There’s something about that word “practice” that creates a resistance within some individuals. Maybe it’s the implication of hard effort and even boredom.
Change It All
But it never should be like that. As a matter of fact, it ought to feel like a pleasure and privilege each and every time you sit at that piano or keyboard of yours.
I am not able to express in words the fun I had when creating 88 Keys To Learning. It made me recall several episodes of my early practice days which would have been a whole lot more fun if I had the help of the kind of encouragement offered in this collection of “Keys.”
Develop Awesome Habits
I find it interesting how we humans, as creatures of habit, make it really easy to fall into “ruts” of thinking that we never seem to be able to shed. This is especially true when it comes to our approach to practicing piano (or any instrument, for that matter).
There Is Hope
Keys To Learning was created to throw a curveball into the “mixing pot” of frustration, anxiety, and boredom that often accompanies practicing. Whether you are an adult who is attracted to the benefits of playing piano but can’t seem to establish a practice routine you can stick to or you are a parent of a youngster whose practice habits are erratic, you’ll find hope in 88 Keys To Learning.
Is practicing scales a thorn in your side? Do you find yourself faced with technical challenges that just seem to recur without being met with a resolution? Does sightreading scare you? What type of practice challenges do you encounter?
Use your imagination for a moment. What if all those “bumps in the road” became your source for adventure and a sense of inner accomplishment? As a parent, what if you could offer your child some encouragement that would turn his or her situation inside out for the better?
Piano Teacher’s Helper
Are you a piano teacher? Surely, you already know that each student has their own brand of discouragement or setbacks in some area of their practice routine. You’ll want to encourage each of them to own a copy of this collection of “Keys.” Things will change for them and you will be thanked for it.
Your Own Creativity Awaits You
A chief aim of mine is for you, the reader and practitioner, to use these “Keys” in a fashion that serves you best, including putting your own “spins” on them and coming up with your own insights as you let these ideas change the way you practice. As a teacher, you will undoubtedly incorporate many of these ideas into your own teaching approach to instill more enthusiasm into your students’ practice routines and help them reach greater heights of creativity.
88 Keys To Learning will not replace any piano method you may be involved with, as it was never intended to do that. However, it is sure to serve as the perfect compliment to any piano practice routine. When you incorporate these “Keys” into your routine, the sky’s the limit.
If you have followed this mini-series in sequence, you used Lessons #1 and #2 to become acquainted with three specific chord structures referred to as voicings. You are playing these voicings with your left hand.
In addition, you are playing these blues piano chord voicings in the context of a very specific chord progression. This chord progression consists of 12 measures. Throughout time, this 12-measure chord progression has been commonly referred to as the basic 12-bar blues form.
The terms we have assigned to the various elements of the blues might be called a kind of “theory” in itself. However, we haven’t really talked about any particular aspect of music theory that you need to make an effort to remember. The real value is in the doing rather than remembering. From the beginning, it has been our intention to focus on getting you in the act of playing without getting bombarded with theoretical stuff to remember.
You Are Playing “Pro” Chord Voicings
In Lesson #3, we took a good look and listen to how these chord voicings are used in actual playing situations. These two “musical giants” made terrific music as they engaged in a wonderful dual performance of the blues. A key point here is that much of what each performer was playing with the fingers of his left hand is exactly what we have been focusing on.
These three voicings that you have been familiarizing yourself with are often referred to as “stock” voicings, meaning they are commonly used by the pros time and time again. Like stock, they are always available to be “pulled off the shelf” when needed. In other words, you will use these voicings so many times that you’ll be able to immediately play them without thinking about them!
Repetition Breeds Familiarity
Yes, again, you want to be able to play them without thinking about them. This is a good reason that we have not been in any great hurry to go beyond getting quite used to having fun with playing these three left-hand voicings again and again. In addition, playing them in the context of the 12-bar blues will also become second nature to you.
It will serve you well to embrace the truth that it’s not how much you know but what you do with what you know that leads to wonderful results.
A Tiny Little Adjustment
We are still going to take things slowly at this point. However, we can “get our feet wet” with taking things one step further. I would like you to consider exercising that imagination of yours.
You see, rather than dictate what your next steps are (as in telling you what to play), I would like you to make some fun choices of your own. It’s really very important that you don’t judge your performance at all. Just allow yourself to explore, okay?
