If you don’t record your practicing you are missing out a great tool for improvement. I record everything. Scales and all. When I am actually playing piano I think I have selective hearing. I only hear whatever specific thing I’m working on. And I do not hear other issues that need attention.
Let’s say I am working on learning a melody for a jazz standard. When I am done, I think I have done a good job and now I know the melody. But if I listen back I’ll notice a lot of issues that I was not even paying attention to. Maybe I was mildly annoyed at the time but forgave myself since I was focused on the melody. But even after I knew the melody, maybe my dynamics went out the window. Maybe my time was terrible. Maybe I missed a few chords. Maybe my eighth notes were uneven or too staccato. Having noticed these things I write them all down and read them over before my next practice session. I also make a few notes of what I want to work on next.
When you are in a “flow” state, your guard is down and you are focused in on one thing. This is the real you playing. But you’ll miss it if you don’t record yourself. Remember, the goal isn’t to just think you play well, it is to actually play well.
On another note, do you berate yourself when you are practicing? “That was a wrong note you idiot!” “You’ll never be any good at this rate!” Things like that? I certainly have done that. But if you record yourself, you may find (as I did) that you don’t do that so much. You know you will have a chance to do that later when you listen to your recording. Plus, when you do, you’ll have some emotional distance from your mistakes and you won’t be so hard on yourself.
My process is this: Each morning, I listen to my recording of yesterday’s practice while filling in yesterday’s practice sheet (my practice sheet is outlined below). I may skip over some things as I listen but I really try to listen to what I was working on. What tangents I got off on. Some were good. Some maybe were wasteful. I make notes on what I did well, and what I may want to revisit today. I put yesterday’s date on it and how long I practiced. It’s right there on my recording. Then I grab a new practice sheet and put today’s date on it. I re-write a few things I definitely want to cover today, and I leave it largely blank. I lay today’s sheet on the piano, press record and practice. Often times I will listen to it that night with headphones before I go to sleep just to listen. Then the next morning I get up and fill in the sheet.
My practice sheet is pretty simple. I have blanks for the date and how long I practiced. I have a blank for what I listened to before I practiced. I don’t really count this as practice time…. But it is very important to listen to great players and singers. Your headings may be different than mine. But some of mine are groove, dynamics, time, transcription I’m working on, etc…. Then I have 3 spots for titles of tunes I’m working on. Then I have a space for notes at the bottom. Leave plenty of room for that. I print a new sheet every day. They stack up and sometimes I refer back to see my progress or if I have lost sight of my goals. My headings change from time to time and I always put my biggest weakness first so I work on that first.
I’m finding the sheet and the note-taking helps me keep everything in mind better. Even if I’m working on learning a melody, my balance is better, I miss fewer chords, my time is good. Just having read over yesterday’s sheet! Just by recording myself and making notes, I play better than I would have otherwise. And I have the tape to prove it. I suggest you record your practicing and just try and forget you are recording. Give it a listen and make some notes. I bet you’ll find it a great tool to improve and improve much faster than you would otherwise.
CoronaVirus Piano Practice Plan
I know it is a personal thing as far as how we use our time while enduring the shutdowns. I thought I’d share some things I’m doing to help me from freaking out and maybe even improve my playing.
Here is what I’m doing each day for about 2 hours in total. More if I can.
1. Listening work: Today I listened to Dave Grusin’s track for the Firm. About 4 tunes.
2. Technique work: My plan was to work on one Czerny #10 which is particularly for left hand but I conveniently forgot to do this.
3. Melodic work: I picked “Moose the Mooche” and “All the things you are” to study the melodies and say out loud the intervals between each note. I do this out of time. This removes the muscle memory and I really have to know the melody.
4. Time work: I leaned a groove by Richard T and played it with a metronome for 7 minutes straight with no rhythmic hick-ups. I'm hoping to build my focus-endurance up because right now I lose focus about 2 minutes into a song and have some kind of small hick-up. Drummers have to do this all the time. How long can you focus on getting every rhythm in the pocket? Notes are secondary here.
