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For years, people have been amazed at how I seem to always be able to pick up a song I hear once or twice on the radio, and then somehow play it note for note on the piano – WITHOUT EVER USING SHEET MUSIC. No disrespect to my parents for the thousands of dollars they spent on #piano lessons for me, but there’s a MUCH easier way to learn a song without ever having to pick up a piece of sheet music ever again. Below, I provide my easy steps to accomplishing this in one sitting. Of course I throw out the disclaimer that it helps tremendously to learn and understand music theory and practice daily!
Step One: Listen to The Song
This first step is CRITICAL! I do this with every newer song that I learn that I haven’t heard many times before (such as John Legend’s “All Of Me“). Listen to the song 5 times.
Listen to the song the first time without performing any other action.
As a musician, being able to hear the music is just as important as being able to play the music. For this first time through, don’t hum, sing, or play along with the song. You are listening only to familiarize yourself with the song’s format (verse, chorus, tag, etc). Close your eyes and tap out the rhythm on your knees. Key in on the tempo, dynamics, and emotions that the original artist put into the song. I encourage you to try to mirror this performance as closely as possible only while learning the song. Once you have learned the song, add in your own unique touch to the song to make it yours. If you perform the song EXACTLY how the original artist performed it, it won’t be as memorable or special to your audience.
Listen to the song a second time and play along with your right hand.
You are only doing this to identify the key in which it is performed. Don’t try to figure out chords, fingerings, or bass at this point. Learning the key that the song is performed in will open up the floodgates to being able to figure out chord progression. If you have a solid understanding of music theory, this will make learning the song so much easier. I have taken years of music theory and know the scale degree of every key in music. You can play any song possible by knowing this information! This really is my secret to being able to play any song at any time. If I know the tonic, dominant and subdominant of the song, which I identify during this second listening, I can master learning the song much faster.
Listen to the song a third time and play along only with your left hand.
You are doing this only to learn the bass and the rhythm you will need to use when you combine both hands. Listen to the artist’s use of rhythm and use of the bass clef. It may be difficult to hear if the song has a lot of guitar, drums, and vocals. But, it’s there. I promise you it’s there! By the third time you should be able to force your mind into tuning out the other noise and focusing in on bass.
Listen to the song a fourth time and play along with both hands.
At this point, you are not fully playing in rhythm with both hands. Why not? Because you need to identify chord progressions, key changes, etc. I want you to hit the keys at every chord change. You may need to repeat this step several times, and write down the chords for reference. This step gets your hands trained into identifying chords, especially those that are complex and different from standard chords. Mr. Billy Joel is famous for inputting his own style of chord usage, which I have tried to mimic many times. It’s a big part of what sets his music apart from other artists, and why I enjoy learning his music so much.
Listen to the song a fifth time and play with both hands.
You have now etched in your memory the format of the song, the key in which it is played, the bass/rhythm of the song, and have identified the chord progressions/key changes (if there are any). Play the song as close as to how it is performed by the original artist as possible. This time you are just trying to keep up and practice repetition. My former high school band director always said, “repetition is your friend.” He was right! Oh, and he is a fantastic musician. Check out Kelley Lane’s music here.
Step Two: Write Down the Fingerings
No successful pianist will tell you that you can use any finger to play a song. Proper mastery of fingering will allow you to play a song with ease. The better preparation you have made to know which finger plays which note, the faster it gets recorded in your memory. Proper fingering allows a pianist to play fast runs, heavy chords, and complex rhythms with ease. Fingering is so important that I can’t stress it enough. Click the link in the previous sentence to learn more about fingering.
Step Three: Perform The Song Without Listening To It.
It’s critical that you commit the song to memory (both in your mind and in your hands). The longer you use the recorded song as your crutch, the harder it will be to perform it on your own. In this step, I want you to perform the song from start to finish WITHOUT STOPPING three times. You are going to miss some notes and make mistakes. It is important that you never stop playing – no matter how bad you screwed up that diminished chord! Train yourself to keep playing at all times! A good musician keeps playing and disguises the missed notes! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve missed notes during a performance and the crowd never noticed because I kept playing and kept my emotions in check. By doing so I masked the error. If I had physically shown signs of frustration or embarrassment, the crowd would feed into it. If I don’t let it show, the crowd most likely will never know you made a mistake. Other musicians in the crowd may know because they are trained to listen. I have perfect pitch and am able to easily pick out when singers are out of tune, but I can also tell when even a professionally-trained pianist misses a note. Give me any musician and I will be able to tell you. But, I digress. Again, don’t ever stop. Keep playing!