We will get to that in a few moments. Below, I have provided a short keyboard animation. The animation demonstrates my playing of this 12-bar blues form utilizing the three blues chord voicings that we have been playing with my left hand. While I am doing this, I am also playing a right-hand improvisation.
For the first few times viewing and listening to this, place your focus again on what is being played with the left hand. Of course, the three lowest keys being played are these voicings. See them and hear them in the context of the 12-bar blues form.
I would like to point out one tiny little difference in this 12-bar blues chord progression that I am playing. As you watch and listen, do you notice that I interrupted the first four measures of the C9 chord by playing the F13 once in measure #2?
Compare this with the 12-bar blues form we played in Lesson #2:
|| C9 | F13 | C9 | C9|
| F13 | F13 | C9 | C9 |
| G13 | F13 | C9 | C9 ||
This isn’t anything intimidating at all since we are not playing anything new. We are just inserting the F13 that we already know in measure two to replace the C9.
What do we accomplish by doing this?
Up to now, as you played through the first four measures of the blues form, perhaps you have already felt as though playing that C9 chord voicing for four measures in a row seemed a little more repetitious than you would have liked.
If so, your feelings have been shared with many blues professionals throughout the decades.
You’ll hear this particular version of 12-bar blues form played often as you listen to more and more blues players. Is this always the case? No. It’s a choice and dependent on the choice of the composer or performer.
The Right-Hand Dance
Okay, let’s get back to your having fun with making some choices. I want you to approach this with an accepting attitude. Make it fun…
Let’s take a look at what’s going on with that right hand in the video animation above. You’ve noticed that, as the left hand plays those voicings you have familiarized yourself with, the right hand is playing something a little “bluesy.”
Go ahead and take specific notice to just a tiny segment of that… any little part of it. Just choose a few notes that appeal to you… maybe two, three, or four. While at your piano or keyboard, play those few notes with your right hand as you play through the 12-bar blues chord progression. Even as you change the voicings with your left hand, it’s okay to keep playing those few notes with your right.
Take your time with this. Remember, having fun applying yourself to what’s being described is where the value exists for you.
What are you noticing? There is no wrong answer to this. Your perception is correct and just fine. Just play and listen. The idea is to play, listen, and have fun with this. Perhaps you are noticing that when you play the right-hand notes while changing chord voicings with the left hand, you experience something quite interesting. You are putting yourself in touch with some different sound textures. This is a significant part of playing the blues!
Keep playing. Don’t think. Just do.
The video above is actually the beginning excerpt of a special half-hour session that I created. If you would like to experience the entire video, you can gain instant access to it by visiting here. I think you’ll experience something positive as you follow along with it.
Keep on playing through the 12-bar blues form with those left-hand voicings as you allow your right hand to explore a little. Don’t judge. Just play… listen… smile… play… listen… smile… enjoy… soak it up… love it… appreciate every sound that your fingertips produce. You’re doing great!
As you continue, you will be inspired to make some different choices for those right-hand fingers to play. Follow through as we have described. Enjoy the choices you make. Make some more! You are beginning to improvise!
If you have taken yourself through lessons #1 and 2 of this little series, you are playing the 12 Bar Blues progression with your left hand much like a pro player might approach it. By the way, if you ever hear anyone use the term “12 Bar Blues Form,” that person is referring to this progression that you now know how to play. This 12 measure progression is the basic 12 measure blues form played again and again by so many of the greats.
I would like to devote this particular message to encouraging you to appreciate what you have accomplished up to this point. Please practice playing those chord voicings with your left hand as you become more and more confident with doing do.
In the meantime, I feel that it might serve you well to listen to two master pianists playing the blues. I’m referring to the excellence of Oscar Peterson and Count Basie as they both play a fantastic rendition of blues piano that anyone can look up to..
As a matter of fact, this video footage shows, when the camera was at just the right angle, that some of the chord voicings that each of them is playing with his left hand coincide with the exact same chord voicings that you using at this point:
You’ll notice that both Oscar and The Count are enjoying themselves tremendously as they exchange looks of mutual appreciation. You’ll benefit by allowing some of that to “rub off” on you… learn to fully appreciate yourself and your musical journey!
Yes, each of these accomplished pianists are putting their right hand fingers to great melodic and improvisationand use, too. You’ll be doing that also. However, let this be a time to enhance your appreciation of blues music. Really put yourself “in synch” with the feel of it. Notice how both Oscar Peterson and Count Basie “soak up” every beat as they live in the moment.