5. Dynamic work: I went back to Moose and All The Things and focused on the balance between the melody, the bass line and the comping. I use Geoffrey Keezer’s philosophy here and make the melody loudest, followed by the bass, followed by very quiet comping.
6. Repertoire: I picked 3 tunes to really learn. “All the things you are”, “The Plan” by Grusin (Really cool groove. It sounds like he did two passes on it. But I'm adapting it.) And tomorrow I’m going to choose another one. Probably some Oscar Peterson one. By really learning these I mean being able to play them in all keys and also if there is a melody or solo going on, I need to know this in my left hand as well while right hand comps.
7. Improvisation work: I chose Rhythm changes in Bb. I incorporated intervals from the melodies I had already looked at earlier. Mostly 4ths, 5ths and some tri-tones. Tomorrow I’ll try in in few other keys. Soloing in the left hand and comping in the right hand is a challenge.
8. I noodled around on "Killing me softly with his song". Just for fun. I'll probably kick on a Bossa drum loop tomorrow and noodle some more on that and learn the melody in left hand too.
I recorded the entire 2 hours and listened back and made notes for the next time. This is something I have some control over and so do you. I’m also doing Yoga in the house and working out in the garage and taking the dogs for long walks. Join me. Do it your own way. But down deep, you probably know what you need to do. If you have any questions or would like to share your practice plans, please do.
Equipment Failure Issues
Equipment Failure Issues
Last night we were playing a gig here in beautiful New Mexico at the Isleta Resort. Since it was a fly date, we used rental gear. And mine failed for a moment during the show. My sustain pedal suddenly started to operate in reverse. With the pedal in the up position, every note I played was sustained. Maybe I should have just flipped it over? Nah…. That wouldn’t have worked. While I was trying to solve this problem the next song was kicking off and I was nowhere to be found. As a matter of fact, I had turned the Nord Stage 2 off and was waiting for it to boot up again, hoping that would solve the issue. The band also stopped, wondering what happened. It’s a piano-heavy intro and it was very empty without me. It’s nice to be missed sometimes! By this time the piano booted up but the pedal was still operating in reverse. I checked to make sure it was plugged in all the way. I considered calling up a piano sound on the top board which was a Nord Electro. I had been using the Electro for organ and I did not have a backup-piano patch ready. I finally just switched the Nord Stage 2 piano to a different patch and then came back to the piano patch… it worked. I didn’t know for how long, but it was working and we were able to continue. There was another issue where the rubber pads on the stand were not working to keep the keyboard on the stand! After every song I had to push the keyboard’s right side back on the stand. I just hoped it would not fall off in my lap.
The lesson that I learned here was to have a backup plan when you are using rental gear. If at all possible. If you have two keyboards then have some redundancy, just in case. At sound check I should have played a little longer and a lot harder so I could see the issue with the stand. I could have put a rag under it or something. I do bring my own swell pedals, but I did not bring my own sustain pedal. Next time I will. Because ultimately it is my responsibility to make sure everything works. I’m also going to go through my own rig and make sure I have some kind of redundancy built in. Even if it’s a Casio in the bay…. That’d be something.
I’ve had several equipment issues over the years. Sometimes in a small club, sometimes in a 20,000 seat arena. It’s a horrible feeling. A stand fails, a patch does not work like I programmed it. Levels between patches are suddenly way off. It can literally be anything. I’ve never had to stop a song until last night. And I hope it never happens again! Luckily my band and my singer all understand about rental gear issues. But for me personally, that hurt.
Go through your equipment thoroughly and imagine what you’d do if one of your keyboards failed. If that helps one person, it will have been worth it!
The Power of Grace Notes
The idea of grace notes sounds like something just for Baroque music. Ornamented melodies. The idea is to approach a target note from above or below in various ways to add interest. It can be “too much” at times. The argument could be made that if the melody were strong enough, it wouldn’t need grace notes. It can come across as showing off too much. But it does work! And it can make you appear to play much faster than you think you can play. I revisited the idea of grace notes using a jazz standard and some blues and country music and found some interesting results.
It makes me play faster.
