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Prepping For a Piano Level Test Your Timeline for Success

Preparing for a Piano Level Test | Your Timeline for Success

Prepping For a Piano Level Test Your Timeline for SuccessWhether playing for pleasure or as a professional, there is likely to come a time when you will be faced with a piano examination, such as the ABRSM piano exam. Like any exam, preparation is key. But when the time comes, how can you make sure that everything goes according to plan?

Before the Exam

  • In the weeks leading up to your exam, this is when you will want to increase your rehearsal. Focus specifically on the pieces that you will be playing on the day. It can be easier (and more satisfying) to only go over the pieces that you find easier to play. In your piano lessons, your teacher is going to notice the pieces that you are struggling with. Don’t be afraid to tackle them head-on. Working on the toughest parts is going to make you feel more confident on the day of your test.
  • Also, do a mock version of the exam, so you know exactly what to expect and what will be required of you. The more familiar it feels, the less nervous you are likely to be on the day. Do a run-through of what will happen on the day, under exam conditions.

On the Day of the Exam

  • If you have never been to the place where your exam is being held before, leave plenty of time to make the journey. Being late and turning up flustered is going to throw your focus. Remember: early is on time and on time is late. Aim to be at least 10 minutes early. Keep the phone number of your piano teacher and the address of the exam venue handy, because no matter how much you prepare, sometimes things do happen outside of your control. If you’re likely to be late, call ahead of time.
  • Make sure that you have something to eat. A great breakfast or a healthy lunch on exam day will improve your focus. We all know that it’s difficult to concentrate if you’re hungry, so even if it’s just fruit, do try to eat something.
  • This isn’t one that many think about, but avoid wearing something that is going to hinder your playing or be a distraction during your exam. Wear something practical and comfortable — leave the loud bangles at home.

During the Exam

  • Get your instrument ready before you go in. Whether you’re at a grand piano or an upright, it is key to make sure that you are comfortable. Take time to adjust your stool if necessary and play a few scales, to get you in the zone to play at your best.
  • As you likely know what to expect by this point, take a few deep breaths and pace yourself. Try not to worry about pausing between pieces. If you would feel more comfortable doing the exam in a different order, that is usually fine as long as you ask your examiner.
  • Don’t panic if you make a mistake. You won’t be the first or the last. Carry on as best you can from it. It is never as bad as it seems at the time. If your examiner stops you during a piece, don’t be alarmed — it may be because they have heard enough to determine the mark.

If the thought of a piano exam is overwhelming, remember that it is just a chance to show off what you and your piano teacher are already sure that you know. The time goes by much faster than you would think and the examiner is rooting for you. Try to enjoy the experience. Good luck!

Need help preparing for a specific test like the ABRSM piano exam? Check out our tips here.

About the Author:
Freya is an avid pianist. Along with her love for cooking, she also deals in piano sales & write in her spare time.

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3 Other Musicianship Skills You Need to be a Great Pianist

tips for learning pianoOne of the best tips for learning piano is making sure you have a well-rounded skill set! Read on as online piano teacher Crystal B. shares her thoughts…

 

The piano is definitely a unique instrument and playing piano requires a specific skill set. However, there are some basic musicianship skills that every piano player needs.

Timing

When people think of musicians that need great timing, they typically think of the drummer. But it’s equally important for a piano player to have great timing! Many times, new piano players overlook this very critical skill and feel that it’s not as important as other elements. But good timing is one of those fundamental music skills that is extremely important no matter what instrument you play.

A large part of being a great musician is being able to play with the right “feel,” and acquiring this skill starts with timing. Being a rhythmic player becomes even more important if you are playing with other musicians, especially in the studio. In most studio settings, you will be playing to a “click track,” which basically functions like a metronome to keep everyone on the same page rhythmically. So when your music teacher is asking you to play with a metronome, just know, you are practicing a skill that you will definitely use at some point!

