The hardest part of practicing the piano is finding the time. 

In our busy world, it is not always easy to set aside 30 minutes a day to practice the piano. In addition, the fact that the piano is often practiced solo (not in a group setting) only exacerbates the situation.

I’ve learned over the years of playing and teaching that the problem lies in direction rather than time. Often, students can find a few minutes here or there to sit at the piano. However, without a clear direction to follow, students will get bored and practice less and less.

In fact, a focused 10 minutes a day of practice can produce real results in your piano playing only if you are focused.

This chart shows you a breakdown of focus challenges that our students have submitted.

You’ll see that a lack of direction is by far the biggest challenge.

In our chart, not having time is on par with being bored. Again, I believe that the less direction you have in your practice, the more you become bored and the easier it is to give up and say that you “don’t have the time to practice.”

So how do we improve our practice?

The first step in improving your practice routine is to have lesson structure. By categorizing lessons as foundational and fun’dational, the Jazzedge method gives you the ability to focus your piano practice.

Start by dividing your time equally between working on foundational material like scales, technique, reading and fun'dational material like songs and repertoire.

In this multi-part article, I want to give you some pointers on how to practice the piano. Practicing can be fun and when you have clear goals defined, I think you'll find that it is satisfying and enjoyable!

Goals keep you focused

If you sit down to practice without a goal, you will most likely 'wander' through your practice routine without a clear path. I think we all understand what it means to have a goal. I'm sure you've all been asked that age-old question "Where do you see yourself in 5 years?" Questions like this often seem more like dreaming than a serious question. Let's face it, who really knows where we are going to be in 5 years?

So, it is important to keep our goals based in reality. Keep your piano goals simple and short. For instance, here is what I would consider a 'pie-in-the-sky' or un-realistic goal:

"I want to learn 100 songs in a month."

or

"I want to learn how to play jazz piano this year."

With goals like that you are destined to fail. So...how do we create realistic goals?

  1. Break your main goal into smaller goals
  2. Be realistic with your time
  3. Be happy with small gains!

Let's go through this list point-by-point.

1) If we take the goal of learning jazz piano and break it into smaller goals, we might come up with:

  1. Repertoire (songs)
  2. Knowing scales
  3. Knowing chords
  4. Mastering rhythms
  5. Active listening

2) If you set out to practice 2 hours a day, but you work a 9-5 job and have kids...well...you know. It's most likely impossible! Remember this very important fact: It is not about time. It's about quality. Practicing for 30 minutes per day can produce power results if you are focused and clear about what you should practice. So, practice less...but more focus.

3) I don't want to bring you down, but we often make goals that are just unrealistic. I've made them myself and I know you probably have too. I'm talking about goals like "I'm going to workout 5-days-a-week starting in January." We pull ourselves to the gym on Monday and come Friday we are rationalizing why we have stopped. We end up feeling worse about ourselves then when we started and are filled with a variety of negative emotions.

There is a solution: make your goal so easy that you are likely to succeed.

So, instead of 'learning 100 songs in a month' or 'learning jazz piano this year' I suggest that you shorten your goals and expectations. It is better to learn 5 songs in a year, than attempt to learn 100 only to come up short. Or, I'd rather a student learn all 12 Major scales in 12 months than try to become a jazz pianist...a goal that takes a lifetime to achieve.

O.K. I think by now you understand what I mean when I say 'goals.' Now, let's focus on a mistake that almost every one of my students, myself and practically every other musician in the world makes...

Playing the piano is NOT practicing the piano

I honestly can't tell you how many times I have heard from students that they spent 30 minutes playing songs that they know only to think they were practicing. Or, have you done this?

  1. Sat down at the piano
  2. Started playing a song you know
  3. Thought of it as a "warmup?"

Yep, we've all done it. Sat down for 20 minutes, played stuff we already knew and thought we were practicing. Well...we weren't. We were playing.

You should sound bad when you practice!

Let me explain. If you're like most, when you sit to practice piano, you're time is most likely limited. If you start your practice session by playing the songs that you already know, you are not working on anything new. You're basically just reviewing your repertoire. If the phone rings, or you get interrupted, it is easy to step away, only to never return.

However, if you get right into some focused piano practice immediately when you sit down, you can feel more confident that what you are doing is improving your playing.

In the next segment of the piano practice series, I will cover a new practice routine that I have created to help organize your piano practice. I like to break practice into weekly goals, piano technique, songs, review and theory. This allows us to basically break up our practice routine into three parts:

  1. Technique - getting faster, more accurate piano fingers
  2. Focus - zeroing in on the important concepts for this week's practice
  3. Review - keeping what we have already learned in our memory.

I'll go over those concepts and more in the next article. I'll also tell you about getting faster in my Go for speed! section along with how to practice away from the piano.

In the meantime, try to answer this question: "What are my piano goals for this week, month, year?"

Till next month...keep up your practice!

In this article we're going to discuss categorizing jazz tunes so as to better organize your piano repertoire. A common question amongst jazz piano students that I hear often is "which tunes should I learn first?" This is really an excellent question, and one that should not be met with a one-size-fits-all answer. Perhaps a more proper way to approach this question is to ask a preliminary question: What kind of gigging, performing, or practicing are you interested in?

I approach the majority of my jazz repertoire by lumping tunes into a few different categories.

  1. jazz-heavy tunes;
  2. jam session tunes;
  3. cocktail piano tunes.