The grace notes generally have to fall into being some subdivision of eighth notes, eight-note-triplets, or sixteenth notes or something even smaller. The point is, it’s a challenge to switch between these smaller subdivisions, and then into something like a quarter-note melody. And do it smoothly. Grace notes can help make this seem easier. It seems easier and not so much of a big deal to rip off a few sixteenth notes in the context of a slow melody. You can do it on any beat. Focus on one beat a time. Approach beat one with grace notes and play the rest of the bar as written. Then try it on beat two. You get the idea. Mix it up. If you have an eight-note oriented melody then you can also try in on the “ands”. That is harder but it will add immediate interest in your melody.
It makes me more aware of the target note.
You have to know where you are going before you can dress up a target note. I thought I knew the melody of Georgia and found out very quickly that I really didn’t. I was used to the intervals of the melody as written. But when I tried to dress it up with grace notes I was suddenly in over my head. I found that if I was jumping off from an unfamiliar note… I was not sure where I was supposed to land. This forced me to learn the melody in a better way.
It helps me phrase more cleanly.
Something about using grace notes made me more deliberate in my phrasing. There are going to be more notes to deal with and so there are more opportunities to accent the phrase in different ways. You’ll just have to try it to see what I mean.
It makes the lines without grace notes stand out.
My original idea was the opposite of this. My original idea was that the lines with grace notes would catch your ear more than the “plain” lines. And that is the initial effect. But to my surprise, the “plain” lines are even more beautiful than I had thought if they have ornamented lines before them. The overall effect is to really fall in love with a melody as written.
It makes me think about the harmony more.
The fact is you’ll have to play some actual notes as grace notes. So you can make this anything you want. It can be a simple half step approach from below or above. A whole step approach. You can do the upper-neighbor, lower-neighbor approach. You can outline the chord. You can outline a different chord entirely! You can outline the original chord and then land on a substitute chord. You can play some random notes as grace notes. You can even just hit the piano lid as grace notes. Just get them in there!
This one concept can make a near-instant change in your playing. Have fun!
Pros And Cons Of Charting
Every year there are a bunch of concerts here in Nashville during a few days called CMA Fest. It’s a great time for players in Nashville because for about a week everyone has enough work. Some have way too much! You might have 3 or 4 shows to play and set-lists to learn as fast as possible outside of your regular gig. For most of us, there is just no way to learn and memorize 60 tunes or more all at once so we make charts. Unfortunately, that means we’ll have to read them down later while in front of audience. But that’s part of the job.
Studio musicians also need to scratch out charts and read them down on a daily basis. Although I have heard that Pig Robbins (he is blind) had a system to memorize a tune that worked for him. He just listened to the demo and played the bass notes along with it as it went by. But most of us at some time or another have had to read a chart and sound like we were very familiar with the tune at the same time.
I rarely use charts any more. For me the simple fact of the matter is, what I end up playing without the chart is almost always going to sound better than what I would have played with the chart. If they are necessary because I just can’t get familiar with the tune enough in time for the gig, I’ll read the dang chart. But if at all possible, I’ll get familiar with the tunes at home so I can just play later.
I remember one year we were playing the CMA fest backing up several artists and we all had our notebook of charts. We all had music stands quivering in a gusty, hot breeze. We were getting through the tunes fine and then all of the sudden a gust of wind blew our guitar player’s (Darin Favorite) charts up in the air and they came raining down upon him. But instead of it all falling apart, it seemed like we were suddenly playing music for the first time that day. He never picked his charts up. He just asked what key the next song was in, thought about it for a moment and played. It sounded great.
My process now is to go ahead and make my own charts, bring them along, and don’t use them unless I just have to. I have tried to skip the step where I make the charts, but it tends to gnaw at me that I didn’t do my homework and that affects my performance later. Plus, I have had to glance down at a chart to refresh my memory right before we play a tune.
I do believe it is possible to read a chart and play brilliantly. For us piano players it’s important to lean back a little and use peripheral vision to play. We have to make sure the height of the piano is just right too. If this is something you’d like to be good at, I’d say just do a lot of that in your practice. Read a chart down and practice the entire process of being accurate and creative while reading.