Theory

Knowing music theory is probably one of the most powerful tools you can have, regardless of the instrument you play. When you gain the understanding of how music works — why certain chords sound good together and why certain keys/scales have sharps and flats (the black keys) — this unlocks so much potential as to what you can accomplish as a musician. The other great thing about theory, is that it enables you to effectively communicate with musicians that play other instruments. So much about theory crosses over to every instrument, and knowing it also makes learning additional instruments much easier.

Charts

A lot of times when people think of playing by chord charts, they think of guitar players. Some piano players only play by reading notes, but I highly recommend also learning to play using charts. This will make you a more versatile player and will also help you function well in a setting where you are playing with other instruments (especially guitar players). Also, if you decide to become a session player, you will need to learn the Nashville Number System. Charts are a great way to get the basic knowledge you will need to make learning this much easier.

All of these things are useful musicianship skills which will come in handy regardless of the instrument you play. One other thing worth mentioning, I highly advise students to play with others who play different instruments any chance you get. This is one of the best tips for learning piano, because it’s a great way to become familiar with how other instruments work and what skills cross over. It’s a great learning experience and lots of fun too!

CrystalBCrystal B. teaches piano online. She has been teaching all ages and levels for more than 15 years. Learn more about Crystal here!

 

 

 

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10 Fun Ways to Spice Up Your Piano Playing

Play Me, I'm Yours Austin - piano 5 - photo 07, Apr 16, 2011Love to play the piano, but want to take a break from scales and Hanon exercises for a bit? Here are some ideas from New Paltz, NY teacher Cheryl E...

 

It happens to all of us: we get in ruts. Whether you’re bored with your practicing routine or your repertoire, we’ve all been there. But instead of giving up on playing the piano, take action! Here are 10 fun ways to spice up your playing.

1. Put your own spin on it! Try taking a straight song and swing it. Here’s a great example of a swinging Bach piece:

2. If you’re already playing some jazz, why not change up the melody? Write your own on top of the chords and see what you come up with. (You can do this with any style, really. Even scales.)

3. If it’s major, make it minor, and revel in its darkness.

4. Test your chops and transpose the whole song. Take it down a half step, or up a fourth, and see how the piece changes just by transposing it. Does it become lighter? More inspiring? You can discover the reason why the composer wrote it in the original key.

5. Change the tempo. I do this with my singers a lot as well. Take a piece and slow it down so that each note is held until the exact pitch is found. It’s tedious but a wonderful way to internalize the notes. The same is true for fingering for piano. Once you’ve got it super slow, try speeding the piece up as fast as you can and see how you do.

6. Play a song outside your comfort zone. Like Rachmaninoff? Try playing an arrangement of an Eminem song (like this guy). Like pop? Try Mozart, or learning “Fur Elise” so you can say “No, this is how it’s done” when your friends plonk through the first few notes at a bar.

7. Write your own piece. Even if you don’t consider yourself a composer or songwriter, take a very basic chord progression (I-IV-V-I or swap out the I of the vi. Another common pop progression is I-vi-V-IV) and see what kinds of melodies, chordal voicing, and rhythms you can come up with. You have your own taste, and no one’s going to know what you want but YOU.

8. Create a mash-up. We’ve all seen “Glee”. Mash-ups are totally in right now. Try combining two songs that have nothing in common, like “Fur Elise” and that Eminem song — OR try combining all those pop songs that have the same four chords (including the new one you just wrote!). Here’s one of “Roar” with “Eye of the Tiger”:

9. Take a piano lesson! If you aren’t already taking piano lessons, having someone give you new ideas, new exercises, and new repertoire ideas can be just the thing you need to see a new side your piano playing.

10. Get a mentor group! I tell this to all of my career coaching clients. When you have a mentor or coach, you get new ideas and accountability. Yes, your piano teacher definitely counts as this, but it also doesn’t have to be so formal. Go find other piano players in your area and create a group — like a book club except you’ll have a challenge to impress each other with fun new arrangements or something that will have you practicing, performing, and shedding light on what else is possible!

