Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Tip Three: What's Important?

Time for Tip Number Three in our series of 22 not-so-obvious, outside-the-box ways to improve ones musicianship other than practicing ones butt off. One of the biggest drawbacks to this crazy Information Age in which we currently live is that there is simply too much damn information. The problem is not that we have a hard time finding information. It's that we have a terrible time trying to manage it.

The key to information management is to know what information is important and what isn't. It's to prioritize. And this is very true when it comes to learning the piano or any other instrument. There is so much one can do. Where do you start? Do you learn scales? If so, which ones? Do you try technic exercises? What songs should you learn? What helps, and what is just a waste of time?

You can easily obtain a catalog of over 12,000 chords. But you can't learn them all at once. Which ones do you learn first? Which are the most important?

But with so much information now at our disposal how do you sort the wheat from the chaff?

Making this decision is one of the primary roles of the piano teacher. A teacher (or anyone who has already traveled the road that you want to travel) can be qualified to make those decisions. One could argue that music teachers might be superfluous. It's true that many great musicians are self taught.

But a teacher (or some authority) can be very valuable in helping you sort out the "important" pile from the "not-so-much."

Of course employing a teacher to help you sort things out, in and of itself, leads to an opinion too: the opinion of the teacher. That's why it's so important to choose a teacher very carefully, if you choose to use one.

So now the question would be, how do you find the right teacher? Here's what I think is important.

1. the teacher knows the information you want to learn

2. the teacher is able to perform the music you want to learn

3. the teacher has excellent two-way communication skills

And this last one is the kicker. Two way communication skills. Yes, the teacher must be able to transmit information to you. But he must also be able to listen to you, to find what you want to know, to discover what you already know, to know what gaps you have and how to fill them.

In other words, the teacher needs to know what it is you don't know, and then remedy that by providing the information that's important and only the information that's important. We just don't have enough years in our lives to fill in all those gaps with random, unstructured information.

My own piano education is kind of unusual, I guess. When I was 23 I found a pro piano player (age 18) with whom I studied for a year. Then he moved. Since that time I've had lessons with dozens of different players. With a few I studied for several months. But with the overwhelming majority of them I just had one lesson. Maybe two at the most.

And one super positive benefit I got from taking just one lesson from so many people is that I uncovered a few choice beliefs that they all shared. A consensus. And those beliefs constitute what I consider to be the "important" things in music.

And these beliefs form the central core of what has come to be known as my teaching system: the workshops and the coursewhere. I haven't got the time to learn everything there is to know. And I certainly don't have the time to teach everything there is to know.

Some things musically just don't matter as much as others.

And knowing which is which is half the battle.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Tip Two--Have Role Models

How do you become the musician you've always wanted to be? Of course there's the old Practice Practice Practice route. You've heard that before. But are there some hidden strategies that can make you better, besides putting all those hours in the wood shed?

Last time we talked about cultivating enthusiasm. Today the secret is...have a role model.

Sure you want to be a good piano (or something else) player. But that's a pretty vague goal. Here's a more targeted goal: Who do you want to sound like?

Pick a person, and start striving.

Hopefully you're not going to choose Bill Evans or Oscar Peterson if you're a beginner. Their stuff is really hard to approach. But there's got to be someone out there whose piano stylings resonate with you. I cannot tell you who to pick. But I can give you an example from my own life.

I was in my early twenties, fresh out of college, when I decided to learn to play piano. (No, music was not my major in college.) I happened to have a chance meeting with a guy who played bass in a band that was playing regularly, once a week, in Berkeley, California. It was a six piece western swing outfit that had a piano player. At the time I had no idea what western swing was. But I immediately fell in love with the sound the band had and found myself coming to their gigs every Thursday night at the Longbranch Saloon on San Pablo Ave.

I loved the sound of the piano player so much that I decided I wanted to learn how to play like him. Yes, I found a role model. So one evening during a break I introduced myself to the guy and asked if he gave lessons. The answer was no.

OK. So I asked him again the following week. Same response. And then I asked again and again until he finally relented. I showed up for the first lesson. He gave me a book of Hanon exercises to play. I thought he was pretty sure I wouldn't show up the following week.

