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!
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.
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!
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.