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.
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.
Summary Of My Interview With Guitarist Travis Willard Newman. His Thoughts On What He Likes To Hear From Piano Players.
This is a summary of my interview with musician/guitar player Travis Willard Newman. Travis is from South-Western Virginia and has been working for 27 years as a guitar player. He has spent time as a sideman, a session player and also produces. Some national artists he has played with are Clifford Curry, Jay Proctor and the Techniques, Craig Morgan, Love and Theft, Barret Baber, Craig Wayne Boyd, Presley and Taylor, Glen Templeton, Charlie Floyd, and Tracy Lawrence (currently with Tracy Lawrence). He is from Southwester Virginia.
Some things Travis looks for in a piano player:
Travis talks about the kinds of sounds he likes to hear keyboard players’ use.
We talked about relationships with other musicians:
I talked a lot too and hopefully some things I said were helpful to someone else. I do remember saying that, in general, all piano players need to work on their time. But I can name a few who already have great time. And I’m sure there are plenty of grooving piano players that I don’t know of. And I know it has been something I came to understand was important later in life. I just want to stress how important time is to that piano player out there that thinks this is an optional skill to work on. It is not.
I thought this interview was interesting because it is so rare for a musician to talk about piano players and what they are wanting to hear from us. And really, it’s not their role unless they are teaching. I put Travis in the hot seat and he delivered. Travis’s opinions may not square with yours or everyone else’s. He’d be the first one to admit that. But isn’t it nice to hear anyway? I hope you take his perspective and ponder it a bit next time you sit down to practice, record or play. I know I will.
A special thank you to Travis Willard Newman. I know I learned a lot. Travis is so much fun to work with on stage and off. I consider myself lucky to get to work with him.
What is gear? Gear is just tools you want or need to do a particular job. Mechanics have gear, plumbers have gear, and musicians have gear too. What gear do you have? Are you feeling like you can get the job done well with this gear? It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the seemingly endless options. And it’s easy to purchase something that really doesn’t allow you to do what you had hoped it would.
For most gigs you are going to need these basic sounds:
How you lay that out is entirely up to you. But here is a link to an interesting article about the development of the piano. They needed some better gear well before Sweetwater came along.
The above link goes to an article on how Liszt and Beethoven had a lot to do with the development of the piano. The author makes some good analogies. Think of yourself as software, looking for the best operating system to run on. Let’s say you have great technique (fast software) but your instrument (OS) is holding you back. I like to imagine what I could do if the piano were split or layered with another sound, or if the strings could be accessed quicker if I did such and such. What COULD I do if it were laid out just right? I start here and then work backwards to the actual gear.
I’ve owned Roland, Yamaha, Kurzweil, Nord, Hammond, Viscount, Korg keyboards. I’ve had TOA amps, Traynor, Leslie, Motion-Sound and a few others. If I get a new gig, I just take what I currently have and go give it whirl. These days I always try to have a solid 88 key hammer action keyboard with all the sounds I might need on hand. A separate keyboard for organ and pads is also nice and it looks a little more impressive.
My first keyboard in my first band was a Roland RD something and it was very heavy. I used that for a long time and now I have back issues to remind me of it.
For my first artist gig (Kenny Chesney) I used a Kurzweil PC-88. I also bought a motion sound leslie simulator for organ sounds.
For Jo Dee Messina I used the same Kurzweil and I used a Korg T-3 for organ. Which was not doing the job. So I bought a Hammond XK2 and ran that through the motion sound. I also bought a Korg TR-Rack for some horn sounds for a Paul Simon medley.
For Blake Shelton I started with my Kurzweil PC88 and used the Hammond XK-2 and motion sound leslie. I also used my Korg TR-rack to beef up the strings. I decided to upgrade my piano and got a Yamaha S-90. Later on I upgraded the piano again and tried a new company called Nord. I also upgraded the motion sound suitcase leslie to a KBR3-D amp. It was beefier and already miked up. But that sound got a little old for me and so I had The B3 Guys rebuild a real Leslie 122 and used that.
For Casey James I used the Nord Stage and I bought a Nord Electro 4D for organ. It had a decent internal leslie. I could also fly with the Nord Electro and do an entire gig with it if I needed to. And I did.
For Tracy Lawrence I started with a Nord Stage and the Nord Electro. I upgraded the Electro Organ sound with a Leslie pedal made by Neo Instruments. I still have my 122 but it hasn’t been practical to haul it around so far. Plus, they get shook up pretty bad in a Trailer. You really need a semi for hauling a Leslie around right. Tracy prefers the Yamaha piano sound so I got a Yamaha CP-4. It sounds like a Yamaha and it feels better than my Nord ever did. And just recently I replaced my Nord Electro with a Viscount Legend Solo. To me it sounds fantastic using the internal Leslie sim. And it has the ability to hook right up to my Leslie in the future should I decide to do that. I’ll probably make some changes in the future.
My rig changes as I change and as my needs change. And it will continue to in the future. If you'd like to post your current rig or anything rig-related, please do.
Today I will be practicing some Christmas songs for Tracy Lawrence. I will also run through some paradiddle work, Work on a Bill Evans transcription called “Emily”, work on #10 out of a Czerny’s School of Velocity book and see what I can work on using Geoffrey Keezer’s online piano course. And yes, I’ll run my scales, arpeggio’s, block and broken chords in all keys with a metronome. I gotta get all this done before the kids get out of school too. If you don’t have kids, you probably have more time than me. So get after it while you are young!
