Practice Tips from Mark Almond #3

In this section I have some encouraging news. It is within your reach to set some short term goals that not only will lay a solid foundation, but also be extremely satisfying musically. Within days, or a few weeks, depending on your practice schedule, you can make giant progress if you focus on a few strategically designed short term goals.

Chord Charts, Lead Sheets, Fake Books

All of these titles are really describing the same thing. All kinds of music, even classical music, can be purchased with a single note melody, written for the right hand, and the chord symbols written right above this melodic line.

Most piano teachers are scared to death to recommend this kind of practicing. It can, in many cases, lead to practicing that is horribly out of balance. There are, however, other ways to make sure our note reading skills develop in proper proportion, which we will be discussing later. The first thing I do with students that “only play by chords” is design something that forces them to improve their note reading. I have had students that will not read notes when they are practicing on their own. I was one of them – until I discovered it was a dead end. You are doomed to stunted growth and automatically limited to a few repetitious patterns, especially in terms of left hand accompaniment. You will become sick of the sound of your own playing no matter how many songs you play. Since you too have the option of making sure your practicing in the future is balanced, you don’t have to feel guilty about the exhilaration you will experience when you develop your ability to use chord charts.

This session will be limited to some very practical pointers:

  • Finding the right songs, in order to start this process, is extremely important. Fake books, for example, sometimes have over 1000 songs in a single book. The reason they have so many is that most of them are “public domain.” This means, to be blunt, the vast majority of these songs are very old and practically worthless. Even so, a fake book can be a real bargain if you end up with 50 or 60 good songs for thirty or forty dollars. Here is the important point when getting started. When you skim through the index of a fake book you are looking initially for only two or three songs. Find just a few songs that are very familiar and also have a slow moving melody. In other words, do not start with the “Entertainer” or anything where the melody is fast or difficult to play.
  • Survey the chords used in the song. You can always use just the root triad of any chord to get started. In other words, for C7 just play C (the major chord). For Cm9 just play Cm (the minor chord). The additional coloring tones, for all of the complex chords, are frosting on the cake and can be added later as the song gets easier to play. If you have a hard time reading the notes for the right hand melody, make a study of the notes before you start playing the song. You will see, in all cases, the same notes will repeat over and over again throughout the song. There aren’t as many new notes to learn as you think. If you have Piano for Life, review lesson 19 for an overview.

A VERY IMPORTANT POINT

  • The musical quality you are after is not related to complexity. It does not require “lots of notes” to create a musical feeling. It also does not require playing the more complex chords with the additional tones added to the basic triad. Musicality is first and foremost created by playing the melody itself with confident flowing rhythmic control. Adding the natural volume variations and subtle accents to the melody could be considered second in importance. Just make the comparison in your mind of an experienced skillful actor delivering his or her lines, compared to the robotic mechanical sound of a child trying to read a poem – without understanding the meaning of the words. Which of the two do you want to sound like when you play a melody? Once you capture this flow in the melodic line DO NOT interrupt this feeling when you add the chords as accompaniment. Keep the left-hand chord playing simple and subordinate to the melody, especially in the early stages. If necessary, play the chord with the left hand only once and hold it down until the next chord change. Even when you can play more complex chord accompaniment in the future, it still must always support and never dominate or interfere with the magic of a well phrased melodic line. In case you are somehow missing the main point in all of the above, I would like you to think about an imaginary competition. Let’s say there is a small audience of say 20 people. Someone plays a song that has a beautiful melody, but it is played with all the fancy flourishes and common devices that most pianists often force into the music. Then you play the same song with an ideal, natural, flowing melody – with the simplest possible left hand accompaniment. (I have intentionally played this kind of simple arrangement with real audiences by the way) Guess what people respond to the most? Musicality is not tied to complexity. This is the most encouraging single insight there is for everyone who wants to improve their playing in general, or their playing of chord charts in particular. Keep in mind also, the main reason we choose very familiar songs, in the beginning, is that it completely frees us from having to sight read the timing while playing the melody. We are reading notes only to get the correct melody, not trying to decipher the timing of a tune that we already know. The skill of reading the timing, like all other note reading skills, can be learned in other contexts and with even more efficiency. Incorporating the priorities, outlined above, will transform your practicing and give you the option of reaching a very exciting plateau in the short term.