On another note, if you are a traditionally trained piano player, the number system will be super easy for you to learn. I found the number system an interesting concept when I first heard about it. It was particularly useful if you knew what songs you were going to be playing, but you did not know what key you might have to play them in for the singer. For me, it was easier to think in number terms, rather than transposing letters as I went. The world would have gone on had no one created the number system, but as are all things in music, there are many ways to get where you need to go.
The number charts work best with simple harmonies. They do not lend themselves to jazz standards very well. But it’s not a bad idea to try! I actually found it very helpful to think through a jazz standard with numbers. You’ll see the function of each chord, where it changes keys and how it all works. It’s just a bitch to read.
The biggest “chart-fail” I had was a situation where I was hired to make number charts for a band that I would never see. I did a great job except for one song called “Masquerade”. It started and ended in a minor key, so I considered that 1 minor. Big mistake. The bass player (Johnny Stanton) texted me after the gig and let me know in no uncertain terms, that I had put him in a bad situation. It was too difficult to read and he barely made it through. Johnny and I are great friends to this day but I have to admit… that was embarrassing. The lesson there is, even if the song is in a minor key, if you are using numbers, it will probably be easier to read if you chart it as if it were in a major key and call the home key 6 minor. Or Johnny Stanton will kick your ass.
There is some great software now you can use to make charts. Also, you might want to start saving copies of your charts digitally so you don’t have to make the same chart more than once. A lot of my friends scan their charts and store them in dropbox or something similar.
New Orleans Piano = A Party
Something about New Orleans piano, to me, is more welcoming than any other kind of piano playing. The rhythms almost demand the piano be played using certain intervals, chords and licks. The harmonies are usually blues-based. This music is made for partying. And everyone is invited. I think it is a great way to learn how much fun playing piano really can be. If you were raised on Mozart and Bach, …. hold on to your klangfarbenmelodie, here comes Dr. John.
Books have been written on this style of playing. I’m talking about Dr. John, Professor Longhair, Harry Connick Jr., A.J. Croche, Little Feat and more. There are plenty of recordings of these guys to listen to. So I’ll just focus on what listening to these guys did for me.
Dr. John always said he was influenced by Professor Longhair and if you listen to that, you’ll see the similarities. Harry Connick Jr. credits these guys and more for his playing influences. These are some of my favorite piano players.
Oscar Peterson could boogie. Bill Evans could boogie. Just because it’s a crowd pleaser doesn’t mean you are selling out to boogie a little. Having a little fun is okay sometimes. You probably should not try it at the end of Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhopsody No. 2 . But then again, Liszt might not mind. He was all about working hard and playing hard.
I’ll probably write more about this style and go into a few individual players’ in future posts. In the meantime, go get yourself some Dr. John!
To Click Or Not To Click?
I pulled in “Chuck E’s In Love” with Steve Gadd on drums into a session. It did not line up with any click. It felt great. Can Steve Gadd play to a click? Yes! Why didn’t they that day? I’d love to know. But I did notice the time moving around when Ricky Lee Jones started singing. So maybe that had something to do with it. Plus, there is a bridge that is a whole different groove and a whole different tempo. Then there is the most famous drum fill in the world to bring everyone back in. The track just grooves. No click
In the bible it says, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them." I think this applies to a band grooving on a song too. It can be spiritual experience playing together in a band where everyone is listening and grooving together. A click can be a distraction.
A pendulum clock… it swings back and forth from a state of potential energy (up to one side) through to a state of kinetic energy (straight down) and on out to the other side to potential energy again using gravity. In a way, it is tension, release, tension, release. Digital clocks use quartz crystals they that grow now. They send an electrical signal through it. There is no tick-tock sound from these. But they are more accurate. Is accuracy subjective? No. Math will always win. And yet, if I quantize “Chuck E’s In Love” will it sound even better? No! It’ll sound worse. It’ll feel worse. Why? Because 2 or 3 (or more) were gathered together to play a song and groove was there also.