“Positive Piano” by Charles Blanchard. This is a very inspiring and well-researched book. It is geared towards the concert pianist but there are also references to jazz and pop players. I reached out to the author and he actually responded! I have even gone back to this book for fresh inspiration and it has yet to let me down. It really helps you understand the commitment that you’ll need to be a successful person/pianist by showing how many other great piano players lived their lives. It is full of funny and relevant quotes too. It left me with a feeling of excitement and “I can do this” rather than “ugh, I don’t think I have that kind of commitment”. You feel like you’ve just sat down and talked with the very best piano players of all time. And they understand what you are going through.
“Essay on the true art of playing a keyboard instrument” by C.P.E. Bach. I read this book many years ago and I can’t find it now so I’ll need to buy a new one. But there was a great chapter on alternate fingering for scales. Up until that point I had been taught there was only one way to play scales with regard to fingering. Competition among piano players is always there. And there is even more of a rub between commercial players and traditional players. It fed my craving for some rebellion to find “one of their own” with an essay that essentially broke all the rules. I also remember a fellow student who was blind. He was having great difficulty playing his scales with “correct” fingering. Still, Gordon Mote could rip of a scale better than anyone.
“The Science of Self Talk” by Ian Tuhovsky. This one has almost nothing to do with piano. At least not directly. But if you are like me and talk to yourself while practicing (either out loud or in your head) then this book might be helpful. It helps you to understand the results of the kind of self-talk you are doing and adjust them if needed. This is especially useful to either to be nicer to yourself, or push yourself harder while practicing. Everyone is different.
“The practice of practice” by Jonathan Harnum. This is another well-researched book with some great ways to approach practice time. It talks about how it affects your “plastic brain” and literally changes who we are. It helps you be more deliberate about it.
Any biographies are usually good too. I just encourage you to grab a biography of a musician that has been there and done that, and read it. I think as musicians we are almost destined to go our own way, and make our own mistakes. But every once in a while, it can help us get even farther down the road if we learn from someone else’s mistakes. And of course, someone else’s successes.
I used to read a blog called, “The Bulletproof Musician”. It seemed to have a negative effect on me and my playing so I quit reading it. It started to make me think about things that I had done naturally in the past, and messing me up. A lot of the information was based on studies and was backed up and footnoted. I don’t have much of that on my blog. This is just me shooting from the hip and telling you all what has worked for me. If it starts messing up your vibe, stop reading. My approach may not work for you. The same goes for any books you read. Some will speak to you and some won’t. These are just a few that I thought you should at least know about. I found them very helpful and inspiring.
I’m sure there will be more but this is what I have today. Let me and others know if there is a book you like.
I once read where a millionaire summed up his thinking about money in two words. Delayed Gratification. This is how I think about being millionaire musician. Only instead of money, I accumulate musical wealth. I’ll do a separate blog post on finances one day. The good news is that it is entirely possible to get the finances right too. But I want to talk about piano today.
As human beings, we want quick results. I can’t even tell you how many people have told me they took some piano lessons as youngsters but then quit. I think the main reason people quit trying to get good on the piano is they lose patients with their slow progress. That is probably why most people quit most things. There are a lot of businesses selling the idea (with great success) that you can learn to play the piano in just a few days. At least well enough to play something you’d enjoy. And maybe that is possible. But if you are already looking for a shortcut, that is a red flag that you are afraid you will lose motivation before you learn how to play anything good. You know down deep, that you do not have the motivation to get where you want to go. I think a lot of us put some money down to help with that motivation. We think, “I’ll know I paid good money for this so that’ll keep me going.” But it doesn’t. It just allows us to blame the poor program we bought. So what is the answer here?
To me the answer is two-fold:
The second part is to practice to your weaknesses. What fun is that? Why would I want to practice something that just confirms I am not good enough? Believe me, I get it. We all want to sound as good as possible and we want to sound that way right now! I remember hearing a person play a Bach Invention. He started the piece very fast and fumbled it somewhere along the way and started over. He said he could only play it right if he started at the beginning. He’d take another swing at it and miss again. Over and over. He said he used to take lessons but he quit. I thought that was a shame because the first page sounded pretty good. But I suspect he always practiced that piece from the beginning. Because it sounded good. Everything was humming along great and then it all fell apart…. That spot where it fell apart and everything after that, in his mind, was just a misunderstanding. He was lying to himself and he knew it. I could tell from the sheepish look on his face. This is just human nature. I’ve been there. And I do believe there is some “fake it till you make it” involved in progress. But real confidence is better than faking it.
What I do might work for you. I spend about 20 percent of my practice time playing things I think sound good. I spread it out and do a little at a time. In between there I spend the other 80 percent of my time on my weaknesses. Blues in Gb is one of my weaknesses. I’ll play blues in Gb for 20 minutes and then I’ll slip into G for 2 or 3 minutes. Not only does it scratch that itch of sounding better, the blues in G is also better BECAUSE I had done all that work in Gb. Practicing to your weaknesses also lifts up all of your playing to another level. That works for beginners too. If you are stumbling on a piece on bar 25, spend most of your time working on bar 24, 25, 26, and 27. Then go back and play the part you are more comfortable with. It might be better too. Starting in the middle is harder, I know. So set your small goal, get excited about it, and practice to your weaknesses. And then have a little fun. Repeat. And remember, you are building musical wealth a little at a time. It’s worth being excited about.
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.