. “It’s so cool to see them express their power and connect with themselves through music.” These days, Sharon is a working musician (“I make tens of dollars every year.”), playing in at least three bands and teaching piano at Ramona Music.
Her musical influences include some of the standards you might consider for a piano player (Elton John, Billy Joel, Chopin, Rachmaninoff), but she also cites the Beatles, Alan Parsons, and Crosby, Stills & Nash as significant. But the first person she named was surprising. “Danny Kaye. Yes, I watched Danny Kaye movies growing up. I even had some of his LPs. Remember Uncle Pockets? Anyone? Anyone?”
Sharon’s musical gifts go beyond the piano. She is also a skilled accordionist and singer. “I used to go see Larry De La Cruz and Derek Cannon play jazz at Chuck’s Steakhouse. They were amazing. Larry, who is a sax player, said something back then that I will never forget. He said, ‘You breathe your soul into the instrument.’ And that’s one reason I like the accordion – you can breathe with it. I’ll often remember what he said when I’m holding out a note on the accordion.” She first began playing accordion in the ‘80s with a Cajun/Zydeco/ country rock outfit called the Savery Brothers. “We played at the Pomerado Club/Big Stone Lodge, and it was a blast. It’s where I got my feet wet playing in a band. I loved the music and loved watching people dance. That gig taught me to respect country music – there’s a lot more to it than one may think.” Her favorite accordion joke? The one where a guy leaves his accordion in the back seat of his car while he goes into a store; when he comes back, he finds the window on his car has been smashed and that someone has left another accordion on the seat.
Sharon’s singing can be traced back to her childhood. “I’ve always loved it. Especially singing harmonies. I remember recording ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down” on two tape recorders in the bathroom. I recorded the melody, then recorded a harmony vocal while playing the original tape, then recorded another harmony to that. It’s always been just fun.” Singing also runs in her family. Her sister, Carolyn, is an opera singer. Her nieces are both musically inclined, and her other sister, Cheyenne, is also becoming an accomplished musician. Sharon credits her vocal coach, Martin Grusin, for much of her abilities. “He helped me accomplish things vocally that I never believed I could do. He’s helped a lot of San Diego singers and still teaches in Del Mar.”
As previously mentioned, Sharon is currently in three different bands: the Eve Selis Band, with Eve Selis, Marc Twang, Cactus Jim Soldi, Larry Grano, and Rick Nash (“Marc and I met at a vocal recording session. Then, they hired me to play accordion on their Long Road Home CD. It has been a great musical experience.”); Highland Way, a Scottish band with Brian Caldwell, Paul Castellanos, Jim Soldi, and Bob Sale (“These guys are wonderful to work with. And, if you ever get a chance to attend a Scottish wedding, I highly recommend it. The first one I played, the bride slid on her chest across the floor, in her wedding dress.”); and Back to the Garden aka Cactus Twang and Whyte, with Cactus Jim Soldi, Marc Twang, Larry Grano, and Rick Nash (“We play CSNY, songs from Woodstock, and other similar songs. I love singing harmony and these songs lend well to that, in addition to just being great songs.”)
You may have noticed that, besides Sharon, there’s another common member in all those bands: Jim Soldi, who happens to be her husband. Jim is a well-known and formidable guitar player who has played with Johnny Cash and Ricky Skaggs among others. He is also a producer who owns the Outhouse in Ramona, California. They have been married for 12 years.
Having a studio in the family lends itself to being dubbed a “go-to session player.” Sharon thinks the “go-to” title is “hilarious,” but Soldi explains, “She’s amazing. I will often have her in the studio to do piano tracks, accordion tracks, or vocal harmonies for various clients, and I’ve learned to push ‘record’ immediately, because chances are good that she’s going to nail it in the initial run-through of the song. Her key philosophy in the studio, as well as live, is simplicity. She never draws attention to herself by overplaying and adds only what the song requires. In my book, that’s real genius. That’s true professionalism.” Dennis Caplinger agrees. “She is a wonderful musician. In the studio I can always count on her to play exactly what’s needed without any ego, whatsoever.” Sharon’s reputation is well deserved. Her studio credits include numerous CDs, commercials, and compositions for music libraries, and movies. She was featured on the Gypsy Swing Allstars CD, featuring John Jorgenson. And, under the direction of Dennis Caplinger, she charted, transcribed and performed in Primal Twang – The History of the Guitar, featuring world-class guitar greats; it is available on DVD and won the 2010 Rome International Film Festival for best documentary.
For the depth she shows in the studio, she destroys the myth of anyone using “studio magic” on her work, because she regularly backs it up in live performances. Her bandmate Marc Twang says, “I think Sharon is a musical genius, and she always amazes me with her ability to adapt to any musical situation. She is someone who we rely on for creativity and originality.” Jeff Berkley, whose duo, Berkley Hart, recently toured with Sharon and the Eve Selis Band through the UK, also calls her reliable and even-tempered under fire. “No matter what, when the chips are down, Sharon stays even and finds a way to weave her magic into the music,” he says.
Sharon approaches that weaving with energy and a pure spirit. “I love playing music with other people. It’s like you’re in a group, and you all tune in to each other and create this sound; Dennis [Caplinger] calls it a wave. And, as he says, you push this wave out to the audience and they can experience it, too. That’s one reason there’s nothing like going to see a live show. You get to experience that extra thing that just makes you feel good. And I love being a part of that creative process.