Last thing: have fun! If you’re taking yourself too seriously, take a step back and reexamine why wanted to play the piano. When you remember what you love about music, the piano, playing, and performing, then you’ll really have no problems diving back into it!

CherylECheryl is a film and TV commercial composer and singer/songwriter with multiple tours, records, and TV placements under her belt. If you turned on your television this year, you’ve definitely heard her music. She teaches piano and voice in addition to composition and arrangement in New Paltz, NY. Learn more about Cheryl here!

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4 Ways Piano Competitions Make You a Better Player

piano competitionsWhat do the best piano players have in common? Most of them have participated in piano competitions, exams (like the ABRSM), or recitals. Here, St. Augustine, FL teacher Heather L. explores the benefits of piano competitions…

 

Competition of all kinds gets a bad rap nowadays. In dozens of counties and hundreds of schools across the country, competitiveness is under fire. Students and young athletes are being told that participation and team building are all that counts, and therefore, game scores are not kept. And in even more places, music competitions have become music festivals, in which groups or soloists are graded individually and places like first, second, and third are not given.

Well, in my opinion, competition is what often drives humans to succeed. This is especially true when it comes to musicians, and more specifically, to pianists. Here’s a list of ways that competing makes you a better piano player.

• Pressure to practice

Perhaps the most immediate benefit of piano competitions is not necessarily the pressure to perform, but the pressure to practice. To have a clear and concrete deadline in front of you is quite motivating when it comes to practicing toward that goal.

Knowing that strangers will be looking for both the good and the bad of your art is a whole lot better than being told simply to practice in order to improve in a general way.

• Performance experience

Getting up in front of an audience to speak is one of the most widely feared activities in the world, and that’s only speaking! So getting up in front of an audience to play the piano is even more special, and playing your very best in a competition setting takes the experience to the next level. Performing before judges is nerve-wracking, but very exciting. And honestly, after a competition, a simple recital will feel like a breeze.

• Self-assurance

You have to be self-assured in order to be willing even to enter a competition, and your self-assurance builds as you continue to compete, no matter what the outcome. This helps you to be the kind of pianist who walks into almost any musical situation and says, “Sure, I can do that.”

That kind of attitude can open up the world to you, presenting opportunities that you may never have dreamed of, because you’re saying yes to experiences a less-assured person may have said no to.

• Networking

Networking is typically used as a business term, but it’s also used in the music world. Meeting other musicians and judges and building acquaintanceships at competitions can make a big difference in your piano career, even if you don’t necessarily plan on pursuing it professionally. Making a friend at an event may mean being asked to be part of a festival or being referred for a great gig, or maybe just finding a group of musicians to jam with.

In the end, piano competitions are less about becoming better than other pianists and more about becoming a better pianist yourself. Improving your personal best is the name of the game. That doesn’t mean, though, that the success of others should be ignored. The only great thing about our jealousies is that they can indicate what our desires are. Allow others’ successes and failures to motivate you on your own journey.

 

HeatherLHeather L. teaches singing, piano, acting, and more in St. Augustine, FL, as well as through online lessons. She is a graduate of the prestigious Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, and has performed with the New York and Royal Philharmonics, the New Jersey and Virginia Symphonies, the American Boy Choir, and the internationally renowned opera star Andrea Bocelli. Learn more about Heather here!

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4 Valuable Tips for Succeeding at the ABRSM Piano Exam

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Preparing for the ABRSM piano exam? Check out these helpful tips from New York, NY teacher Nadia B...

 

Piano exams can be an excellent way to challenge your musicianship, set and reach clear musical goals, and improve all facets of your playing. There are many different types of examinations, but one of the most well-established and thorough is the ARBSM piano exam, administered by the exam board of the Royal Schools of Music. It is a comprehensive examination with eight levels, allowing you to progress sequentially through the levels throughout your piano study, and it includes a practical piano performance, scales and arpeggios, sight reading, and aural tests. The following suggestions are designed to help you with the preparation so you can earn a high score on the exam and progress to the next level. Good luck!