Jazz-Heavy Tunes  

Generally speaking, I don't play tunes like "Giant Steps," "Impressions," "Donna Lee," or "26-2" on the average solo piano gig. That's because these are what players sometimes refer to as "blowing tunes," meaning they're usually called as a vehicle to feature solos and improvisation within a band. Of course, nothing prevents a pianist from playing these tunes on a solo cocktail gig but these songs are not generally thought of as such. Walk into a jazz club in New York City and any of the heavyweight bands might be playing these tunes, complete with numerous choruses of sophisticated, harmonically-dense solos. Study up on these tunes because working through them can be incredibly instructive to your understanding of chords and improvisation.

Jam Session Tunes

These are the tunes that makeup what I would refer to as "Jazz Repertoire 101" because in many different jam sessions you'll encounter the same tunes being called. "Blue Bossa," "Autumn Leaves," "All the Things You Are," "Blue Monk" (and 12-bar blues in any key, really), 'rhythm changes'... the list goes on and on. These tunes represent some of the traditional, melodic jazz fare and therefore are familiar to listeners, making them popular calls on jam sessions. Often the harmonies are diatonic (lots of ii-V progressions) which allows advancing players to craft solos by navigating through the chord scales (and isn't that the point of jam sessions, to work things out and have some fun interaction with other players?)

Cocktail Piano Tunes

When I approach a cocktail piano gig I understand that I'm providing ambient, mood-setting music. So I want to make sure that I have a large amount of solo piano, familiar, listener-friendly, melodic tunes ready to go. The operative term here is "solo piano," because I need to understand the approach I'll be taking within these tunes. In a solo context I won't have a bass player walking bass lines and providing roots of chords, nor a drummer to add rhythmic syncopation, nor a horn player to play the melody and solo. The pianist needs to do all of that alone, which requires an understanding of things such as shell voicings, arranging, and reharmonization. Some tunes I might suggest in this category include "Body and Soul," "Fly Me to the Moon," "The Days of Wine and Roses," "Georgia On My Mind," "When I Fall In Love," and "In My Life" (by the Beatles... because, yeah, we work some pop tunes in there when we can).

Create a list of tunes that you'd like to learn in order to organize your piano repertoire based upon your interests. It's also a great idea to sprinkle in some tunes from the other categories to diversify your study.

This is a fascinating and fun little piece of music history that spans almost 300 years. It features a famous and popular melody titled "Minuet in G", a female vocal trio, and a mystery author. Believe it or not, this is a story about a song that was written way back in the early 1700s and became a smash hit over 200 years later.

The story begins with Johann Sebastian Bach, an incredibly prolific and popular organist and composer who lived in Germany in the early 18th century during what is called the Baroque period. Today, we remember Bach as an incredible musician and composer who gave us some iconic musical masterpieces such as his Cello Suite, Toccata and Fugue, and the Well-Tempered Clavier.

Bach was married to a woman by the name of Anna Magdalena (this was Bach's second wife). In the year 1725, Bach presented Anna Magdalena with a notebook full of sheet music by various composers, including pieces written by Bach himself. Such a gift was probably the equivalent of a 17th century mixtape. One of the pieces in the notebook (which is now referred to as "the notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach, 1725") was the piece "Minuet in G." Many of us recognize this piece just from the opening few measures.

Minuet in G

This piece, "Minuet in G," was attributed to Johann Sebastian Bach, and for hundreds of years it was widely thought that he was the composer. However, some of the pieces in Anna Magdalena's 1725 notebook were anonymous. For this reason, it was not until about 1970 that it was discovered that "Minuet in G" was actually written by another German organist by the name of Christian Petzold, likely as part of a harpsichord suite he had written.

Now we'll fast-forward to the year 1965. The '60s were quite an exciting time in American music. Pop, rock, R&B, jazz, folk, country - all were being explored, pioneered, and championed. There was, at the time, a female vocal trio from New York who called themselves 'The Toys'... and they had a smash hit called "A Lover's Concerto." Check it out, using some critical listening skills, and see if it rings a bell.

Well if you didn't catch it right away let me fill you in. "A Lover's Concerto" is in fact the same song as "Minuet in G," written 24o years earlier and it sold more than two million copies! For years, classical music fans giggled at the idea that Johann Sebastian Bach had written a pop/rock vocal hit. As mentioned, we now know that it was really Christian Petzold. And of course, 'The Toys' added a few little tweaks to the original piece in order to update the song for its 1960s pop/rock version.

First off, the instrumentation is certainly different, with "A Lover's Concerto" featuring vocals, lyrics, drums, bass, guitar, and horns. Also, "Minuet in G" is written in 3/4 time, while "A Lover's Concerto" is written in 4/4 time.

So the next time you're at a fancy cocktail party looking to drop some classical music knowledge and impress your friends, mention the pop hit written in 1700s Baroque-period Germany mistakenly credited to Bach for over 200 years.

 

This article features the "Top 10 Jazz Tunes" (Part 1) that pianists should know. Of course, all jazz musicians should learn these tunes, regardless of what instrument they play, but we'll occasionally throw in some piano specific tips. Learning a tune for a pianist means being able to comp through the chords, play the melody (in a solo piano context and with left hand comping), and improvise a little bit over the chord changes. Remember that this list is obviously not comprehensive. Professional musicians know many, many tunes by memory. This list is simply ten of the most commonly encountered jazz tunes that pianists should know and is meant to be an excellent reference and starting point for building your repertoire.

One last point - don't forget to check out some of the classic recordings of the pro. Listening to these classic professional recordings (and practicing some transcription) is an excellent education and an essential part of really mastering the jazz vocabulary.