But I did. And I kept coming back every week for a year, until the band finally moved to Austin, Texas to find their fame and fortune. So I had my mentor in Floyd. I was his only student for one year, and I had one year to find out everything I could from him during that time.

Over that period I acquired several role models to emulate. The first, I believe, was Jerry Lee Lewis. You could spend a lifetime learning to play like Jerry Lee perfectly, but his music was simple enough to understand and to try and mimick. Sometimes it was just three chords per song. At least that's what it was in his early rock n roll days.

I soaked up all those old rock n roll songs from a Jerry Lee Greatest Hits LP, with guidance from Floyd. Then I bought everything by him that I could lay my hands on. By then Jerry Lee was doing mostly country. OK, so now we had songs with four or five chords. But I voraciously devoured the music. I listened to the recordings morning, noon, and night.

I played along with them. I asked Floyd how to do certain stuff, and figured out certain stuff on my own. But I'm positive that just by listening to the records, some of Jerry Lee's playing style crept into my playing style.

Months later in a similar fashion I latched on to the music of Count Basie. It would be folly to imagine that I could acquire Basie's technique (chops) in my first year. But after buying tons of Basie records and soaking them up, I was starting to pick up his nuances a little bit. A few months later I got to see the Count and his orchestra in person with special guest Ella Fitzgerald. Wow. Even more incentive.

As an interesting side light, my teacher's band recorded a Count Basie song on their second album and Floyd picked up his first Grammy Award for his effort.

So on it went. I've had a lot of these role-model/mentors over the years. Some of whom really influenced my playing. Others (such as Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson) I've listened to a LOT and unfortunately never picked up anything from. (Or if I did, it's subtle. Very subtle).

But whether or not you learn directly from your CD mentors, just surrounding yourself with the music as much as possible can give you some incentive to hit the piano every day and dare to play along. And if you're playing, you're learning.

So who do you want to sound like? Whoever it is, try to soak up as much of that one artist as you can. Listen, listen, listen. Get ahold of the charts to their songs, and spend equal amounts of time learning from the paper and learning just by listening to what they play. At the end of the day, all of us use the same basic chords, chord progressions, forms, rhythms, and melodic structures. It's all learnable. It's just that learning by listening can be a lot more fun than from sheet music. Try it.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Mastering Piano without Pain: First Tip

Practice Makes Perfect. That's what they tell you. Do you believe them?

Certainly time spent at the piano is essential for growing your skills. There is no doubt about it. But there's more to learning music than just practice. And how are you going to remember to practice? And what are you going to practice? And what about the quality of your practice?

I believe there are a lot of key factors that help insure the time we spend at the piano is profitable, and that we learn the most in the shortest amount of time. I jotted 22 of these factors down last week, and I want to cover them for you one at a time.

These are the hidden strategies. The inner game. The zen. The a-ha.

Tip One. Be Enthused.

What if you're not enthused?

Then get enthused.

Music might be the most emotional force in the human race. OK, the second most, but it's still very powerful. Think of how music influenced your life between the ages of 16 and 22. Think of the records you bought, the concerts you attended, the music videos you watched. Were you ever obsessed? Good.

What drove that? Emotion. Time to harness that emotion and to put it to work for you. OK how?

When I give a piano workshop, I promise the participants that after the one session they will be able to play any song they want. So I suggest they start making a list of the songs they want to play. This would be a list of songs THEY want to play as opposed to a list of songs that I want them to play. See the difference?

It's just the opposite of how piano lessons worked in the old day when it was the piano teacher who chose the songs you were supposed to learn. I realize that those who come to my seminars are not there because their mothers made them come. And their moms aren't going to make sure they practice 30 minutes a day.

My students are only going to grow as piano players if they play consistently. And they are only going to play consistently if they genuinely want to be playing at the piano. And they are only going to want to play if they are playing music they enjoy. Chances are that music has at some point had a strong influence.

So what songs, artists, groups, or styles of music have had a strong, positive, emotional influence on your life? It may have been a long time ago, but if it was there then, it's probably also there now for you.

Make a list. If it isn't classical music, chances are I can show you what to do to be playing these songs in a very short period of time. Three and a half hours is what it takes me to do this at the workshop.

Get emotional.

See you next time.