Make a Plan

Perhaps the most important tip of all with regard to the ABRSM piano exam is to make a plan. Because you will want to take at least a few to several months to prepare for each exam level, it’s important to look at the bigger picture as you practice each week. It’s a challenging exam to prepare for because you need to learn three pieces to be performed accurately and at a high musical standard, in addition to being proficient in scales and arpeggios, sight reading, and aural skills (and theory, which is a requirement in tandem with the piano exam after level 5).

For this reason, I encourage my students to write out a written timeline of goals, with a weekly practice itinerary to meet those goals. For example, a typical week might include: practice and memorize x number of scales and arpeggios (and/or review or increase speed of scales and arpeggios already learned), work on specific sections of each piece as determined with the guidance of your teacher, and sight read at minimum x number of pieces. You will almost certainly need to adjust your timeline and goals as you go along, but the most important part is to create it, implement it, and then adjust it as needed. Also make sure to consult with your teacher and the exam criteria to formulate your plan.

Practice in a Variety of Ways

Another challenge of preparing for the exam is working on difficult repertoire for an extended period of time. While there is plenty to improve upon, there is also the danger of falling into rote memorization, muscle memory, and a musical rut. This not only takes away the freshness and creativity of music-making, it also jeopardizes your ability to perform well on the exam. When exam conditions are different from what you expected and nerves are interfering, performing something learned through rote memorization means that a small mistake could throw you off and leave you unable to recover quickly.

So, to challenge your musicality and strengthen your exam preparation, keep your practicing novel – practice with the music, without it, with your eyes closed; break the music down into each hand or voice within the harmony; use different rhythms to drill challenging passages (ditto for scales and arpeggios); and try to infuse each practice run-through with unique musical expression and ideas. This will ensure that your performance in the exam is inspired, assured, and distinctive.

Be Proactive About Nerves

Nerves are something else worth addressing and working through when undertaking the ABRSM piano exam. My approach with my students is two-fold. First, I encourage them to perform as much as possible prior to the exam. This could be for family and friends (in which case you could also employ some of them as mock jurors), at your piano studio’s annual recital, or as a volunteer in nursing homes or similar facilities. The other thing I recommend is to remember that nerves represent a type of energy running through your mind-body. The thoughts and sensations are your body’s reaction to an increase in energy. You can harness that energy within your body to create a greater awareness of your self, your environment, and the music. Feeling nervous is actually a positive thing that tells you that you are alive, engaged in the process, and full of energy that you can apply to your musical performance.

Get Extra Help

For the aural and theory components, don’t hesitate to seek out extra help. If you’re finding it difficult to address all the exam components with your teacher in the timespan of your piano lesson, schedule a longer lesson, or have separate lessons for aural and theory. They are valuable skills for musicians that deserve sufficient attention and preparation.

 

As you get ready for the ABRSM piano exam, remember to enjoy the process; it’s a wonderful opportunity to learn some incredible repertoire of the piano, gain new skills, and develop as a musician. The rewards are plentiful!

nadiaBNadia B. teaches flute and piano in New York, NY, as well as through online lessons. She acted as principal flutist of the orchestra and wind ensemble at California State University, Sacramento, and then went on to receive her degree in Music Performance from New York University. Learn more about Nadia here!

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7 Qualities of the Best Piano Players

Qualities Of The Best Piano PlayersWhat do all of the best piano players in the world have in common? If you take a close look at what they’re doing, you’ll find a handful of similarities. All of them have incredible work ethic, attention to detail, and practice diligently everyday. On top of that, the best piano players in the world have studied with private instructors for years, taking advantage of an experienced player’s point of view.

All of these qualities of the best piano players are interrelated. It’s hard to practice diligently on a daily basis without having the work ethic to focus on the task at hand. And without attention to detail, diligent practice is almost always inefficient. Studying with a private instructor can help you stay focused, which aids in your attention to detail, and in turn keeps you motivated, which helps your work ethic. As an aspiring piano player at any level, these qualities can be learned and acquired.

