From Pianist to Musician
June 15, 2015 3:25 PM   Subscribe

What skills am I missing as a traditional sheet music pianist to play as a musician?

I grew up playing the piano through a very traditional path: playing sheet music books that got progressively more difficult, with weekly piano lessons. I did this for about 8 years through my teenage years, playing Sonatina after Minuets after Canons, and basically can now play any sheet music after a bit of practice time. I did some light piano theory along the way but forgot most of it.

Lately, I've decided I want to become more of a musician, playing in bands and with others. It seems like the skillset is totally different. There seems to be some chord charts and melody reading, composing, improvisating, listening by ear and playing along (jamming?), etc.

Where can I learn these non sheet music playing skills? Why didn't my piano teachers teach me about these things during my 8 years of playing?
posted by tasty to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
How to play the piano despite years of lessons has been recommended here before for similar things - I've bought it but not yet tried it, so can't tell you whether it's any good (hopefully they're working on a sequel called How to play the piano despite years of lessons and being too lazy to open this book).
posted by penguin pie at 3:40 PM on June 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

Typically, piano players with your kind of background play too much when they play with other musicians. They are used to being the only instrument and playing arrangements that try to cover the whole spectrum, the bottom, middle, and top of the instrument. You don't need to always play the roots of the chords, or to play repetitive bass patterns, for example, if there is a bass player.
posted by thelonius at 3:42 PM on June 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

You know who puts up a whole ton of great music tutorials on Youtube? Gospel players. You might spend some time searching around those for some ideas of how a real world chord with fills backing is done.
posted by thelonius at 3:47 PM on June 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

Hi! You're me more years ago than I'd care to admit.
This is what helped me - I learnt the guitar, just chords, to strum along to top 40 songs. Not saying you have to learn guitar, but it really did help me.
So as a classical pianist, you're used to playing all the notes. Playing the guitar makes you realise that this isn't necessary (I mean, you have to sing over the top of it, but you know what I mean). Then I translated this to piano - get the same chord charts for guitar but play the chords on the piano. Both hands, play the same chord. Your left hand can just play one note if you like. This is where the classical training really helped, because I already knew all the scales, arpeggios and most importantly, all the chords and their inversions.
Why is this important? Because if you're playing a C chord and the next chord's a G, you don't want to have to move your hand from CEG all the way up to GBD, you want to play the G as BDG. Or maybe that's just me being lazy. But seriously, if you don't know all the chord inversions and can play them at will, go learn them. I promise it will hugely improve your musicianship.
So play the chords, change it up a bit, like - if you're playing a whole chord on the beat, play quavers, appegiate it. You can do a lot with just the notes of the chord. You'll probably get bored of doing that soon and will want to add other notes. Good! Do that, see what works. The places where you can add stuff is in the chord itself - add a 2nd or a 7th or something, and at the chord changes. Say you're thing from a C to G chord - playing a g,a and b (notes not chords) is a basic little fill. There are very few "wrong" notes, especially if you play in the scale. If you're in C, you can play any of the white keys, but an F# might be weird. Now, there are notes which are better played on the way to other notes, as opposed to being held and repeated, but almost anything you play will not be wrong. Even the F# will sound great if you say play it like a grace note leading into a G! So again, play what sounds good, and don't worry about making mistakes because there almost aren't any. And then guess what? You're improvising!
I could say more but I need to get to work. One more thing - playing with others is another skill again to improvising. The best thing you can do to develop that skill is to play with others. Have fun!
posted by pianissimo at 5:27 PM on June 15, 2015 [4 favorites]

All good suggestions here. Let me add another: imitation. Most people who play the way you seem to want got that way by imitating someone. Pick some kind of music you enjoy, pick one piece and listen to the piano player. Listen some more and then try to play like that. One of my professors told me that all of the study of music is ear training.
posted by charlesminus at 6:48 PM on June 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Learn as many 1-4-5 variations from the blues / classic rock canon as you can. I've played bass in several cover bands in Connecticut, seen a bunch more, and I've found the set lists really don't various much. I'd bet the situation's similar wherever you are. If you like, send me a MeFi mail with your email address and I'll send you a list of "standards" to get you started.

Load them up on your iPod and listen to them every day while you're exercising, driving etc. and really pick it apart when you listen ... progression, arrangement, harmonies, dynamics, etc.

Some things matter more than others. Believe it or not, getting the whole band to start and end at the same time on every song is the first major milestone. After that, getting everyone to play the exact same progression.

Think I'm kidding? Listen, REALLY LISTEN, to a "simple" tune everyone takes for granted: Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" ... The intro progression is different from the rest of the song! The 4th phrase is 5-->4 in the intro where in the rest of the song the 4th phrase stays on the 5.

Another, more modern example: In Adele's "Rolling in the Deep," the chord changes in the first part of the intro verses happen after the 1 beat, not the 4.

One final example: Led Zep's "Rock and Roll:" The guitar solo in the middle is one verse of 12-bar 1-4-5 followed by a second verse of 24-bar 1-4-5!