Step Four: Memorize the Lyrics
For any song where you don’t know the lyrics very well, here’s your opportunity to add those in. Practice the song over and over again until you can spit out the lyrics without having to struggle to remember them. Make it feel natural! You are going to want to sing the lyrics as if you believe in the message the original artist is trying to present (and you should if you have taken the time to learn the song, right?!). Practice emphasizing words you want to draw the crowd to, and practice where you are going to breathe in between phrases. Improper breathing can be noticed by the audience, and can make or break a performance in the blinking of an eye. Sit up straight and keep this posture throughout the song. Perfect posture leads to proper breathing. The better you can breathe, the easier you will be able to control your pitch. Sloppy posture will make it difficult to sing on pitch. Try it if you don’t believe me!
Step Five: Record A Video of Yourself Performing
This may seem stupid or silly, but it’s really a great idea if you stop and think about it. What I want you to do here is to make a video of yourself performing for several reasons. The first reason is you want to see yourself perform. Is that how you want the audience to see you perform? Use this opportunity to make adjustments to facial expressions, arm gestures, posture, hand position and more. Do you make any stupid expressions? Use this chance to identify and correct them. I recommend making 3 separate recordings:
Record your face only
Listen to how you enunciate and be careful not to close your eyes for a long period of time. Many musicians get so caught up in the song that they sing the whole thing with their eyes closed! It’s OK to close your eyes briefly – especially during the climax of the song, but you want to limit this to only those situations. Make it intentional to gaze into your audiences’ eyes and connect with them. After all, there is no reason to look at the #piano or it’s keys because by now you have memorized the song, right? Never, ever, ever, EVER perform in front of a crowd with chords or sheet music. Take the time to practice enough so that you don’t have the restraint of having to flip pages and glance up and down a page. I have found that by performing outdoors on a windy night, the music isn’t going to stay in place anyway. Good musicians take ownership of their performance and use that opportunity to draw the crowd into the moment. You can’t do that if you aren’t engaging with them. Get rid of any distraction! I will say, though, if you are a church or choir musician you are allowed in my book to use sheet music because you will need to keep up with the others performing and if you are switching between songs quickly, it’s easier to have legal copies of the music in a binder so that you can seamlessly prepare for the next song. But, if you are performing solo, lose the paper.
Record your hands only
If you don’t have a tripod or a surface to place your camera in the right position to capture your hands as you perform, ask another person to do this for you. I ask that you record your hands only because you want to observe your arrival to the key bed during soft/slow portions of the song as well as loud/fast portions. Why do I ask you to monitor your arrival to the key bed and what do I mean by that? A pianist controls tempo and dynamics (loud or soft) by his or her arrival of the hands to the key bed. If I am slow in my arrival to the keys, I’m going to be able to produce a soft, gentle sound. On the flip side, If I want to play a really fast song at a high volume, my hands need to arrive to the key bed quickly and with more force to produce that effect. I can watch on video and identify any adjustments I may need to make to my arrival to produce the sound I want. This needs to be perfected before you perform. Identify areas of the song where you need to play softly or loudly. Don’t wait until the day of your performance!
Record from behind.
Recording from behind allows you to see bad habits. I don’t want to slouch during my performance. You can also get a good view of both hands as they are striking the key bed while looking at your arm position. This view also gives you a good view of when you are taking breaths. It’s better to look from behind to monitor breathing because you can see it easier than the front because your arms and the #piano itself will both obscure the view.
I hope these five simple steps help you in your quest to learn how to play your favorite songs on the #piano. I’ve been playing for 32 years so I am happy to share my advice with you. The best advice I can give you is to practice, practice, practice, and practice even more. The moment you realize that you have it down pat and don’t need to practice any more is the exact moment when you need to spend another hour on it.
Check out my CD, Walk With You (2004) and purchase single songs or download the whole album. It’s pretty old, but has some of my best work on it.
Now, go and practice, practice, practice!