Whether you view piano playing as a hobby that you do in your spare time, or a career path to performance on the world stage, these qualities should be carefully examined. As a casual piano player, maintaining all of these personal attributes can help you get better with minimal frustration. And as an up-and-coming maestro, efficient use of practice time can keep you moving forward and playing at your best!

1. Excellent Work Ethic

Every single piano player knows what it’s like to face challenges. What separates the best piano players from the rest of us is that they persevere through these challenges. Having the personal fortitude and work ethic to look at any difficult passage, and practice it until it’s perfect, is an attribute that you can learn, but will need to be cognizant of every day.

Work ethic doesn’t just stop with piano playing. It requires you to be focused on your work around the clock. Whether you’re a student or have a full-time career, make sure that your other obligations are taken care of to give you enough time to practice often.

2. Attention to Detail

Paying close attention to detail goes hand in hand with having a great work ethic. As you will need to be able to perfect those difficult passages and tiny issues with your piano playing after recognizing them, it does no good to have a fine-toothed comb and find small mistakes without the work ethic to fix it.

All of the best piano players are able to recognize the small intricacies of each passage on their own, and correct mistakes as they arise with diligent practice. If your experience level is not quite at the same point as professional pianists, this is where working with a private piano teacher is important!

3. Diligence

All of the best piano players realize that without consistent practice, their piano playing will not improve. Along with practicing, they play with a purpose. When practicing scales and arpeggios, they connect the work with the pieces that they are currently playing. Everything they do during each practice session has a distinct reason, and they focus on that. Without a purpose, the exercises and drills can easily become sloppy.

Along with the exercises prior to playing each piece, the best piano players focus intensely on each passage within the piece itself. Going back to the first two qualities, each piece requires incredible attention to detail, to make sure that the difficult passages are perfect, and if not, the work ethic required to make them perfect comes into play.

4. Commitment

You might think that the best piano players in the world had no need to have any private instruction to achieve greatness. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Every great musician, whether pianist or otherwise, has committed to studying with highly revered instructors prior to becoming who they are today. Private instructors can help to mentor you as a musician, and help you recognize the small details that you might overlook on your own.

Taking a private lesson on a weekly basis can help refresh your piano playing, and give you a second set of eyes and ears to make sure that your diligent practice isn’t going to waste. A private instructor can also help keep you motivated with different pieces that highlight your strengths, as well as work on your weaknesses.

5. Eagerness to Learn

In order to be a good piano student, you have to really want to learn how to play the piano! While this may seem painfully obvious, it is actually a very important trait. As with mastering most skills, learning to play the piano requires a great investment of your time. You need a true desire to learn piano that will keep you motivated through the hours of weekly practice you will need.

In addition to learning how to physically play the piano, you will also need to learn how to read music. In the beginning, you may only be able to read one clef at a time, but as you grow more comfortable with reading music, you will start to read them simultaneously — with the treble clef indicating what you should play with your right hand and the bass clef for your left. You will also need to memorize a vocabulary of musical terms that indicate the volume, speed, and other features of the music.

6. Willingness to Practice

A book sitting on your bookshelf does you no good unless you open the cover and read the words. Likewise, having access to a piano does nothing unless you are actually willing and committed to sitting down and practicing it regularly. Simply attending a piano lesson each week is not enough to master the skill of playing the piano. If you’re not revisiting the material your piano teacher taught you between lessons, you will likely forget much of what you have learned. Playing the piano also requires a great deal of muscle memory in your fingers, which can only be developed with regular practice over time.

7. Dedicatation

Although it has already been mentioned, it is worth repeating — the ability to learn piano requires a lot of time and practice. While you may have images in your head of a concert pianist performing an exhilarating piece by Beethoven or Chopin without breaking a sweat, this effortless performance is the result of many years of dedicated practice. In the beginning, you might struggle to even pick out simple melodies. There is no shame in being a beginner, but it’s important to realize that you will need to run a lot of drills, scales, and exercises to learn piano techniques that will lead you to more complicated pieces of music. At times, you may feel as though your practice is going nowhere and your abilities do not seem to be improving. Although you may want to give up, this is the best time to persevere!

