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I started piano when I was only 5 years old, and that was over 33 years ago. People have always told me that I’m talented at the piano. I was even voted “Most Talented” in my senior class in high school. I’ve played for countless weddings, church services, recitals, and competitions over the last 33 years. I can’t tell you how many people say, “You’re so good!” or “I don’t know how you do that!” It’s all B.S. I’ve been fooling you all. Yes, I do love the piano and music with a passion, but I’m nowhere near close to good.
Mom, are your eyes wide open yet? Are you thinking that you wasted thousands of dollars on my piano lessons over the years? Well, no, you didn’t, they helped, but my level of understanding of the piano I learned myself and by listening to professionals for decades.
You must be wondering how I fool people into thinking I’m a good piano player. You are in luck! Today, I’m going to give you all of my best kept secrets and tips that help me mask my musical inabilities. Ready to get started?
1. Throw away sheet music
Sheet music is for wimps. Throw it away. You really don’t need it. All it does is get in your way and distract you. To be anywhere near a descent piano player, you need to train your ears, feet and hands, not your eyes. Your eyes should be focused on your audience! Besides, sheet music is rarely exactly like any artist plays it. The artist is not usually the one who captures the notes on the page. Most of the time, computer software does this today.
2. Practice how you perform
If you want to be good at anything, you need to spend time practicing. The same holds true for the piano. My number one goal during practicing? Practice the way I’d perform it in front of 20,000 people. My goal has never been 100% perfection. It’s impossible. No piano player will ever play a song without making some type of mistake. What separates good musicians from bad ones is that they mask their mistakes. I don’t stop if I mess up – ever. Would I stop in front of a stadium full of fans if I hit E sharp instead of E flat? No. Always keep going. I fool people by acting like it was intentional and move along in the performance. I can guarantee most people would never know that I made a mistake. This is the goal. Trick them into thinking it was played correctly. *You can fool non-musicians pretty easily, but it’s easier for other musicians to pick up your mistakes because they are trained to listen closer than the average person.
Always practice at performance speed. Never, ever, ever, EVER slow down a song when practicing. My college-level piano teacher would turn over in her grave if she heard I do that. She always taught me differently. Why do I do this? If I learn a song at a slower pace, I’m going to get comfortable performing it at that speed. When I go to speed it up, I’m going to have to get comfortable again. Learn it at performance speed right away. It’s one less thing you have to pick up later on in practicing. By practicing at performance speed, I teach my hands where they need to go on the key bed, how fast or slow they need to get there, and what fingering I need to use to get there on time.
3. Learn all you can about scales and chord progressions
The people who think I can play anything by ear have been fooled. How do I do this after hearing a song once or twice? It’s simple. I learned my scales and chord progressions many, many years ago. I paid attention and studied music theory. 90% of every song out there has a very simple chord progression. Take, for example, “Margaritaville” by Jimmy Buffett. The main chord progression in that song is: D G A D. That’s it! If you can play 4 chords, you can play “Margaritaville.” All you’ll have to do after that is improvise in between chords. This is simple to do if you know your scales. BASIC MUSIC THEORY, folks!
4. Be aware of your what your hands are doing
If you are playing a fast song, the natural tendency is to tighten up your wrists. While it may be natural, it’s not the way you want to teach yourself to play fast. You want your hands to be loose. If I stuck my hand under your arms while you are playing, I should be able to jerk them up from the keys with ease. If I feel resistance, you’ve tightened up. It takes practice training your mind to constantly monitor how your hands are arriving to the keys.
Your hands control more than the keys. They control dynamics. If I want to play softly, I want my fingers to arrive to the keys slowly. In contrast, my fingers should arrive to the keys much faster if I want to play loudly. The trick here is not to bang on the piano, nor should your fingers do all the work. Use your wrists to help achieve the dynamic you’re wanting. Your fingers should never be flat to any key. Always play with a curved hand position.
5. Listen to professionals
My music idol, Billy Joel, is a phenomenal piano player. He always argues that he’s not a singer, but a songwriter. I happen to disagree with his statement, but I digress. I can play many Billy Joel songs on the piano simply because I’ve made it a habit of listening to his greatest hits and trying to mimic them. Billy does a lot of things not many other musicians can, but he’s a good example to follow if you want to learn piano.
