putting classical music chops to good use in different types of music?
April 22, 2016 1:43 PM   Subscribe

I find it hard to be creative with music

I used to study classical piano for a long time, but I'm no longer involved in it and I'm not really interested in playing that type of music anymore / don't own a piano just a Roland keyboard.

I'd really like to be able to play in bands but I'm so used to playing exactly whats written on the page, that I find it hard to be creative and improvise (plus shyness as I'm so used to practicing solo vs in front of people, though I don't have any problems with performing)

I've found it much easier to be creative on guitar since I have barely any training in it and don't feel the pressure to play really difficult stuff since it's not my main instrument. But somehow it's less satisfying because I don't have the technique that I've spent so much time building on piano

At the same time I feel there must be some way to put my knowledge into use. . . Any tips on finding a new path in music?
posted by winterportage to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Playing in bands isn't quite the same thing as being creative. If you want to mainly play covers then you may be playing (some approximation of) the same parts as were on the original recordings. The difference is that your ability to learn the parts typically depends more on listening than reading skills. So working on some ear training might be one place to start? That's likely to be useful regardless.
posted by bfields at 2:24 PM on April 22, 2016

Take popular piano lessons. They'll teach you how some music theory, improvisation, chord reading, how to use a fake book (a book containing a ton of bare-bones versions of tunes, allowing you to"fake it") and all that stuff.
posted by kindall at 3:06 PM on April 22, 2016

Put on your favorite records and try to play along. No written music just listening. And playing. When you get comfortable with trying to keep up and to play what you hear, then try to play around what you are hearing. Improvise. Having consorted with a number of classically trained musicians, I learned that after years of very serious training, it's difficult to just let go and play. My classical training ended in the eighth grade. Before then I loved to play along with records. It helped me develop a good ear for music. Now I love improvisation but my one regret is that I have little or no technique. (My computer plays all the hard stuff...) A few years back I performed for 50 minutes on guitar, which i don't know how to play, in public. Used some EFX pedals and an Ebow and it worked. It sounds like you want to make music, so just make it. For now, make it for yourself, and then later when you are moved to share it, then share it. Turn on your Roland keyboard and play. If it has different sounds, play with those. Borrow some guitar pedals from friends. Play through those. Experiment and discover things. The key thing is to just play. Who knows what might come out?
posted by njohnson23 at 6:32 PM on April 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

You learn to improvise the same way you get to Carnegie Hall.

Ensemble parts: find written music for something that's close to what you want to play. Say, a boogie-woogie piece. Learn it really well, until you've memorized it. Then play it without the music. Practice some more. And more. After you know it REALLY goddamn well, you're actually getting bored with it, and that's when you start to visualize (or auralize) sections of the piece ahead of time as you're playing it, in your head. You're going, "here comes that part again, and then the slow bit will be next, for the thousandth time...", and out of sheer boredom you start to mess with it, change things, just to make it interesting. A little bit at the start, more later. This is how it starts, how the training wheels come off. Eventually you've got enough memorized phrases that you can cover more tunes.

Single lines: put on some music you like, and try to play along with it, and fail. Then start again and try to just play a bass part and fail. Then start again and try to find just the root of the current chord and fail. Then try again and find a note that's at least part of the current harmony and fail. Then try again, and find a note that's part of the current harmony and succeed for a while. Then try again, and again, and succeed sometimes. Then try to find the roots again, then try to make up a bass part. Fail most of the time for weeks at least, then Fail less often. (Your bass parts don't have to be low notes, just simple both harmonically and rhythmically; a foundation part) After a while you hear the parts in your head before you play them, and the same boredom sets in, so you start at fifths etc. Or whatever sounds good, even if you don't know the name of the interval.