How you feel about yourself and what you play is far more important than how many notes you play. Please remember that. Learn to apply this truth during your early stages of playing. In short, make it a habit of feeling good about yourself.
As you watch this performance over and over again, see if you can pinpoint when the chord voicings that you are playing are exactly what either Oscar or The Count is playing.
We will be having some fun with that right hand, too. Just remember the priority: feel your music and appreciate YOU.
We are going to take a look at a chord voicing that you really ought to know if you would like to add some dimension to those standard tunes. Actually, I’ve had my private students apply this particular voicing to every chord in a ballad such as Erroll Garner’s Misty because it sounds great. If you use just this one chord voicing throughout a ballad, you will indeed sound “pro.” If you are a more advanced player, you’ll want to use it in conjunction with others, of course.
Your familiarity with 7th chords is rather essential to take advantage of this. If you are not at that point yet, let this serve as some inspiration to want to get a handle on some of those 7th chords!
Okay, this same formula applies to all your 7th chords, so we’ll use Cmaj7 for our example. Let’s take a look at what a Cmaj7 looks like in its basic root position:
This chord is also said to be in closed position since all the chord tones are as close to each other as they can be (we’re about to change that).
This chord certainly sounds nice just as it is. However, as you will notice in the chord video, making one subtle change to this chord can make a world of difference.
One Subtle Change Is All it Takes
If we take the 3rd of the chord (in this case, E) and simply play it one octave higher instead, our result is still Cmaj7, of course. However, we are now playing a Cmaj7 in open position. Yes, we have “opened” the chord up since not every chord tone is as close to each other as possible (the E in between the C and G is no longer being played). Play this chord and listen:
The sound texture of this new chord structure is much different, yes? By the way, when we rearrange tones of a chord in this fashion, we are “voicing” the chord. The same basic chord is being played but it is restructured a bit. The topic of chord voicings will be acknowledged more and more on this site.
Below you can watch and listen to a few minutes of a video session that I had fun with as I demonstrated different techniques within the context of Duke Ellington’s Don’t Get Around Much Anymore. You can skip to 2:00 on the counter if you like. If you’re interested in the full session, you can visit here. In this particular excerpt, we are demonstrating the use of this chord voicing described above:
I cannot emphasize enough the value of applying this chord voicing formula (1-5-7-3) to each and every 7th chord you know and using it within the context of your favorite songs. You will reap the benefits for a long time to come!
I was sitting in harmony class during my second semester at Berklee in Boston when the teacher was entertaining a conversation on improvisation. This was a time for me – and at least most of the other students in the class – when the concept of improvisation seemed mystifying.
I had been exposed to some jazz lessons back home, so I was exposed to scales, patterns, and other improvisation strategies. However, I was not at any point where it had come together for me. Also, I had familiarized myself with publications covering the topic of improvisation which also placed emphasis on chord arpeggios, scales, and patterns.
I Had My Doubts
So, by this time, I was pretty well convinced that it was going to take in-depth study and application of these technical concepts if I was going to become any kind of player worth talking about. Discipline was not my forte. It seemed like I had been “plopped” into this field of music for which I had some decent ability yet was lost in the dust with this whole improv thing that I felt I needed to get a better handle on.
This conversation between George (the teacher) and a couple of students was brief, maybe a minute long. But it had enough impact on me to change the direction of my walk along this magical road of improvisation.
I had seen George perform at the local Eliot Lounge with another teacher, performing bebop tunes. I’ll just say that his improvisational abilities were impressive enough to blow me away. That resulted in what he said in that brief conversation to carrying even more weight.
In his own words, he informed the class that he didn’t learn to improvise by practicing scales (while sweating chord-scale relationships), arpeggios, patterns, and the like. Instead, he had learned by learning the melody of a tune very well and then simply learned to play around it.
Somewhere along my journey, I had previously heard of that. But the way this guy explained it so very simply, along with the fact that he was an improvisational monster from my perspective, solidified it for me. Wow! Although I don’t want to sound cliche-ish, I truly felt like this huge weight was taken off my shoulders!
As I look back to that day in class, it just might have been the 60 seconds of my time at Berklee that held the most value for me. As time progressed, this approach to improvisation made more and more sense. In addition, when coaching my private students who aspire to improvise, it has literally been responsible for more confidence and efficiency when it comes to helping them.
