Approaching Solo Piano – CM Magazine

I wrote the following for CM Magazine’s March/April issue.  You can download the actual page here.

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Solo piano performances are often feared, underdeveloped, misunderstood and underappreciated.

Let’s change that.

Firstly, to all hopeful solo pianists, here’s a fact about our physicality:  It’s impossible for humans to multitask. When it comes to paying attention, our brains are wired to only focus on one thing at a time.  What our brains do is trick us into thinking we’re multi-tasking by switching our focus between tasks very rapidly.  Once we’ve switched, it takes a second or two to regain the focus level we had on the previous task.

For pianists, this means we can’t focus and actively improvise with both hands simultaneously. One hand always has to be on autopilot, even though it may be for only a few seconds. Therefore, your hands must have an intrinsic vocabulary to pull from while they’re on autopilot.  They have to rely on muscle memory, otherwise they’ll only play what they know: nothing.

On a related note, I see improvisation as a creative act of regurgitating vocabulary, just as we improvise spoken dialogue everyday.  If this is true and we want to broaden our capacity at the piano, then much of a pianist’s practice should be geared towards acquiring vocabulary.  I would argue that the best improvisers are the ones who have spend the most time building, shaping and maintaining an extensive vocabulary over many years.

Let me clarify “vocabulary.”  In most contexts, it insinuates harmonic, melodic and rhythmic vocabulary, but I intend it to represent much more including phrasing, form, energy, touch, balance, shape, range, control, performance practices and every music-making variable that could apply to improvisation and performing.

With these two things in mind (multitasking and vocabulary) we’ve laid the groundwork for approaching a solo piano performance.  Understanding our physical limitations when it comes to multitasking is important so that we can create realistic expectations for our music and ourselves.  And once we understand that an extensive vocabulary is essential to improvising pianists, we can start formulating a basic strategy for our practice sessions.

Here’s one way to apply it:

Suppose you want to learn how to improvise with your right-hand while playing a quarter-note bass line over the blues.  Before reading this article you may have thought that while improvising with the right-hand, you’d have to learn how to improvise a bass line with your left-hand too. That’s not possible. First thing’s first: Write out a twelve-bar, quarter-note bass line.  Here’s an easy one:

CM Article #1

Is it too easy?  Write out a more challenging bass line that fits your skill and taste, but remember that a super hip bass line isn’t what’s important.  You need to sort out some things first, like basic changes and hand independence.  In any case, whatever you do, don’t waver from what you’ve written.  Otherwise, you’re defeating the point of the exercise and wasting time. This is not a creative exercise.

Practice it a million times; it’s all about repetition.  Train your left-hand not to think.  Learn it forwards, backwards, upwards and downwards.  Learn it from the start, the end and the middle.  Learn it in every way.  Memorize the notes.  Memorize how they look, how they sound, how they feel and how they taste.  Learn to play it in your sleep.  Know it better than anybody else.  Own it. Add your right-hand.  Experiment with different melodies, rhythms, tempi and improvisations.   Try to throw off your left-hand.  When you’re comfortable, write another left-hand variation and repeat.  Like this one:

CM Article #2

Again, adjust to your own skill level and taste.

This process achieves two things:  First it develops your muscle memory and vocabulary. Second, it rids your left-hand of its bad habits; you’re training it to play something that has been thought out and sounds good.  But this only works if you’re disciplined enough to stick to your patterns and immediately fix any mistakes and inconsistencies.  Again, this is not a creative exercise.  You’re infusing vocabulary into your muscles.  Creativity would be an act of blending vocabulary.  That doesn’t help your left-hand autopilot.  The point is to think creatively with your ­right­­-hand!

Of course, for future study, try putting your right-hand on autopilot!

Analyzing, acquiring, crafting and maintaining vocabulary is an integral part of my practice routine, a major theme in my students’ private lessons and a frequent topic of discussion in my writing.  When it comes to vocabulary for solo piano performances, I think it’s an undiscovered country.  It’s also very challenging, not because it takes more brains to execute but because it requires a change of muscle and practice habits.  After a few simple alterations, approaching solo piano will hopefully become much less daunting for everyone!

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