Top 10 Jazz Tunes #10: The Days of Wine and Roses

The Days of Wine and Roses is a tune that is commonly called on jam sessions and is solidly in the "jazz standards" category. It is usually played in the key of F major, although it's also quite common in some of the more advanced jam sessions to play the 2nd half of the tune up a minor 3rd (in the key of Ab major). Check out Bill Evans playing with that minor 3rd modulation.

Top 10 Jazz Tunes #9: Someday My Prince Will Come

Someday My Prince Will Come is another tune that is often thought of as a hallmark of Bill Evans' repertoire. To be honest, part of the reason it's included in this list - aside from the fact that it is a classic jazz standard - is to make sure that we have a tune in 3/4 time represented here, known as a jazz waltz.

Top 10 Jazz Tunes #8: On Green Dolphin Street

On Green Dolphin Street is another tune that is frequently called on jam sessions. A little tip on this one: many fakebooks have this tune written in the key of C major, but it is just as frequently played in Eb major, so be ready. This version by Chick Corea is pretty awesome.

Top 10 Jazz Tunes #7: Impressions/So What

Impressions and So What (by John Coltrane and Miles Davis, respectively) are basically the same tune harmonically (meaning the same chords and the same form). These are examples of modal jazz, so be sure to really master those dorian scales.

Top 10 Jazz Tunes #6: Blue Bossa

Blue Bossa is another VERY common jam session tune. For piano players playing in a solo context, you'll have to work to maintain that bossa bassline which is based on the root and 5th of the chord, using the bossa rhythm. Check out Joe Henderson's recording of this tune.

 

 

 

In preparation for the New Year's resolutions that we all like to make (and often break) I'm bringing you 3 of my "Top Piano Practice Tips" in this article. Much like going to the gym or learning a new language, improving at the piano (or any musical instrument) is about doing a little bit at a time, setting small goals as part of a larger plan, and staying the course as you establish a routine. Although there are certainly musicians with natural, innate talent and ability, there is no substitute for practice. As I get wiser as a player and teacher I've noticed that the biggest thing that sets players apart in terms of their ability is not their level of talent, or the quality of gigs, or their gear - it's their approach and commitment to practice.

Here are 3 Piano Practice Tips for the New Year that you can use to help establish paths of success and move closer towards achieving your goals. Implicit in all of these tips is the idea that you need to make practice a regular and recurring aspect of your day. The faster you can establish a practice routine (i.e., practicing everyday at the same time and place) and good practice habits (i.e.,structuring your practice with warmup exercises that then move towards repertoire and improvisation practice, for example), the faster you'll notice the positive results.

Piano Practice Tip #1: Find some new ways to use your metronome.

All musicians know the importance of using the metronome in order to establish a strong sense of time and rhythmic precision. But often times the metronome can become a droning, frustrating presence in the practice room that can cause students to take shortcuts or move on to something new without finishing the task at hand. Sometimes this is simply because the metronome is perceived more like the "time and rhythm police" instead of an additional musician in your practice session. Instead of always placing the metronome on downbeats (for example, beats 1, 2, 3, and 4 in a 4/4 meter), try placing the metronome on the upbeats (i.e., the 2nd 8th-note pulse of each beat). Or, try placing the metronome only on beat 1, beat 2, beat 3, or beat 4. By working with the metronome in new and creative ways, you can find more stimulating ways to practice rhythm and time.

3 Piano Practice Tips for the New Year 1

3 Piano Practice Tips for the New Year 2

3 Piano Practice Tips for the New Year 3

Piano Practice Tip #2: Challenge yourself when playing through scales, Hanons, and other exercises.

Hanon exercises are an excellent way to improve your dexterity, finger independence, articulation, and speed. But they can also get a bit tedious and... well, boring. Instead of playing scales and Hanon exercises as written, challenge yourself by trying the following:

  1. Play exercises/scales in various intervals, such as 10ths, 6ths, and 4ths. Pay special attention to the unique sound of each interval;
  2. Play exercises/scales in contrary motion, one hand ascending while the other descends;
  3. Try using one of the two suggestions above and incorporating the metronome idea from Tip #1;
  4. For a really crazy challenge, try playing a Hanon exercise in 2 different keys simultaneously (i.e., right hand plays in the key of C, left hand plays in Db).

3 Piano Practice Tips for the New Year 4

Piano Practice Tip #3: Make a list.

Actually, make many lists. In my private lessons I have all students keep a notebook which I use to write down their weekly lesson homework. This way, the student has an ever-expanding record of what they've studied and how much progress they've made, and I (as a teacher) can better adjudicate their rate of improvement and what they've accomplished. But if you're not taking private lessons you can still use this approach. Make a list of what songs you'd like to learn, or which skills you'd like to develop and the exercises that will help you improve those skills. In your practice, try to learn and memorize one new song each week and watch how quickly your repertoire will expand.

Shout-out to Mark B. (one of our great students on the site) for asking this question and inspiring this blog post.  A truly tormenting question to ask a musician, but a fun one nonetheless.  "If you could only take 5 albums with you on a deserted island, what would they be?"

Ask me this question next month (or maybe next week) and my answer will probably be different.  I'm actually getting nervous just trying to think of all the candidates.  I'm pretty eclectic so there would need to be a mix of jazz, rock, pop...  But without further ado, here is my attempt at listing my "Top Five Desert Island Albums" (with apologies to whatever amazing music I'm forgetting).

(In no particular order):

1. Oscar Peterson, "Oscar Peterson Trio Plus One - Clark Terry"
This is one of my all-time favorite jazz recordings.  I couldn't imagine never being able to listen to it again.  When my college buddy turned me on to this I was blown away. That initial listening was my introduction to (and the start of a healthy obsession with) Oscar Peterson.

