Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What's Easy. What's Hard.

I talked last time about learning to control difficulty in the playing of music. As musicians we have choices as to how we want to approach playing a song, and how difficult we want it to be.

As a teacher of pop piano, I find it interesting to realize I teach very conflicting concepts. First I show people how easy it is to play a song. Then I challenge them by making it more difficult. (If only I could make up my mind.)

But we should also acknowledge that individual songs themselves have an intrinsic level of difficulty to play. Many provide barriers to learning.

Generally speaking, the more chords a song has, and the faster the chords change, the more difficult the song is to learn to play.

Some argue that some songs have "difficult" chords, but that's not exactly true. I always maintain that all chords are easy to play on the piano. But if a chord is unfamiliar to you, then it's intrinsically going to be difficult, because you don't know it yet. And your hand doesn't know it yet.

Here's some examples of what I mean. Silent Night. Very easy. Just three chords and most pop piano players, even the beginners, know what those chords are.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is more difficult. It has maybe up to 18 different chords. Some of them (like the major sevenths) are challenging, because you may not know them yet.

Now consider The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire). Very difficult. Lots of different chords coming at you a mile a minute. And the song changes keys several times, adding more challenges. It's a real killer of a song to try to learn.

But one really cool thing is that as a piano player, you have some great opportunities to exert your control and influence. It's always possible to take an easy song and make it harder. And it's always possible to take a hard song and make it simpler. The former strategy is for beginners. The latter for experts.

When you make the transition from one strategy to the other, you have matriculated from beginner to expert.

Sometimes you find a song that you just cannot seem to be able to master no matter what. When you do, don't despair. Just give up (for the time being) and move along. There's no rule that says you have to be able to play everything. You can always come back to it later.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Control the Challenge

I played a couple of gigs recently. Last week it was a piano gig accompanying a singer. Then yesterday my loving spouse and I played Christmas songs at a local Christmas tree farm owned by some friends. I played guitar in that setting, while she covered clarinet.

I got some insight from those two very different experiences, and I want to pass it along, because I think this insight could be of value to all aspiring musicians.

The lesson is: control your challenge.

The fact is, all music can be played simply. It can also be played complex. You get to choose how you do it.

Case in point: At the Christmas tree farm gig I was reading out of a book of Christmas carols that I had just received a week or two earlier. Unlike the scope and presentation of my own book of Christmas Carols, The Season, this new volume is a fake book that was edited by some real jazz fiends. And I'll admit many of the songs were a real challenge to me in that form, even though I'd become very familiar and comfortable with the same exact songs with easier versions.

The main challenge lay with the fact that the chords were often advanced and unfamiliar, and the changes came at a furious pace. I had to use all my concentration and technique to keep up with it.

Now there was a third person who joined us for a few songs, a beginning clarinet student my wife teaches. She (the student) had only been playing clainet a few weeks and was at a very beginning level. But she struggled through, and played very well.

And then I realized I was kind of a beginner too. Even though I've played guitar for over 45 years, I was very much a beginner as far as this advanced book was concerned. I was just a beginner at a more advanced level.

The upshot? We gave it our best, revealed our flaws, and in general made a lot of people happy with our music. Luckily the gig was very informal, nobody got paid (well, we did get a free Christmas tree), and the environment was very forgiving.

Thus, we felt more relaxed and were more open to taking chances and exploring new things. A win win. Had the gig been more formal (like the piano gig a few days earlier) I would be less enthusiastic about pushing the envelope in public.

No matter what the occasion, be it a performance, or jamming with friends, or just playing by yourself, you can adjust your risk threshold accordingly. The more formal it is, the fewer risks you take. Control your challenge. But be sure to take the risks at home when you are just playing for the fun of it.