Instant And Coherent Improvisations
None of what I am saying here is meant to be construed to mean that I don’t place value on improvisation at a deeper level, learning and applying chord-scale relationships, arpeggios, patterns, and other techniques. However, this simple approach to improvisation leads to INSTANT RESULTS. It really does.
Furthermore – and this is so very significant – by using this simple procedure of playing around the melody, your respect for that melody is maintained at a very high level. I’m not personally able to name any prominent improvisational giants who wouldn’t say that’s a good thing.
As one who has little or no improvisation experience, are you sensing a ray of hope or excitement?
You have reason to.
Along with any future current or future improvisational efforts you make, if you incorporate this approach on a regular basis, your improvisations will have coherency. That is a quality that is lacking on behalf of so many improvisers, even some who have years of experience.
The Melody Is Your Guide
So, how do you go about it? It’s really quite simple. Learn the melody of that tune so well. Then, little by little, play around that melody by approaching certain melody notes by half steps, whole steps, etc. The point here is that you want to learn to embellish the melody rather than eliminating it or overtaking it. With practice, this becomes such a natural experience for you that you’ll even have the confidence with leaving the melody and returning to it in a tasteful fashion. During the entire time, you remain gravitated to the melody, which makes for a coherent solo.
As I mentioned, my excitement for this approach began a long time ago. The two reasons for this:
It’s simple – anyone can do it
It’s tasteful – ultimately, your solos sound more professional
Would you like to explore this improvisational concept a little further? I created a video/guidebook combo that you can gain instant access to. The nice thing about this is that you don’t have a lot to watch or read. Watch the short video a few times, read through the brief guidebook, and let your imagination take you to places you haven’t yet visited!
Below is the first couple of minutes of the video session showing the concept being employed along with a few introductory words from me:
In this session, we’ll be using this short excerpt of Georgia On My Mind:
Just for this post, I thought I would also create a short impromptu video showing an example of how this easy improvisational strategy can be applied to another popular standard:
As you engage in this fun adventure, may I offer you a suggestion that, if followed, will lead you to a much more satisfactory experience? Here it is:
Learn to enjoy the process rather than being anxious for the perfect result.
Please read that again and really absorb its message. Trust me, if you are a beginning improviser, I can relate to your mindset… the passion… the desire to “get good” at this stuff… please remember this: you are getting involved in a creative field. Along with that, where creativity is to thrive, anxiety must not arrive.
Don’t be in a hurry to “be a master.” If you want to be an instant master at something, then master this attitude, go to your instrument with joy and enthusiasm while playing with these concepts, let your imagination run wild, and…
In one form or another, a common question I’ve been asked by many pianists who aspire to become comfortable with playing from lead sheets has been, “What do I do with that left hand?”
Many of these people know how to play the chords that are asked for in the music but feel limited with their capacity to make them sound like anything to talk about. In other words, they might be able to comfortably play a chord like Gmaj7 in its basic form as shown here:
but when it comes to actually incorporating that chord into a ballad, they feel at a loss for ideas. Does that sound familiar?
The Mistake Most Piano Beginners Make
Okay, let me say it straight:
Most people who find themselves in this situation are overthinking about what they should be doing.
You see, it’s really easy to be dazzled by the many chords and jazz piano voicings that the pros play when performing these standard songs. It’s quite another to feel overwhelmed by thinking that you need to know them all in order to sound “pro.”
I’m all for expanding your chord voicing repertoire. actually, I created a 25-lesson program devoted to that. After all, the more colors an artist has on his or her palette, the more choices there are with painting a picture. However, on that same note (!), I will say that a truly creative artist would be able to paint a beautiful masterpiece with just three basic colors like red, blue, and green.
The Real Key To Sounding “Pro”
It’s not WHAT colors you use but HOW you use them. This applies equally to the harmonic colors of music. Please don’t forget this. It is so crucial to the development of your musical artistry.
It’s not uncommon for an individual to approach me for lessons in my studio who has a handle on playing those basic chords and is eager to expand on his/her chord voicing and improvisation skills. However, that person has not displayed any competency with using the tools they know in an artistic manner. The most important point I strive to help this person understand is that the ability to play artistically starts right from the beginning.
You don’t have to wait until you know a massive vocabulary in order to sound articulate, do you? Of course not. Well, the same is true when it comes to performing music. You don’t have to wait until you know a massive chord or voicing vocabulary in order to sound artistic.