2. Alana Davis, "Blame It On Me"
An amazing, emotional record. I was in high school developing my own tastes in music when this came out, and the vibe of this record really struck me.  It was voted a "10 Best of 1997" album by TIME magazine, but the artist never really took off.  Back in high school, I spent hours listening to this record and playing along.  I put it on just a few nights ago and it still holds up all these years later.

3. Avishai Cohen, "Colors"
Some REALLY exquisite writing with unique instrumentation/orchestration which creates some striking musical... well... "colors."  It's weird because none of the solos strike me as awe-inspiring things that I'd love to transcribe, but the writing is hauntingly beautiful and the band so well-selected that the solos become extensions of the song as opposed to individual spotlights.

4. Snarky Puppy, "GroundUp"
These are just some cool, sick, freakishly good, young, hip, trendy, awesome musicians making sick, freakishly good, young, hip, trendy, awesome jazz/dance/funk/dance/rock/pop/dance/dance/dance music.  Yeah, I said "dance" a lot because they play "music for the brain and for the booty" (their words, not mine) - which is an incredibly accurate description.  Imagine you put jazz, rock, funk, gospel, bugaloo, latin, world, pop, and fusion music in a blender, and then had the result performed by players with some of the very best jazz chops.  That's pretty much what a Snarky Puppy record is like.  And the solo abilities of these guys are phenomenal, especially Cory Henry. Watch their LIVE "Thing of Gold" video - if you're not blown away it's likely because you don't have a pulse.

5. Stevie Wonder, "Songs in the Key of Life"
I mean, how can you be a musician anywhere in the vicinity of jazz/rock/pop/funk and not pay homage to Stevie Wonder? The man has created an incredible amount of hit music over the years.  The songs on this album are some of his very best, and I have grown up listening to and playing them regularly.  Simply because I'm a huge Stevie Wonder fan, one of his albums had to make this list.

6. "Hey, wait a minute! What's all this "#6" talk? I thought you said 'Top Five Desert Island Albums?!'"  Okay, well, I'm the author of this bloody post so I get to make the rules, and I say it's now going to be called "Top Five SIX Desert Island Albums."  And there's one "royal" reason why:  I can't leave the 'King of Pop' unrepresented here.  Say what you will about his weirdo sleepovers and affinity for removing his nose - the man could write a pop tune. So, my 6th album would be a mix-tape of my favorite Michael Jackson jams.

That's my list (for the moment). Discuss.

 

There is an excellent pianist in New York City, Spike Wilner (who runs the iconic Greenwich Village jazz club, Smalls, and a newer club, Mezzrow), who was kind enough to give me a free piano lesson a couple years ago.  In that lesson, Spike told me that he preaches three things in life: Bach, Bird (referring to Charlie Parker), and Buddha.

What I took that to mean is this: Bach and Charlie Parker have provided so much music, and so much instructive information in their music, that if you were to study these musicians alone you would still have an incredibly detailed and thorough music education. Their contributions to music are universal in nature. (And the mention of Buddha, although specific to Spike, is really just another placeholder for the idea that we should try to live our lives in a meaningful and "right" way).

Bach is, of course, a hugely important figure in music. Perhaps the greatest of the Baroque composers, his mastery of counterpoint (having two or more musical "voices" being played simultaneously), motivic development, and improvisation make him arguably one of the greatest jazz keyboardists of all time.

But this article is about to take a quick left turn down a very interesting music history side-road. Because although Johann Sebastian Bach is often credited with having written "Minuet in G," it was only fairly recently discovered that this piece of music was actually written by Christian Petzold, also a German composer, organist, and contemporary of Bach's. Look to the top right corner of the sheet music in this lesson, where the author's name is listed. Notice anything? It reads "from the notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach." Anna Magdalena was Bach's second wife with whom he had 13 children! (Imagine trying to support that family on a musician's salary).

The "Notebook of Anna Magdalena" refers to just that - a notebook that Johann presented to Anna Magdalena containing a bunch of sheet music of composers of the day. It was basically a compilation songbook, much like we would purchase if we wanted to be able to play "Music From the 1950s" or "Broadway's Greatest Hits." Although much of the music was written by Bach himself, it was later realized that "Minuet in G" had been mistakenly attributed to Bach and was really the work of Petzold.

Want some more music history info on this great tune, "Minuet in G"? What if I told you that "Minuet in G" also enjoyed success as a gold-record radio hit in the U.S., Canada, and Britain in 1965 and sold millions of copies more than 200 years after it was originally written? It's kind of true actually. In 1965, a band called The Toys recorded a tune called "A Lover's Concerto." Give it a listen by clicking here: "A Lover's Concerto" by The Toys.

Notice anything about "A Lover's Concerto" and "Minuet in G"? That's right, it's the same song! Same basic melody and harmony. Of course, there are a few changes that were made. Can you identify what they are? Firstly, (and obviously) the lyrics were added in 1965. Secondly, the meter has been changed from 3/4 time to 4/4 time. Thirdly, the version by The Toys modulates through 4 different keys. Can you identify which keys and by what interval the tune is modulating?