With time, practice, and these qualities, almost anyone can learn piano. So what are you waiting for? There’s no better time than the present to start taking lessons and developing your skills.

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Science-Backed Rituals to Calm Your Nerves Before a Piano Recital

Tips On How To Calm Your Nerves Before A Piano PerformanceDo the butterflies in your stomach seem to turn into bats before each and every piano recital? You are not alone. Millions suffer from performance anxiety, or “stage fright,” from actors to professional athletes. But you don’t have to let this anxiety prevent you from letting your talent shine for the world to see!

Is anxiety affecting you before your piano recital? Look for these signs:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Trembling limbs or voice
  • Dry mouth or difficulty speaking
  • Cold, sweaty hands
  • Nausea or feelings of unease
  • Vision changes
  • Poor sleep
  • Difficulty concentrating at school or at work
  • Irritability

If you recognize those symptoms, you’re not alone. But you can calm piano recital jitters with these scientifically proven tips:

Lean on a friend.
Phone a friend for a laugh or support before your piano recital. Multiple studies have shown social interaction boosts relaxation and decreases stress, helping you feel more confident and calm by enhancing your feelings of social stability and belonging.

Warm your ticklers.
A Yale study showed that wrapping your hands around something warm, such as a cup of tea, increases feelings of calm. Why? Stress triggers your body’s fight-or-flight response, drawing blood and heat from your limbs to your core and sending signals to your brain that are interpreted as a sign of distress. Warm them up to switch the signal — and increase feelings of safety and comfort for your piano recital. Bonus tip: Black tea was found by a University College London study to lower cortisol more than placebo brews.

Exercise.
The endorphins produced during exercise are proven calm-inducers, according to research from Harvard Medical School. Bonus tip: Exercising outdoors in nature before your piano recital can boost that serenity.

Cut the clutter.
Physical clutter equals mental clutter. A Princeton study showed cutting clutter and organizing your surrounding environment boosts your sense of calm and order. All that clutter in your visual field overloads your brains neural pathways, increasing stress.

Don’t overlook the importance of a good night’s sleep.
Sleep affects not only your physical health, but anxiety and stress. Too little and it can make subsequent nights of restful sleep difficult to achieve, creating a vicious cycle of sleep problems. Make sure to get a full seven to nine hours of sleep for a few nights before your piano recital.

Smile.
Smile, even though your heart is racing… Research suggests smiling and laughter can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Ditch the donuts.
Research suggests sugary and processed foods can increase symptoms of anxiety. Kick your cravings and opt for nutrient rich foods, especially those packed with Vitamin B, which improves mental health; omega-3s, which help reduce depression and anxiety; and whole-grain carbs, which help regulate the “feel-good” hormone serotonin.

Be prepared.
Since most fears involve making mistakes, one of the best ways to beat piano recital anxiety is by knowing your material inside and out. In addition, prepare yourself beforehand by laying out clothes, keys, and any other necessities to prevent any additional anxieties associated with running behind schedule.

Tune in.
Research from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden showed that music lowers blood pressure and stress hormones. However, not every song is a cure-all, so find the tunes that resonate best with you to reap the greatest rewards.

Meditate.
Scientists have discovered meditation increases grey matter in the brain, essentially rewiring the body to stress less. Meditation has positive effects on anxiety, mood, and stress symptoms, helping us analyze how our mind generates stressful thoughts and distance ourselves from them.

Goof off.
Kids and animals can easily play without ruminating on the things they “should” be doing. Playtime is not frivolous –in fact, experts say a variety of playtime activities can reduce stress.

Go silent.
Alarms and interruptions of all types, as well as persistent, even low-level noises can boost stress levels. Completely disconnecting from the radio, TV, alarms, cell phones, and internet (gasp!) can have a dramatic effect on stress and anxiety, even if it’s only for a few minutes.

