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.
Have you ever been accused of rushing? Dragging? I certainly have. And it is painful. I remember a great piano player/teacher named John Arnn once said, "If the guy knew he was rushing, he wouldn't be doing it!" It's not like a piano player gets a sneaky grin on his face and says to himself, "I'm gonna rush this phrase and tick off the drummer and everyone else in the band." So how do you fix a problem you never really hear? I decided what better way to fix this than to grab a book about how to play drums. It turned out to be a great decision and I thought I’d share one drum rudiment that has made a huge impact in my playing. This is a focus issue, not a time issue. It is possible to train your brain to keep time a priority, while also making the other musical choices that piano players need to make.
A paradiddle pattern is a wonderful way to make your playing more rhythmic. There are a lot of ways to practice these and incorporate them into your playing.
The basic pattern is R L R R L R L L. or flip it around: L R L L R L R R.
Just put your metronome on something medium slow and beat on the lid of the piano in eighth notes. For now, emphasize all of the down beats. 1, 2, 3, 4. Keep it all even.
Once you get that, go ahead and play one note in each hand on the piano. Then you can try moving around to different notes. Try some chords. Keep the pattern going. Speed it up and slow it down with the metronome. Try and play through a chord progression this way. Try and play a jazz standard this way with just chords.
At this point you can also try to swing it. New Orleans music does this a lot. Have some fun.
Finally, you can change up which eighth note you emphasize. Go through each one and bring it out. Once again there are specific patterns you can try that are found in drum books. And you can make up your own. Pick 2 or 3 or more eight notes to emphasize. Try it very quietly and very loudly.
(Side note: For me personally, emphasizing just beat 1 and nothing else helps the most with getting in that pocket. It evens out everything in between if I am conscious of exactly where that down beat is going to land. I do this for a while until I start getting fancy.)
Play a solo like you usually do but for a few bars play something based on this paradiddle. Try it with a jazz standard as well. Try it with a pop tune. Try it with a country tune.
Other ways you can challenge yourself:
1. Play the pattern as triplets instead of eight notes.
2. Cross your hands on the piano and play it.
3. Play a bar or two of some triplets, or 16th notes, then a bar or two of the paradiddle.
4. Play total nonsense on the piano but keep the pattern going.
5. Play one hand on the piano and one on the lid.
6. Play the pattern with just one hand… divide up your hand into 2 parts. Do this in each hand.
7. Crowd your hands over each other but on different notes. Any finger on left hand is L and any finger on right hand is R. Try it out.
If anyone has ever accused you of rushing or dragging, you’ll be able to hear what they are hearing if you try this. And you’ll be able to fix it. Just focus on that down beat. If you forget about the downbeat and start playing something you thought was cool… you’ll hear where you got ahead of it or behind it. Most of the time it will also point to a technique issue you'll need to address. You’ll have to start to be able to make the time the priority while simultaneously making other musical choices. Eventually this will become automatic and this will make you a much better musician whether you are playing solo or with others.
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.