So although not really a Bach composition, "Minuet in G" is a classic tune that will be instantly recognizable to listeners whenever they hear it. I will sometimes play this tune on a solo piano gig and try to reharmonize various sections of the tune, injecting jazz elements and trying to mold it into a new and interesting ballad. As you proceed to learn this tune there are a few things that I want to highlight:

  1. Fingering is of the utmost importance. Piano fingering is not negotiable, so you should adhere to the fingering specifically indicated in the sheet music.
  2. Classical music is a great opportunity to enhance your sight-reading abilities. Focus on a small section and only one hand at a time (ie, first 4 measures of the treble clef/right hand) and practice clapping the rhythm. Then try to play the part (still just one hand at a time). Repeat the same process for the bass clef/left hand. Then, slowly start working on putting hands together, still working in short, 2-4 measure phrases.
  3. Use your metronome. This is another opportunity to reinforce your rhythmic awareness and practice playing on a steady beat.
  4. I use a little test-game with my students. Take a small 4-measure section. Put your metronome on slowly. Try to play the passage 5 times in a row perfectly. If you succeed, increase your metronome speed by about 4-6 clicks. If you fail, continue playing until you are able to play 5 times through with no mistakes. My general rule is, if you can play it 10 times in a row with no mistakes, you probably have it well learned.

Check out our "Minuet in G" lesson.



 

And check out ALL of our great Classical Piano lesson selections.

 

How Piano Projects Keep You On Track

While teaching a private student this week, we were discussing the value and merit of practice. Basically, "Why do all of this practicing in the first place?"

The piano is a lonely instrument, you can play piano without the accompaniment of other musicians. In fact, you often find pianists performing by themselves. Whereas, you do not see as many solo drummers out there. Other instruments often find themselves playing in a group. This group playing helps to keep us focused on why we practice. Each group member wants to sound good when going to band practice, the gig or recording session.

For simplicity sake let's just stick with the 'piano is a lonely instrument' idea with practicing.

Me & My Piano Are Lonely

Since you can play piano solely for your own enjoyment, never interacting with another human being, it is easy to become frustrated, side-tracked, confused, overwhelmed and hundreds of other feelings.

With that in mind, let's get back to our original question: "Why practice all this stuff?" The answer might be "To get better" or "Because I find it enjoyable" or something similar. These are great answers! Now, let me tell you what's wrong with them (smiling). What's wrong with these answers is that they do not take us through the 'difficult times.' You know the times I mean. I'm talking about those days we just don't feel like practicing, or we say "I have no time" or similar rationalizations.

It is easy for us to rationalize WHY we are not sitting down at the piano to practice. Let's face facts, we all do it from time to time. Piano is not the only thing we do it with either. We do this with our exercise routine, homework, cleaning and anything that we just don't feel like doing at that moment.

Projects Are the Answer

So, forgive me for being maybe a bit melodramatic up to this point. You might be one of the lucky few that sit down at the piano daily, know exactly what to do, how to do it and what to do next. Unfortunately, for many of us (myself included at times) we need more direction and above all, need to know WHY we are doing what we are doing. You will get much more mileage out of your practice if you have a clear answer to the 'why' question. This is where projects come in.

A project, is something to help focus your practice. It gives meaning to the hard work. It gives you a reason to sit at the piano and work hard. In this article, I will give you some different project ideas that might help spur your creativity.

When choosing a project to work on, there are a few "rules" you should consider:

  1. Do you already have a project started that you can finish?
  2. Is this project easy enough to finish within a reasonable amount of time?

Both of these questions require some time and thought. These are also subjective questions. What seems a "reasonable amount of time" to me might be too short of a timeframe for you.

When considering if you "already have a project started that you can finish," consider your current practice routine. If you are currently working on doing scales in all 12-keys, trying to learn 3 types of chords in all 12 keys, memorize a few songs and also understand how to re-harmonize tunes...well, you're over doing it. With all of this on your plate, you are very unlikely to actually take any of these concepts to completion.

Projects & Practice

In the example in the paragraph above, you can see that particular student is trying to achieve too much all at once. The argument can be made that "Hey this is all part of practice right? If I practice all of this stuff 4 hours a day, I'll eventually get it. Right?" Well...maybe, but probably not. Information needs to be absorbed and applied. There's the biggie...application. Just because you learned all 12 major scales doesn't mean that you can apply them when the need arises.

To transfer these big concepts from practice to application, use a project. So, what do I mean by a project? By projects, I mean:

  • Create a composition
  • Commit to learning X-number of songs (maybe 3 to start)
  • Record yourself performing those three songs
  • Have a dinner party where you play those songs for friends. A "mini-performance"
  • Perform in an assisted-living home
  • Perform at a coffee shop or book store
  • Perform at your church or place of worship
  • Form a combo and play every-other week

These are just a few different ways to create a project for yourself. Each one of these ideas takes a different level of commitment, but they all help you to move from practice-to-application while keeping you focused.

A student asked me in the forum to share a little about my background. So, here is a little bit about how I learned the piano, what I’ve learned as a teacher and why I almost quit the piano when I was a kid!

Learn the piano today with Willie Myette and Piano With Willie

When I was a kid, I didn’t learn piano in the “normal” fashion. Instead of learning to read notes and rhythms, I learned chords and how to figure out songs mostly by ear. It wasn’t until I started band in 6th grade that I actually learned more about reading music. I’ll talk about this more later on, for now, let me tell you about my first teacher.

My first teacher was my dad, Ernie Myette Sr. I remember my dad quizzing me in the car: “Name the notes of a C Major scale.” Or, he’d ask questions like “what is the third of a G minor 7 chord?” I found myself getting pretty good at these questions and I learned a lot about chords, scales and music theory.

My dad used to carry with him note cards filled with all types of music theory, scales, modes and jazz piano ‘tips’. See, in those days, there not many books or videos that presented jazz piano in a clear and easy to understand fashion. The popular books at the time were the Jazz Improvisation series by John Mehegan. These were fantastic books...yet difficult to understand for both me...and my father.