Yes, practice with a click a lot. (But more without one) And if you must play live with a click, then you must. But mostly play with the other musicians and try and put the click out of your mind. And if you have the rare treat to play live or record with no click, let there be groove.
4 Ways To Warm Up Before Playing Piano
I learned to drive in my dad’s 1968 Volkswagen Beatle. I thought I might be a mechanic one day so I worked on it myself as much as I could. I used books I ordered from car magazines. I remember one book described how long to let the engine warm up. He said turn on the car and let it idle just long enough to get a cigarette drawing real good. That way the oil gets to all the areas it needs to before you put in gear and stress the engine. It’s not the healthiest analogy, I know, but the idea is you need to get the blood where it needs to go and get our joints prepped and ready for some work. Here are some ways to ease into it:
One Handed Improvisation: Years ago, bass player and teacher Roger Spencer mentioned to me to improvise with just one hand. This was huge for me. I just do what I can with one hand. I start by constraining myself to just single note ideas. Then I may start playing some double stops and chords later. There are endless possibilities and you’ll probably not want to stop.
Outlining Diminished Chords: Lori Mechem showed me the outlining of diminished seventh chords idea. She just starts on C and outlines the chord up and down with both hands. C, Eb, Gb, A, and then C again at the top. One finger per note and then back down. Then she moves up to D and does it again. She stays on the white notes as the root. The idea here is to stretch your fingers apart a little. You’ll have to reach for these notes. Just try and stay loose and if anything hurts, stop. Some stretching is fine but you do not want an injury.
3 Note Voicings With a Drop Two Approach: The idea here is to just play a simple triad but move the middle note down and octave. There are a lot of books about this and I think Matt Rollings has some examples on his website too. Once you understand drop-two voicings, this can be a pleasant way to just noodle around with chords and get moving. You can play 4 note voicings for even more of a challenge. Just drop the 2nd note from the top down an octave.
Slow Blues With Walking Bass Line: Play something medium slow and in a key you are comfortable with.
Geoffrey Keezer has a nice warm up on his video series too. He starts with one note in his right hand and one note in his left hand about a 10th apart. The right hand moves up in half steps and the left hand note goes around the cycle of 5ths. Then he tries to fill in a chord that might make sense.
Matt Rollings has a cool one that is similar where he plays one note as a melody and never changes it. Then his left hand goes down in half steps and he fills in the chords. The idea is to make up your own ways of challenging yourself. These are just a couple ideas.
I take a few deep breaths while warming up and check my posture. Then once my imaginary cigarette is drawing good, I put it in gear.
You may hear that “feel” is important in piano playing. Does what you just played “feel” good? And a written paragraph on what I think feel is won’t help you as much as some listening. But maybe while you are listening, keep some things in mind. To me, feel is the result of great time, great technique and great dynamics. These 3 fundamentals all come together at once to create great feel. Note choices, melody, chord voicings are less important, but still important. And none of this is going to do you any good unless you start with your heart. Your heart has to lead the way to great feel. Your mind is going to have to take a backseat.
Great time: This is step one for me. Work with and without your metronome. Use drum rudiments (covered in another post about paradiddles).
Great technique: You’ll need to physically be able to communicate your ideas and that is done through your technique. Technique is not just expressed in fast phrases. You use your technique in the slow playing too Think of technique like the work-outs gymnasts do so they are also able to have the strength and stamina to do their actual bar, beam, or floor routines.
Great Dynamics: This one is easier, and harder. Easier because we can all play softly and we can all play loudly. But it’s easy to forget about dynamics if you don’t practice that way or perform that way.
I practice these 3 things all the time as I also work on the note choices, learning melodies, chord voicings, and more. I practice this with my basic scale review too and that makes scales a lot more useful in general. I like to kill as many birds as possible with as few stones as possible.
I think one of the greatest compliments a piano player can get is that he has great feel. It means they were able to let their heart lead the way, because they have great time, technique and dynamics. I’d rather get that compliment than to hear that someone was impressed I played something fast.