“There was this science documentary that talked about training for the Blue Angels. They make the pilots live together for a while. And, in doing so, the pilots are able to connect better and actually read each other’s minds to a certain extent, which is a good thing when you’re flying inches apart in jets. When you’re around certain people for periods of time, your brain waves are intersecting. And I think that’s how it is with music. You heighten your sensitivity and get to a point where you know what the other players are going to play, and then you get to play something that matches or supports it.”
I asked Sharon what connects her to music overall, and her answer illustrates her own relationship to a larger story, one beyond all of us but still within us. “Music has a universal ability to bring together the people who are experiencing it. It connects people to themselves and others. Music can affect us deeply, and you don’t need an education to feel it. It’s a reminder that there’s so much more to life than what we believe or are taught in school. It helps us remember who we are. It also heals… but that’s another story.”
“Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much the larger and better in every way.”
– John Muir
“Sharon absolutely loves animals, of all types,” Jim Soldi explains. “A story from her childhood is that she once even had a pet gopher. I don’t think that relationship lasted very long.”
Sharon’s love of animals is legendary among the people who know her, but even she surprised herself by donning a wet suit back in March and voluntarily going into a mucky storm drain to rescue some ducklings for Emergency Animal Rescue. Have you ever seen Shawshank Redemption? Are you familiar with the scene when Andy Dufresne is breaking out and has to sludge through the sewer to freedom?
“[The storm drain was] filled with trash and stagnant water. It took me 10 minutes just to get the guts to go in. But then, one of the little ducklings started calling and, after 80 yards of crawling with water above my chin, it swam to me and sat in my hand. That made everything worth it.”
She launched her menagerie when she was a small child. “We lived by a field (near Madison High School), and I was always bringing home animals. I wanted to be Marlin Perkins when I grew up. I had an iguana named Leon, had lots of snakes and lizards, caught a jack rabbit once and raised it with my guinea pigs. A few snakes escaped in the house. My mom found a frog in her shoe once.”
Now, Sharon and Jim own three dogs (two of which are rescue dogs), two cats (“they were wild and adopted us”), chickens (“They are the neatest animals; I can sit and watch them for hours.”), and a horse she’s had for 22 years named Sage.
“Healing may not be so much about getting better as about letting go of everything that isn’t you – all of the expectations, all of the beliefs – and becoming who you are.”
– Rachel Naomi Remen
In the triumvirate of Sharon Whyte, we have reached the third prong: her practice of the ancient Chinese healing art of Tai Yi. It fits in perfectly, or perhaps helped shape, her viewpoint. “Tai Yi encompasses many things that I love – science, philosophy, the desire to always grow and heal, and a way to understand and assist others. I have been studying it for several years. It teaches how our thoughts and emotions affect our physical bodies. I love understanding, from a scientific perspective, how the body creates disease and how it heals. It also helps me understand how and why music affects us the way it does. I love assisting people with their issues. There are treatments for depression, ADHD, diabetes, addiction, immune system boosters – just about any issue you can think of. It’s not for those looking for someone to do the work for them. You need to be willing to look at yourself honestly, and without judgment, to heal. It’s fascinating what we are all capable of accomplishing.”
It’s obvious that Sharon is an extremely thoughtful person (Jim Soldi describes her as “still water”) with a take on the world and her place in it that is not often found. For all the accolades she receives as a musician, many people say that it is simply knowing her and calling her a friend that is invaluable to them. Eve Selis says, “We are both born on the same day, two years apart and we are moon sisters. She is a fantastic musician and a wonderful friend… she shines brightly.” Dennis Caplinger agrees, “I value her friendship most of all. She is loyal and always does what she says she is going to do. She is one of my favorite people, and I love working with her.”
Remember earlier, when Sharon spoke about the heightened sensitivity that can occur between musicians or, say, jet fighter pilots? She expanded on that idea, and although she was speaking in the context of being a support player, it truly speaks to her personal philosophy, combining her musicianship, her compassion for animals, and her Tai Yi practice. “Heightened sensitivity can be a two-edged sword. It’s great when everything is positive, but you also have the ability to feel when someone or something is not happy, for example. And that can be painful. But in those moments, I try to remember some insight from my Tai Yi teacher, Hossca Harrison, with regard to feeling. He basically said that most people don’t want to feel because then they feel everything – both positive and negative. You can’t be selective. So what do you do? You choose the feelings that you want to empower.
“I’m still learning how to do that. It’s a constant choice – we choose what we want to empower in every moment. But, my guess is, empower the positive and watch the pain leave your life.
“When we honor ourselves, we can be happy doing anything. The times I get annoyed are the times I’m not doing enough for myself. It’s a good barometer for me to know if I’m living my life or someone else’s.”
See Sharon in action with Back to the Garden on Monday, November 12 at the Prescott Promenade in El Cajon and with the Eve Selis Band on Saturday, December 1 at the Sunset Temple. Visit www.back-to-the-garden.net, www.emergencyanimalrescue.org, and www.ancientartshealingcenter.com to learn about Sharon’s passions.