Willie played cymbals in the middle-school marching band.

So every day my dad and I would study music theory together, quizzing each other on scales, chords and all things jazz. I would sit at the piano and try to plunk out songs that I heard while trying desperately to find the “right sounding” chords to go with the melody. I would write my own songs and improvise at the piano constantly. But, I wasn’t completely satisfied.

At one point in my irregular lesson schedule with my dad, I told him I wanted to quit taking lessons. I don’t remember the reason I gave him, but I remember why I wanted to quit. I wanted to quit because I wasn’t learning songs! I would find myself in situations where people would learn that I could play piano and they would ask me: “Can you play something for me?” At which point I would play something like a bluesy improvisation or some song that I created and they would ask “Do you know anything I might know?” That’s when it hit me. I wanted to learn songs that other people knew as well!

I realized then, and teach to students now: learning your scales, chords and music theory are extremely important to your development as a pianist. However, if you can’t play something that someone can recognize, it’s kind of like speaking Chinese to someone who can’t speak the language. Yeah, sure, it sounds good, but they have no idea what you’re saying or if you are even saying anything at all!

Willie played in the high-school jazz band.

I still deal with this to this day. I LOVE to play original music. My group, Katahdin’s Edge recorded 2 CDs of original music and toured around the US, but I still have a garage filled with CDs of great sounding original music...anyone interested?

The point is that as pianists, it feels good to play music for our enjoyment and for the enjoyment of others too. I love playing and listening to original music, but give me a good ‘ol standard played by a great pianists and I am equally in heaven. I also love playing music and seeing the enjoyment that the audience gets out of hearing you take a song they know to a different place.

So, back to how I learned to play the piano. As I said earlier, I learned a lot about chords and music theory. In fact, when I entered Berklee, I tested out of the first 2 years of music theory because I had such a solid understanding of it upon entering school. At that time, I was playing a variety of gigs with different bands and many solo piano gigs as well. I was able to open a fakebook and create and arrangement on the spot just by looking at the melody and the chords. This is due to in large part because of the music theory my dad taught me.

Up to this point, I didn’t read many piano arrangements of songs. I created my own arrangements of songs. I found this extremely satisfying because I could do pretty much anything I wanted to the song. I made the decisions about the style, the harmony, the accompaniment, rhythm and the form. However, after leaving school, I wanted to make a living in music. Playing gigs is great, but it is not easy to support yourself just playing gigs alone...especially jazz gigs. And, like many other musicians at that stage in life, I began my professional teaching career.

Willie played in the high-school jazz band.

New to teaching, I studied educational books. I got trained in the Suzuki program, the Alexander Technique along and the Kodály Method. I also remembered back to my days as a beginning pianist and remembered two points:

1) I enjoyed mastering things quickly at the piano, and
2) I liked improvising and playing songs

I realized that I was not alone. My students that I was teaching wanted the same things as I once did as a young player. Now that I knew that my goals and my students goals were aligned, I needed to collect or create material for my students to practice. So I began to do some research and what I found was shocking.

When I started to analyze written piano arrangements, I noticed something very interesting; the written-out arrangement was not that different from what I would come up with on my own just by looking at the chords and melody. I naturally thought that I was missing something by creating my own piano arrangements. So, I was happy to find that what I played and what a written arrangement looked like wasn’t that different.

Unfortunately, many of these arrangements were too difficult for my students to learn, so I began to create my own system and my own arrangements. I figured, since my arrangements were on par with ones I saw written out, all I needed to do was teach my students the process I used for creating an arrangement.

As a teacher, this was a breakthrough for me and I took to this like a fish to water. Breaking down full arrangements into smaller, easy to follow steps was something that came naturally to me. I think this is why I like computer programming. I like seeing a big “process” and breaking it down into smaller sub processes.

Now that I knew how to break down these complicated arrangements into something that students of all levels could tackle, my teaching studio grew in number by word of mouth. In fact, I often got students from other teachers (sorry) because the student wanted to learn jazz piano, learn to improvise or just learn how to create their own arrangements. I think, if you’re like me, coming up with your own piano arrangement is a thousand times more satisfying than just reading it off a page.

Willie played in the high-school jazz band.

So how did I do it? Well, without music theory, I would have never been able to create my own piano arrangements. But, I also knew that working solely on music theory almost made me quit the piano all together. I knew that I needed to mix the right amount of music theory with “quick results” to keep my students interested.

So by breaking down my process of creating piano arrangements for a song, I created a step-by-step approach which added or “stacked” theory components on to each rendition of an arrangement. So this became my process. Students would start with a strip-downed, simple arrangement and then build it up from there adding a little more complexity with each iteration. Simple, challenging and satisfying.

Recently, I coined my process Step-By-Step Standards. These concepts work on all types of songs though, not just standards. The results have been wonderful to watch. I’ve gotten videos and emails from students around the world who are now able to create an arrangement out of nothing more than a set of chords and a melody.

What makes me so happy is that I know that these students are creating these arrangements. There is nothing wrong with reading piano music, but when you know how to create that arrangement on your own, you will have a deeper appreciation and understanding for the music. This is what gets me, pardon the term, “jazzed” about being a teacher. Seeing students gain that deeper understanding of music.

Over this past summer I’ve been busy adding to our collection of easy arrangements using my step-by-step approach. I’m happy to announce that we are releasing these new lessons today.
Many of these lessons are perfect for the beginner and they include:

Since I realize that some students want to work on improvisation and grooves, I also created an important lesson I call 2-5-1 Essentials. If you want to learn your 2-5-1’s, you’ll want to check out this lesson.

