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.

1 comment:

  1. Loved your suggestion about selecting a role model. JLL is a totally awesome role model and has been one of mine forever. Floyd Cramer is also the greatest....and your Cramer Chords have been so helpful!!! Now if I could only play like JLL-- I've enjoyed all the various books and CD's and DVD I've received from you. THANKS!!! CR