Play Piano With Confidence

Play Piano With ConfidenceI have been conducting piano lessons in a one-on-one environment for many years. Many of these clients have been adults who already had a fair to good amount of previous experience with reading and playing the piano. Their knowledge of and ability to play chords has also been significant enough in order that they might be competent enough to be able to perform a rendition of a favorite standard song in a decent fashion.

Yet it has always interested me that, despite their possession of such knowledge and skills, many of them have one significant characteristic in common:

Their playing lacks that “certain something” that lets a listener know they are in command of that piano keyboard in terms of producing genuine music.

Note that I said their playing lacks that “certain something” rather than saying they don’t possess such ability.

So, what’s responsible for this lack of confidence that is necessary for a performance to come across as convincing? Well, simply put, the music cannot come out of the instrument if it does not first reside in the performer. I see it time and time again where an individual will approach playing a song as if they are mechanically trying to make that piano do what they want. In other words, rather than hearing and feeling the song within and allowing that experience to be naturally conveyed to the instrument, they seem to view the piano as a “machine” to which they are giving instructions via “pushing buttons.”

This is an issue that is much easier conveyed one-on-one than it is via writing about, of course. However, it is so important to the musician who aspires to play authentically that it needs to be addressed. I created two specific video sessions that are aimed at helping a pianist to get that “flow” happening in his or her playing as well as providing suggestions for how to approach playing those left-hand chords in a way that makes musical sense. You can access How To Play Standard Songs With Confidence #1 and #2 by clicking here.

Remember, if you are not able to fluently sing a song – at least hearing and feeling it within – then your potential for performing that song in a fashion that “sings” is rather limited. Therefore, a preliminary suggestion is to familiarize yourself with that song so well internally that what your “singing on the inside” must inevitably be projected through your instrument and, ultimately, to your listeners’ ears. Once you master this relationship between yourself and your instrument, your music will always be taken seriously.

Be Lyrical: The Other Stuff Will Follow

Overly Decorated CakeFocus Less On The Frosting

I’ve become convinced that the majority of those looking to enhance there improvisational skills, styling strategies, and chord techniques often overlook what is really missing in their piano playing. They feel that, once they acquire enough “fancy dance” technology to add to their playing, they will be at a playing level that warrants their own approval and that others will admire.

I don’t see it working this way and, as I’m writing this, an analogy is coming to mind. Imagine a cook who has little experience in baking a cakes placing his or her main focus on the frosting and decorations. If you were in those shoes, you could experiment with all the frosting flavors and colors you want along with adding an array of sprinkles and decorations .  Bottom line: if the cake underneath doesn’t taste good, all those toppings won’t be worth a thing. The cake will still taste lousy.

On the flip side, an awesome tasting cake can stand by itself without even being enhanced with any topping at all. If it tastes great, people will come back for more.

Know Your Musical Priorities

Let’s equate this with the essentials of a good song performance. If the melody, harmony, and rhythm all add up to something that is easy to listen to, you have a good song… even before anything is added to it like phat chord voicings, decorative fills, or anything else.

With that being the case, I still know what it’s like for an aspiring player to want to learn all about those additives without even having reached a point of playing a song fluently and tastefully.

She’s Delicate. Be Nice To Her

Consider the most important element of a tune. It’s your melody. Even as an instrumentalist, your melody is the “voice”of the song. It’s at the forefront of your performance. It needs to be played confidently. The way you phrase that melody can make it or break it. The dynamics of that me!ody are an emotional aspect of that “voice.”

As long as you place your emphasis on the melody in this fashion, the most simple of chord accompanying techniques will serve it well. The fills will mean even more. Everything is done to support that beautiful melody to keep it remaining beautiful.

When learning a new song, look upon the different roles of your playing as you would a band consisting of a small, dainty female singer, a guitarist, drummer, and a bassist. In order for that singer to remain in the spotlight and shine, those other musicians (your bass line, chord playing, etc. ) must maintain respect for that voice. Their job is to support and enhance the integrity of that voice.

Join The Minority

When you think along these lines, then your learning of all those finer details of playing will have a better defined purpose. Your reasons for wanting to learn them becomes more justified. Why? Because, now, you’re a musician in the truest sense of the word.

Cocktail Piano: Open Chord Voicing

An Open Chord Voicing You Must Know!

Open Chord VoicingsWe 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:

Cmajy Chord In 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:

Open Chord Voicing

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.

Actual Application

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!

Left Hand Piano Accompaniment For Ballads

Piano Left Hand AccompanimentSo What Do I Do With That Left Hand?

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:

Gmaj7 in Root position

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:

Chords for Stormy Weather

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!