A student this summer hipped me to Dr. Ethel Caffie-Austin’s music so I created a lesson on Easy Gospel Bass techniques and Easy Gospel Basics.

For the intermediate and advanced level students, I created two lessons that I’ve been wanting to add to the collection for a while. Essential Scale Tricks is a lesson that shows you techniques that I use in my playing every day to make improvising over chord progressions easier. And, finally, for those players looking for a more modern sound, the Advanced Pentatonics lesson details pentatonic techniques that I have learned over the years.

I’m happy that there are now many more opportunities in our catalog for beginners.

I hope that you enjoyed looking (laughing?) at the old pictures of me and reading a bit about my history as a young player and teacher. I am grateful for all of the students that I have the pleasure of hearing from, interacting with and learning from on a daily basis.

I look forward to hearing from you and as I say in the lesson...”I’ll see you in the next lesson!”

-Willie

PianoWithWillie Method
It is a challenge to learn an instrument. You begin with a burning desire to express yourself through music but soon you realize just how much of a commitment it is.

If you're like most students, you will progress quickly during the first few months but then you hit 'the wall.' Everyone hits the wall at some point.

The wall is the point at which you say things to yourself like "I can't do this!", "Why am I not getting better?" or "I have no clue what I should practice!?!"

These are frustrating thoughts to be sure! However, there is a solution that you can accomplish on your own, without outside help.

The solution is to create a Personal Piano Plan.

What is my Personal Piano Plan?

Your Personal Piano Plan is the road map that you follow to aligned your piano dreams and practice.

My piano dreams you ask? Yes dreams. However, these are not dreams of you running through a bed of roses throwing quarter notes into the air! Think of them more like your goals.

Your piano dreams are how you answer this statement: "Someday, I want to be able to ___ at the piano." You might fill the blank with "play my favorite song", "improvise", "compose" or just "have fun." The point is, these are your goals and dreams...no one elses.

Your piano dreams are WHY you want to play the piano in the first place.

Now, let's bring practice into the equation.

When we sit to practice, we may or may not know why we are practicing this or that. We might not even know how our practicing is benefiting us in the long run.

This is BAD.

Why you need to know what you don't know.

If you don't know the reason behind your practice routine, it is sure to fail. I hate to be so "doom and gloom" but it is true.

Facts are, we have limited time as adults (unless we are one of those lucky few who can devote hours a day to the piano) to sit and practice.

Now, let me take a quick moment to remind you that practicing is not playing. When you practice, basically, you should sound 'bad.' To clarify, you should need to start and stop again to focus on sections or 'chunks' of music. If you are playing top-to-bottom without mistakes, chances are...you're just playing. That's O.K., but it's not practicing.

Since we have such limited time to practice, we want to be sure we know what we are doing before we get started.

For example, we wouldn't leave on a road trip without knowing where we were going. Right? If so, I'm bringing my GPS with us!

We need a plan and we need to know the plan. Think of this as GPS for the piano.

Are you holding up the line?

We can compare learning an instrument to being on a freight train. My 5-year-old son Connor loves trains, so trains it is!

As you move down the track a different piece of cargo is added to your load. You travel a ways and new cargo is consistently added to your train.

We follow a similar process as humans. We learn something, then add to that knowledge incrementally. Compare this to adding more cargo to our freight train.

We can't learn everything at once. Wouldn't that be nice? We need to make stops along the way. Remember back to school days when you were 'cramming' the night before a test? It just can't be done. And, if you're lucky enough to remember the information for the test...it soon slips away.

So we move along this track, or 'path,' and learn/add one thing after another to what we know. We learn something, we practice it and we learn the next thing, whatever that is.

Imagine the same train, but this time it is constantly stopping and going. It moves forward a bit, but quickly goes back because it forgot something at the station. This would be inefficient to say the least!

Unfortunately, this is how many students structure their practice routine. "A little of this...a little of that" without any real goals, structure or assessment. They practice a concept for a bit, then move to something else, then back again all without creating forward momentum in their practice routine.

Practice plan fundamentals

We want forward momentum in our practice routine. So how do we get it?

The first step is to focus on your piano fundamentals. Your fundamentals are: Rhythm, Reading and Technique.

Working your piano fundamentals doesn't have to be boring. After all, the word 'fun' can be found in fundamentals! Sorry...bad joke. It's true though. I think you'll agree that practicing fundamentals gives you some concrete tools to see growth. There is always the time and the need to work on piano fundamentals.

Let's go through each of the fundamentals...

Rhythm: In my opinion, rhythm is the single most important musical element. Without good rhythm, everything else falls apart. However, wrong notes can be easily covered up with a strong rhythm. Even the artist Henri Matisse mentions the importance of rhythm: "Jazz is rhythm and meaning."

Reading: Many 'by ear' players ask "Why do I need to read sheet music?" My answer is "You don't. Well, at least not the way we usually think of reading sheet music." You don't need to sit down and read a Chopin etude. However, you do, at a minimum, need to know how to read a melody and understand how to form chords. This will make it easier to play with others, learn new music and write your own compositions for other musicians to learn!

Technique: It's frustrating to not be able to play what you hear, right? Working on technique brings us closer to play what we hear in our ears. Without good technique, we are always struggling to 'get out' on the piano what we hear 'inside.'

It's your turn to be the conductor.

Now that you understand that you need to work on your fundamentals, you can have some fun with your plan. You can drive the train.

You've followed the foundation track and now you've come to a switch. You get to decide the direction that you follow next. You can follow one of three tracks: 1) Song, 2) Style or 3) Concept. Why only three? Well, I find it easier if you think in 3's rather than overwhelming yourself with choices.