Don’t let your nerves run away with your piano recital. Rein them in with these proven tips, and you’ll be well on your way to performing and having a blast!

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How to Transition from Classical Pianist to Jazz Pianist

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Piano music doesn’t have to be all classical, all the time! Here’s what you need to know about getting started with jazz piano chord progressions, courtesy of St. Augustine, FL teacher Heather L...

 

Thelonius Monk, Herbie Hancock, and Duke Ellington are just a few of the great jazz piano players. What beautiful and fascinating sounds fill our ears when their names come to mind! The seemingly illusive progressions and spontaneous elements, like syncopation and improvisation, sound virtually like magic. To those of us who were trained in the classical tradition only, the journey from classical pianist to jazz pianist may seem like a long one. But it’s not be as difficult as it seems. By learning basic blues scales and jazz piano chord progressions, you’ll be taking the first important step in transitioning to jazz piano.

For those of us who’ve learned Hanon exercises, there’s an excellent resource called “Hanon to Jazz” (published by FJH Music Company Inc.). Specifically written for classically trained players, its fun and brilliant exercises and songs are a terrific introduction. They’ll have you playing the blues in no time. It’s a great map for your journey.

For those of you who’ve yet to learn Hanon exercises, Dariusz Terefenko’s created a great workbook, “Jazz Theory: From Basic to Advanced Study”, published by Routledge. I also recommend Tim Richards’ “Exploring Jazz Piano: Volume 1″, published by Schott.

One of the first stretches of road on your journey is learning jazz piano chord progressions.

The two, five, one, and six (ii-V-I-vi) chord progression, is one of the most famous and useful. An example is:

D minor-G major-C major-A minor

Here’s a video of how to play it:

The one, six, two, five, and one (I-VI-II-V-I) chord progression is another that could be tried with an improvised melody in the right hand. An example of the progression is:

C major-A minor-D minor-G major-C major

Here’s a video of how to play it:

Next, take a look at the chord chart below. It shows which keys to play together to create each chord. It’s fun to mix and match to make sounds that appeal to you.

chord chart

The second stretch of road is paved with learning jazz scales. Here’s a picture of several blues scales:

Blues Scale

As with the learning of any genre, listening is so utterly important. This is especially true for those of us who are adopting a new style. The best jazz musicians in the world listen to jazz all of the time. Think of yourself as a hungry traveler and that music is your sole nourishment. You won’t get very far without it.

HeatherLHeather L. teaches singing, piano, acting, and more in St. Augustine, FL, as well as through online lessons. She is a graduate of the prestigious Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, and has performed with the New York and Royal Philharmonics, the New Jersey and Virginia Symphonies, the American Boy Choir, and the internationally renowned opera star Andrea Bocelli. Learn more about Heather here!

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How Pentatonic Scales Can Help With Piano Improvisation

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Curious about pentatonic scales? Learn the basics of how to incorporate them into your improvisation in this guest post by Austin, TX teacher Tosin A..

 

Have you ever heard a great solo? I mean a piano solo that practically hurts your feelings because it’s so good? You think things to yourself like: They can’t be that good. What kind of scales are they using? Are they a wizard?

The honest truth behind it is the brilliant use of pentatonic scales.

Pentatonic Scales 101

A pentatonic scale, as the name suggests, is five notes. There are major, minor, and dominant pentatonic scales that use the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 7th note of that scale.

For example, C minor pentatonic is:

• C
• Eb
• F
• G
• Bb

While C Major pentatonic would be:

• C
• E
• F
• G
• B

The beautiful thing about these types of scales is that these five notes will fit into any progression in most modes. You can put money on the fact that every blues solo you’ve ever heard used a heavy amount of relative minor pentatonic scales.

Using Pentatonic Scales in a Solo

So how do you use these five magic notes to create a solo people will love?