And practice and practice. Don't equate improvisation with creativity. Improvisation is a skill. Yes practiced improvisers get ideas on the fly, but those ideas are built out of bits and pieces that they've already learned. They're pulling things out of the bag of tricks that they've built up over time, and combining them in different ways. It may seem fantastically inspired, but they're really just reeling off variations on macros that have already been programmed, over a long time.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 8:39 PM on April 22, 2016 [5 favorites]

One thing: I've heard lots of classical musicians try improvising and they eventually can play by ear, but... They often have no clue when the rhythm is off. Like they'll be playing jazz with sophisticated harmonies and such, but the rhythm will be square and they won't know it. So watch out for that; mind the idiom.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 9:18 PM on April 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'd go a step further than just playing with records. When I was first learning, I'd grab my guitar, sit down in front of the TV and play along with everything - theme songs, commercials, whatever comes on, just try playing with it. You'll be amazed at how much you pick up and how much more comfortable you'll be with improvising. I think the element of not knowing what is coming next helps you think on your feet.
posted by MrKellyBlah at 9:45 PM on April 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've been there and at this point in my life I've resigned myself to the fact that I can really only play classical music well on the piano. I picked up guitar and ukulele later in life and those are the instruments I go to when I want to play other genres. Classical musicians are basically expert cover artists so I put a lot of my creative juices towards playing around with the style and emotional tone of existing songs.

Do you have a friend you can jam with? Even if you're just playing the chords and they're the ones jamming it can help you get into the feel of things.
posted by fox problems at 7:43 AM on April 23, 2016

N-thing playing to popular songs that you know, whether or not you have the song playing at the same time. Any song that you can hum -- sit down and figure out how to play it!

For jazz/blues/pop/rock piano, your hands may need to pick up more segregated roles than you're used to. I'm sure you know this, but a lot of keyboarding starts with playing chords with your left hand (behind a singer or solo instrument), and embellishing with your right. It's quite likely that you'll be employing your left hand as a full-time octave/arpeggio machine for most popular songs. Honestly most keyboard parts I've played with bands are so boring in comparison to the classical pieces I know...

One thing I enjoyed when transitioning from classical piano to less-classical music: Break down a (harmonic-oriented) classical piece you know into the simplest "left hand chord, right hand melody" form and play it as though it were a beginner version. Then add in more detail (as written down, or whatever) layer by layer, thinking of them as embellishments on a basic structure. Now add your own! Once you get tired of that, change up the chord structure a bit, and continue adding embellishing layers until you feel like you've actually made up something new.

And/or: limit yourself to one note at a time. Play a stream of notes -- and don't stop -- until a "riff" sets in that doesn't sound half-bad to repeat over and over again. It can be as simple as an extended arpeggio or a bass line that you heard years ago... At some point, your brain will beg you to try adding complexity, and you'll know -- from all your experience -- what little notes you can add on here and there. Your intuition for what sound will come out is surprisingly powerful.

Whatever you do, don't stop playing. Even if you have to "retire" to the same four chords/notes over and over again for a while, keep some momentum going. Make mistakes and play through them and don't look back. If you're going to play with other people, you need to learn how to brush past a mistake or boring section and keep everything moving forward.

Good luck!
posted by miniraptor at 8:11 AM on April 23, 2016

Try buying or borrowing a different type of keyboard-based instrument.

Accordion, mellotron, stylophone, Rhodes, organ-strings or moog. The limitations (particularly on old synths) could open up your improv skills and let you turn the keys into a drum (all instruments, in rock and roll, are drums).
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:48 AM on April 23, 2016

I'm going to suggest a weird mental trick that I'm just imagining might move you in the right direction: Try to play 1/4 as many notes. In other words, before your fingers play notes, stop them about 75% of the time, and find creativity in the live-editing of choosing which 25% you commit to playing.

When you stumble upon a series of notes and non-notes that worked well in sequence, play them again, but change up one or a few of the final notes in the phrase. Find variations, but not big ones. Think in phrases/riffs.
posted by edlundart at 2:14 AM on April 24, 2016

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