Let's follow the tracks and see where they lead us...

  1. Song: This pretty straightforward. After working on your fundamentals, you dive into learning songs. These might be from different genres or styles. This is how you develop your repertoire. If you want to play with others or play solo/cocktail piano, you may decide to follow this track.
  2. Style: You would choose this track if you want to focus on a specific genre of music like Blues, Jazz, Funk, Gospel etc. By focusing style-specific, you can bring the style into pieces of music that might not originally be in that style. For instance, if you decide to focus on Latin-style, specifically (Brazilian) Bossa Nova, you can then try to apply that style to maybe a Rock song or Jazz standard. For example, playing Misty in a Bossa Nova feel.
  3. Concept: This is the most powerful and flexible track that you can follow. Within the concept track we include: improvisation, chords, re-harmonization, licks, intros, endings and many more. Concepts are not usually something you would play standalone. They are usually applied to songs or grooves.

How do I know if I'm on the right track?

The only way for you to know if you are on the right track is for you to assess your playing and progress. Even if you are working with a private teacher, it is important for you to self-assess your progress. Why?

As your teacher, I will have an idea of a direction that I want you to go. It is up to you however to decide if you are "off track" with your piano dreams.

Thought we were done with the dreams huh? Nope! Your piano dreams or goals are what you use to consistently track your progress. Remember the GPS for piano. Well re-assessing your progress from time-to-time keeps you on the map.

To begin, ask questions like "Am I making the progress I want to make?" or "Am I playing the music I want to play?"

The answers (which only you know) to these questions will help you decide the next track to take. You always stay on the foundation track, but you can decide the Song, Style or Concept track to take next.

4 Steps to create your own Personal Piano Plan.

  1. Identify your piano goals. Read my article on How To Get Better At The Piano.
  2. Create a list of foundation practice routines that you can play on a regular basis. These might include:
    • All 12 Major scales
    • Hanon exercises
    • Chromatic exercises
    • Quartals and pentatonics
    • Left-hand exercises, etc...
  3. Choose a track to follow: Song, Style or Concept. When you choose, make a commitment to stay on that track for at least X days before moving on. If it is easy, you might only stay on that track for 2 weeks before moving on to a different track.
  4. While always working foundational principles, you can move between tracks to create your own Personal Piano Plan!
  • Would you like to learn a song a week at the piano?
  • Do you wish you could memorize songs?
  • Do you need sheet music in order to play the piano?
  • Do find it difficult to play music with others because you don't know common songs?
  • Have you ever been in a situation where you were asked to play...but had to say "I can't...I don't have my music."?

Hopefully these questions have gotten the wheels turning in your brain. Maybe they have sparked even more questions. This is good.

So, how do we learn songs at the piano faster, easier, more effectively? In this article I'm going to share some techniques that will help you get organized and learn songs easier.

Getting Organized

In order to become more effective at learning songs, you first need to become organized. This should come as no surprise, but the more organized your music is...the easier it is to review and memorize.

If your music is in your piano bench, on top of the piano, on the floor, on a bookshelf or thrown all over the place...it will be next to impossible to build your repertoire.

I suggest using a 3-ring binder to keep all of your music organized.

"I'll Take That Music To Go!"

Once you get your music organized in a nice 3-ring binder, the last thing you want to do is lose it! This is why I suggest you make a travel copy.

Your travel copy of your music can simply be a photocopy of 3 or 4 songs that you staple together and take with you when you go to work, school, etc.

Why only 3 or 4 songs? Because you don't want to carry around a stack of paper for one. Second, you want to focus your memorization practice so you are not trying to memorize too much all at once.

Analysis of Music...Say What?!?

Analyzeexamine methodically and in detail the constitution or structure of (something, especially information), typically for purposes of explanation and interpretation. (source: Google)

We analyze music in order to interpret and memorize. We look for patterns.

So how is this done?

I've created two lessons to cover this topic:

  1. Willie Answers: Memorization & Analysis, and
  2. Analysis, Memorization and Transposition

But I'm Not Good At Music Theory!

You don't need to have a degree in music in order to analyze your songs. Our brains naturally categorize thousands of objects and actions.

When looking at your music, try the following:

  1. Put yourself in "analysis mode." Find a quiet place away from distractions and away from the piano. Right now you should only sit with your music. If you don't read music (or want to improve your reading skills) this exercise will be extremely valuable to you because you are training your eyes to focus on the music, not your hands and not the piano!
  2. Start by scanning your eyes over the music and try to hear the melody in your head. Follow any repeats. So, you are "playing" the song in your head.
  3. Break the song into sections. How many measures is each section? Usually sections are even numbers and are typically 4 or 8 measures in length. Usually...but not always!
  4. Memorize the length of the sections. Assign letters to the sections, so A, B and C. Most music is only going to have 2 to 3 sections. You normally never have a D section.
  5. Pay attention to the melody. Where does it repeat?
  6. Pay attention to the key-signature and time-signature. Do they change? If so, where in the song?
  7. Pay attention to your repeats. Where do they happen? What does this do to the length of the section?
  8. What about the Coda or Del Segno symbols? Make sure you don't miss those if they are present!

Summary

Following these three steps will help you learn songs faster at the piano:

  1. Get your music organized (3-ring binder)
  2. Make copies of your music to take with you
  3. Analyze music (as best you can) to learn more about its structure

Work is involved in any endeavor worth taking. Piano is no different. However, setting yourself up for success from the beginning is the smart way to go. Follow the tips I've laid out here and you'll notice a difference in your piano practice routine!

Willie Myette