Finding Inspiration And Building Intensity At The Piano

Recently, I saw a production of The Rant by Andrew Case at The Gamm theater in Rhode Island.

From The Gamm's description of the play:

One summer night in Brooklyn, an unarmed black teenage boy is gunned down by the police. When the department closes ranks around the accused officer, an investigator assigned to the shooting takes what she knows to a tabloid reporter. But she quickly learns that the story she fed to the press is still only part of the truth. Alone, she must wade through prejudice, deceit, and a volley of anonymous threats to find where culpability and truth really lie. Based on playwright Andrew Case's eight years' experience working on police misconduct issues for New York City, The Rant is a gripping, timely drama exploring racial bias and police ethics on the perilous path to justice.

Just reading that description you can see that the play is filled with a lot of drama and emotion. So, how does one take this emotion and transfer them to the piano?

Have you ever been at loss for inspiration at the piano? I now I have!

Sometimes it pours out of you like a raging river, other times finding inspiration is like trying to open a rusty old matter how hard you try, you just can't release what's inside.

This is why sometimes we need to look to other art forms to find inspiration. You might find inspiration by reading a book, taking a walk through a museum looking at art, seeing a classic movie, or going to see a play.

In The Rant, the play starts at a low intensity, builds throughout to an intense ending. I call this the "Intensity Curve" and if we were to draw out this pattern, it might look like:

Intensity Curve

There's nothing new here. We've seen and come to expect patterns like this in everything from literature to movies.

After all, imagine a movie with two people sitting around talking about the weather. BORING! We want drama, emotion and intensity in the arts!

We can apply the Intensity Curve to song composition, arranging or improvisation to name a few. Let's try applying the curve to building an improvised solo.

You may have heard it said "When we solo at the piano, we want to tell a story."

What does that mean? Well, when we tell a story, we need a plot. We want an intensity curve. Remember learning about plot development: Exposition, Rising Action, Falling Action and Resolution?

When we create a solo at the piano, we can follow this same pattern. I've change the plot resolution terminology to use the word intensity because I like to think of improvisation as rising and falling intensity. However, this doesn't mean we bang out notes. It means our playing becomes more intense by using a variety of techniques like:

  • Dynamics
  • Articulation
  • Range, and
  • Density

Dynamics - playing loud, soft and everything in between.

Your dynamics can shape your improvisation. If you start your solo playing too loud or heavy, you'll find that you have nowhere to go. Often we start our solo out soft and get louder as we progress. Of course, you can start your solo out loud (forte) and bring the dynamics way down (piano) to create a decrease in intensity of your solo. The point is to use dynamics to help direct your solo and "dial in" intensity.

Articulation - playing staccato and legato

Articulation is a great way to build intensity in your solo. Legato lines are smooth, connected and pleasing to the ears. Playing shorter, staccato phrases can create an interesting "unsettling" effect in your solo that can either increase or decrease intensity, especially when coupled with dynamics.

Range - high/low notes at the piano

What range are you playing? Are you hanging around Middle C a lot or are you using the full range of the instrument? A great technique to try is to play the same motif (improvisational phrase) up or down an octave. If you want to build your solo, try using more of the range of the instrument.

Density - how many notes are you playing?

This technique gets overlooked too often. Most of the time, we start our solo playing too many notes. This makes us tired, causes us to have to play louder in order to build intensity and it leaves us with nowhere to go in our solo.

Try starting your solo using only 3-5 notes. See how many permutations of licks you can create using only a few notes. I find that new improvisors have a tendency to play their best licks right away and their solos tend to 'peter out' and lose intensity.

These 4 techniques are just a start. There are many other ways to build your solo at the piano, but if you practice these techniques, your solos will sound more structure and will actually 'go somewhere' rather than dying out until you decide to stop playing.

What to practice:

  1. The next time you see a piece of art, read a book, or see a play, create an intensity curve of your experience.
  2. Next, try to apply that curve to your solo at the piano. In the case of my curve for The Rant, I would start my solo out easy, build intensity, bring it down a bit in the middle, then end with an intense finish.
  3. Have fun with the curve. Try doing it backwards. What would it sound like if you were to start your solo out very intense and end with low intensity?
  4. Listen to other improvisers. What are they doing? How are they using the four techniques of Dynamics, Articulation, Range, and Density in their solo?

Most important, try new things and keep your eyes and ears open! Listening and seeking out inspiration in a variety of venues is a great way to become a better pianist, artist and person.

If you're looking for inspiration, check out Andrew Case's new book The Big Fear coming April 2016.

Please leave me your thoughts below!

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