If you are going to listen to a professional and try to repeat it on the piano, make sure you add your own style to the song. Billy Joel’s Piano Man is iconic, and only Billy can give it the magic it’s had for over 40 years. This doesn’t mean that you can’t perform it. I’ve performed it a few times before, but I’ve thrown in a little bit of Jeremy’s music style while trying to keep the spirit of the song Billy intended it to have.
Another piano player I’ve listened to over the years is Sir Elton John. It’s no coincidence he and Billy toured together. Elton has a style completely different from any other musician – Billy included. Listen to how Elton fills in between the chord progressions. It sounds difficult, but it’s not. He’s made it art form, but he’s really just applying basic improvisation.
6. Record your performance
Now that we are in the age of smart phones, making videos of ourselves is so easy. I don’t like watching myself on video, nor do I like hearing my recorded voice. But, if you’re looking to improve your performance, record yourself performing. Make one recording of just your face when you are singing. Are you closing your eyes too much? Are you singing with your nose instead of your diaphragm? Make a second recording of your hands as you perform. Your arms should not be limp during performance. Are your hands right over the keys, or are they too far away? Make a third recording from behind so that you can watch your posture. Don’t slouch when performing. Not only does it look lazy, but it makes it more difficult to reach all areas of the keyboard.
7. Share your recordings with family and friends
Facebook has made staying in touch with family and friends so easy. If I wanted to share a song with them 15 years ago, I had to either perform it live for them, record it on an old-school tape recorder (horrible recording device for a piano, by the way!), or I had to buy a portable mixer and record to a CD. Today, I can simply record it on my phone or tablet and upload it to Facebook. It’s a great way to solicit feedback. I do caution you on soliciting feedback from people you know. They usually will give you good feedback because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. These are the people you want to ignore. When you post your video, make sure you point out that you want detailed feedback vs “that was great” or “you sound good.” Those types of comments don’t help you improve. Ask for feedback about dynamics, tempo, vocals, etc. If you ask for specific feedback about certain aspects of your performance, you’ll get it.
8. Perform on Facebook live on a regular basis
One thing I’m getting ready to try is performing a few songs on Facebook live. If you are tight on time and don’t have anywhere to play a gig regularly, Facebook live is a great place to try a live performance and get feedback. A live performance is a live performance, whether or not you are face-to-face with a crowd, or virtually over the web.
9. Find your favorite keys and stick with them
I didn’t intend for the header to be a joke, but I actually have one of my E keys on the piano sticking right now, so it kinda worked itself into a joke. There are certain keys I don’t play in for one reason or another. I steer clear of keys like B major or D flat. While I can play in them, they just feel awkward to me. I remember telling my mom I hated playing in E flat, but now I play a lot of songs very well in E flat. E flat is one of those keys that’s easy for me to remember all of the progressions. I can’t necessarily say the same for B major.
There are some keys that I feel 100% comfortable playing in, while other keys just give me nightmares. I don’t know why it worked out that way, but it did. If I ever attempt to perform live in the key of B major, it means someone’s holding me hostage and forcing me to do it.
10. Learn some classical music
Yeah, you read that right. Learn some of the classics: Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin. This does violate my first rule of no sheet music, but you aren’t doing this to perform. Classical music is a musician’s dream for learning different fingering techniques, playing with various tempos, executing the perfect dynamics, etc. I HATED having to learn and memorize classical music in high school and college, but I still am able to apply what I learned back then to the music I play today.
11. Write your own song
Write a song. Even if it sucks, write it anyway. I don’t care if it’s a basic song with only 3 chords and cheesy lyrics. Every musician needs to write at least one song – even if they aren’t a songwriter. Writing your own music gives you the freedom to be creative. While I also love playing cover songs, there’s nothing like sitting on stage performing your own music. I’ve done it before and had a blast doing it. You want proof that I did it? Check out my 2004 Album, “Walk With You” on CD Baby. LOL yeah it’s terrible. I mean, HORRIBLE. I recorded it myself and playing all the instruments on it. It’s awful, but I did it!
Are you convinced yet?
I hope I’ve convinced you that I’m not some musical genius, but I have gotten really good at hiding the bad and bringing out the good. If I can do it, so can you. So, the next time someone comes up and tells me I’m good, I’ll know that my secrets worked.
It’s really fun to play the piano, and I hope to one day take an open mic stage or perform a full concert on Facebook Live.
Do you play the piano? Tell me about your experiences in the comments section below. I would love to read them!