The take-away is, at the very least, everyone in the band has to agree on what you're all playing ... that's something you all figure-out, and even negotiate during practices. My preference is to always play as faithful to the "originals" (and make sure you all agree on WHICH originals) as possible. This makes in-between rehearsal practices with you iPod most effective.

And anyone lobbying for departing from the original better have a damn compelling reason; otherwise they're adding complication without adding value.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:10 PM on June 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

One thing I've been doing recently is breaking apart some dance tunes. I start with the theme and try to play along on the keyboard. Then I try filter out the sound and focus on the background music or try to imitate the bass and the beats. You'd be surprised that there are some notes which the keyboard can't exactly capture.
posted by Carmine Red at 7:50 PM on June 15, 2015

Coming in again to apologise for typos and lack of line breaks in my earlier answer and to say (speculate) why you weren't taught these other skills in your piano lessons.

I think they are different sets of skills. Being able to read music and faithfully recreate what a composer has written is a skill. There are teachers out there who recognise that you just want to jam and improvise and they'll teach you more along those lines, I guess you didn't get that sort of teacher.

However, what you have got is a really good foundation to go forth and jam/improvise. You may not realise it, but those short runs up/down a scale, those broken chords, those fifths, the repeated motifs that are currently written out for you? With maybe a change of rhythm, they're pretty much what you'd play for some basic improvisation. I suspect it'll be easier for you to learn to improvise than for an improvisational player to learn to play music strictly as written. So yeah, your lessons have not been wasted!
posted by pianissimo at 10:08 PM on June 15, 2015

One thing to do to ween yourself from written notes is memorize the melodies of whatever songs you like just by listening and singing. Sing first along to the music and then by yourself. Then, pick out the tune on the piano, moving it from the intuitive melody in your voice to your fingers on the keyboard. You'll probably stumble a bit finding the notes at first, but eventually it will be more facile as your ear-to-finger connection becomes experienced and habitual.

Once this becomes easy, expand the exercise. Add chords to your melodies, allowing yourself to find the chords while a recording of the tune is playing. For this, start with simpler pop or folk tunes where the chords will be very clear.
posted by bertran at 10:47 PM on June 15, 2015

You might also check out some of the (usually) very accurate pop/rock transcriptions from Hal Leonard. Important: NOT the normal "piano/vocal/guitar"-style sheet music arrangements; transcriptions of what is actually played on recordings.
posted by thelonius at 10:57 PM on June 15, 2015

It strikes me that you are in an enviable position for playing in bands and so forth. My understanding is that people like Keith Emerson, Tony Banks, and Rick Wakeman all started out the way you did, and they all did reasonably well in the various bands they played in.

One thing you will need to decide for yourself is: just how big of a presence do you want to be in a band? If you are playing backing keys for a virtuoso guitarist, you may not have the opportunities to shine on solos and such. On the other hand, if you're playing in a Genesis tribute band, you may end up doing most of musical 'heavy lifting'.
posted by doctor tough love at 11:00 PM on June 15, 2015

Instead of typing out a long response, I will just tell you to re-read pianissimo's first post. Very much spot on in terms of your specific question.
posted by TinWhistle at 5:44 AM on June 16, 2015

"What skills am I missing as a traditional sheet music pianist to play as a musician?"

Sounds like you have a pretty good idea. In general, you want to be able translate between sound (real, or imagined in your "mind's ear"), written notation, and the motions required to play your instrument. You've got at least traditional notation->playing piano. You might be missing playing by ear (ear->instrument), transcription (ear->notation), sight singing (notation->ear). And also some basic theory, how to read a lead sheet, and some other miscellaneous stuff.

"Where can I learn these non sheet music playing skills?"

Some ideas:

Think hard about what specifically your long and short-term goals are. ("Playing in bands" is a start. Do you care what genre? Would you like to play gigs? Do you want to accompany singers? (May want to add "transposing on sight" to your todo list for that one.)) It's easier for people to help if you can explain what you want.

Find a new teacher. Call some up and tell them what you want. They're out there.

Check the course schedules at local colleges. You're probably looking for introductory music theory classes. They'll teach you how to do things like write down a simple melody based only on hearing it. They'll probably also need to spend a lot of time on basic music reading, which you already have, so you may want to look at their syllabus and textbook to see if you can fill in the gaps yourself and then start off in a more advanced class.

Join a choir? Singing's really useful, you get to make music with other people, and it'll help train your ear.

Look for local jam sessions and open mics. Again, more chances to play with people and learn what you need to learn to do so. But also it's a chance to network and meet other people to play and learn with.

"Why didn't my piano teachers teach me about these things during my 8 years of playing?"

I don't know, lots of us have had similar stories, and it's a problem! Tradition, I guess. Maybe teachers get a little worn down working with unmotivated kids on anything that doesn't lead to results (like a recital performance) that a parent can easily understand?
posted by bfields at 7:00 AM on June 16, 2015

I recently stumbled across a book called How to Play a Show, which looked really good to me; a professional musician friend confirmed that it had some good info and advice. It looks like it's out of print; you might see if any local libraries have it.
posted by kristi at 8:41 AM on June 18, 2015

« Older What are some good choices for portable speakers?   |   Feeding my thriving rescue dog Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.