Remember: “artistic” does not necessarily mean “fancy.”
You can take that to the bank. If you want to sound “pro,” then practice sounding “pro” with what you already know. I have so much to say about this to my private students. I don’t think a day goes by in the studio when this matter isn’t brought to someone’s attention. I’ll very likely be talking more about it in upcoming writings here, too.
For now, remember, it’s not WHAT you say but HOW you say it.
Consider the other aspects of performing besides fancy chords that come into play when putting a song across: dynamics (volume contrasts), piano keyboard range used, and more.
A Simple “Pro” Left Hand Technique You’ll Want To Own
In this video below, which is just the first few minutes of a one-hour session I created called Sneak Peeks 2, four basic chords are being used: Gmaj7, G#dim7, Amin7, and D7. Since this is the very beginning of the video lesson, you may want to skip right to 1:30 on the counter when we actually start this demonstration:
You’ll notice that the left hand is alternating between playing the “shell,” which is the 1 and 7 of the chord, and playing the full chord. You see, this might be equated to an artist lightly stroking the brush on the canvas with a blue and then stroking a little more heavily with brush for different textural effects.
For your reference, here is the lead sheet excerpt Ted Koehler’s and Harold Arlen’s Stormy Weather being used for this demonstration:
Use It To The Point Of Mastery
This simple technique can be applied to virtually any ballad that you know or will learn. Remember to keep the melody in the spotlight and allow those left- hand bass notes and chords (and shells) to just be there without much emphasis. If you remain sensitive to this concept in your playing, you can perform any ballad in a way that really displays to the listener that you are an artist at those keys… because you are!
So many people who arrive at this site have some curiosity about playing piano yet have absolutely no experience whatsoever. If that’s you, let me tell you that you are here for a reason! If you’ve never played piano before or your experience has been somewhat limited to tickling a few notes, then stay with me.
Things are about to change for you beginning today. I put together a video lesson for you that will have you playing the piano and creating some pretty fantastic sounds immediately.
Are you with me?
This is going to be easy. Most people who sit down with a piano teacher for the first time don’t get exposed to this kind of a lesson right away (if ever). You see, when it comes to keeping your motivation up for learning, you’ve got to experience some results. Does this make sense? I mean, really, you want some kind of return for your investment of time and money.
Just A Buck!
Okay, as far as your monetary investment, the price of this lesson has been reduced significantly. Your cost… how does $1 sound? That’s all you’ll invest in this video session. It comes to you as an .mp4 file so that you can either watch it online or download it to your device like an iPad or anything you like.
Now, as far as your investment in time is concerned, this won’t take much. Just have some curiosity, a desire to have some fun, maintain a sense of humor, and this will be fun for you. You’ll do this on your own time at your own pace. The thing to understand here is this: with what you learn in these 20 minutes, you’ll have enough to start having fun and sounding good!
You see, this has to work for you. Why? Because, you’ll be sounding good quickly… plain and simple. The reason is that you’ll be applying all the elements of music to that piano or keyboard of yours instantly. You don’t need to be playing familiar songs on the piano to sound great. As a matter of fact, the strategy you’ll be learning here will equip you to create some improvisations of your own that let others in the room know that you can play! Before the twenty-minute session is over, you’ll be employing melodic sounds using harmony and rhythm. When you combine those three elements in a way that makes sense, it’s a guaranteed win.
You Don’t Need To Know How To Read Music
You won’t know how to read a note of music for this. You don’t even have to know the names of the keys on the piano (we’ll mention one). Are you starting to see that this just might be the start you need? Believe me… you have what it takes.
A Super Start For You
It’s my hope that your experience with this video session will supply you with enough “spark” to want to continue your journey. Also, if this is your very first piano lesson, you’ll be playing chords on the piano from the start. Did you know that many experienced players often don’t even get this kind of training? It’s true. I’ve had classically trained pianists come to my studio with an excess of 10 years of lessons who wished they had previously learned about chords and how to use them. It’s all in who you connect with. They got some excellent lessons but not the creative kind that provided them with the confidence to express themselves freely.
Here’s the beginning few moments of the video:
Okay, this is about YOU. So, let’s begin, shall we? Just visit here so we can get started on our journey. Follow along at your own pace, pausing the video as you please. Watch… watch again… you’re about to see how easy this really is. Grab a favorite beverage, relax, and get ready to be playing piano in way less than twenty minutes. Enjoy!