Side note on dynamics: A compressor is often used to limit the dynamic range of an instrument. It can be found on a lot keyboards as an effect. No matter how hard you play, it’ll only go so loud. No matter how soft you play… you’ll still hear it just fine. The only reason I bring this up is because there is a lot of talk about what constitutes the best compressor for this application or that. But we all have the ability to be our own compressors. We control our own dynamics. You can limit yourself however you want. Try to play from very soft to just soft. Try it from soft to medium soft. And so on. Finish up with loud to very loud. Play an entire song at each dynamic range and see if you can stay in it. You are working out and getting your internal compressor in shape. Then when you go to record you might be better able to find that sweet spot of dynamic range yourself… loud enough to be felt, soft enough to not overpower the band. A good engineer might not even use a compressor on you. Or he might recognize that you don’t need a lot of compression. Or he may still compress you a lot for effect. But you will have done your job. And it’ll feel good.
Piano players tend to start off by learning to read simple songs and play them. Then we are handed more challenging music as our teachers see fit. We read that too. And that is a good way to learn. But being handed the music that has already been written down will only take you so far as a musician. Which is fine too. But for me, the real fun comes when you hear something that you just gotta know what they played, and figuring it out for yourself. This can be done on paper with notation, or just 4 bars at a time as you memorize. All the professionals I know do this on some level.
One of the first transcriptions I did was a jazz piece played by Dave McKenna. Dave McKenna was famous for his walking bass lines and sounding like he had 3 hands all the time. I think the tune I did was called “Yesterdays”. Not “Yesterday” by the Beatles. “Yesterdays” is a jazz standard and it was very difficult for me to hear what he was playing. But I worked at it and wrote out every note I thought I was hearing and got to work. Special thanks to my incredible teacher Lori Mechem for pointing me in that direction. Lori and her husband Roger Spencer now own their own jazz school here in Nashville called “Nashville Jazz Workshop”. She was one of those special teachers I really needed as a young man. She taught me how to transcribe and the value of it.
Side note: I took a handful of lessons from a talented piano player here in Nashville named Matt Rollings. He was doing sessions a lot but he squeezed in a few lessons for us road guys when he could. I remember going to his house one day for a lesson and he was working on a transcription he had written out. I don’t remember what it was but it was “Back Home in Indiana” changes in Gb. And it was fast. Seeing what he was working on just confirmed once again…. This is how you get better.
The process of writing out that first transcription was tedious but well worth it. I have learned other solos without writing them out which is easier in some ways. But then I can’t go back and read them down and I think I forget some of the cool stuff I had figured out.
I have transcriptions I’ve done of Oscar Peterson, Dave McKenna, Wynton Kelly, Monty Alexander, Gene Harris, McCoy Tyner and more. I also have some country transcriptions of Matt Rollings, John Jorgenson (gtr player) and some that I don’t know who played it but it was cool.
Each transcription stretched me and made me a better player. I do have some transcriptions that I actually just purchased… already written out for me. I have an Art Tatum one I’m working on now. I have some Benny Green ones. Dr. John. Professor Longhair. Monty Alexander and McCoy Tyner. There is something lost when I have it handed to me. But sometimes, for time’s sake, it’s better than nothing.
It’s important to play right along with the recording when you are able. Get every nuance as close as possible to the original.
I take it a step further because this is the fun part. Grab an idea from the transcription and change it! Make it into something of your very own. Try it in different keys. See how it feels. Maybe you can unlock what the player was really thinking along the way.
I remember swearing off any more scales at one point. I had had enough of scales. I stopped practicing them and instead just did transcriptions. I’m pretty sure I got better in most ways. I was more creative. I had great ideas. But then I got to where I could not pull them off like I wanted to because I had neglected my technique so much. This may not be the case for everyone. But for me, I really need to do both. I have since learned new ways to practice scales while keeping it very interesting and I’ll share that another day. But being able to play something new that I transcribed myself may be the greatest joy I ever get to feel.
Obviously, we don't know everything. But we do tend to think differently. Here are some of my thoughts on piano and maybe some on life. I play piano for Tracy Lawrence, produce new artists, write and practice piano.