First, you have to know which scale to use. And that depends on what type of song it is. The general rule is to use the pentatonic scale that matches the key of the song. For example, “My Funny Valentine” is in C minor, so you would use the C minor pentatonic for solos.

There are exceptions, though.

In blues and country songs you can use the minor pentatonic scale even if the song is in a major key. You also don’t have to use its relative minor. Pistol Annie’s “I Feel A Sin Coming On” is part of the F minor pentatonic scale (F, Ab, Bb, C, Eb) with the occasional A, but the song is in F.

Then the question is which notes do I use when?

If the chord progression stays diatonic (no modulations or complicated passing chord changes), you can use any of them at any time. This is why they are so crucial to improvised solos–you have five notes that you know will work for 90% of the solo. That gives you time to think about other notes to play.

An advanced technique to try is matching the notes to the chord progression.

Sticking with F minor pentatonic scale: If the chord is F minor, then the Bb wouldn’t be the best choice. It would work, but any of the other notes work better. Same thing if the chord is C–you may want to stick with C or Eb.

The most important answer to the question above is whichever notes sounds the best. Never forget, all the rules can be broken if it sounds good.

Pentatonic scales are used everywhere. From the long vocal runs you hear your favorite pop stars sing, to the best jazz and blues solos of all time, they all heavily rely on the use of them. Of course, this article is just an introduction to playing pentatonic scales, but it gives you some of the secrets of great musical improvisation and soloing. Chat with your piano teacher if this is something you’d like to learn more about in your lessons!

TosinATosin A. teaches piano, music theory, music composition, public speaking, and various academic subjects in Austin, TX, as well as through online lessons. He has been playing piano for 14 years, and currently plays for his church and 3 bands (La Vida Buena, Savannah Red and The Blueberries, Jackie Venson), and for Improv Comedy Shows around town. Learn more about Tosin here!

 

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4 Tips for Learning Jazz Piano Chords

5858866114_719df8d4e8_bReady to spice up your piano practice? Learning jazz piano chords is a great way to explore new genres and styles on the keys. Here, Tulsa, OK teacher Chris F. shares a few tips to get started…

 

Jazz piano can be a fun but difficult thing to learn. The trick to becoming a great jazz pianist is mastering jazz piano chords. Here are four tips to get you playing jazz chords with ease:

1. Know your theory: In order to even think about jazz piano, your music theory has to be strong:

  • Practice playing major seventh, dominant seventh, minor seventh, half and fully diminished seventh chords in root position across the keyboard.
  • Practice major ii V I chord progressions (ii minor 7th, V dominant 7th, and I major 7th) and minor ii V i chord progressions (ii half diminished, V dominant 7th, and i minor 7th) in all 12 keys.
  • Be aware of all the possible chord symbols: Major 7ths (Cmaj7, C△, CM7), Minor 7ths (Cmin7, C-7, Cm7), and half-diminished 7ths (Cmin7♭5, C∅). Luckily, dominant 7ths and fully diminished 7ths only are notated one way (G7 and G° respectively).

2. Know your voicings: The root position chords above are great to familiarize yourself with the notes, but don’t smoothly connect the harmonies.

In C:
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To make these chord progressions smoother, move the least distance to the next chord.

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Often with smooth voice leading, 7ths in one chord resolve to the 3rd of the next chord. There are many unique sounding jazz voicings to experiment with. Use your ear to be the judge. To experiment, here are some possible voicings to try out with both major and minor ii-V-I progressions.

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3. Know your extensions: Chordal extensions are harmonies added to 7th chords that add texture, color, and a characteristic jazz sound. In fact, 7th chords are rarely played plain, but with one or more of these added notes.

As a general rule:

  • Major 7ths, minor 7ths, and dominant 7ths often come with added 6ths and/or 9ths. A 9th is just a 2nd an octave up. The 7th is almost always included in any chord, regardless of what extension is being added. When a 6th is added to a dominant chord, it’s always added above the 7th, creating a “13th” interval. Thus, a 13 chord is a dominant 7th with a sixth added above the 7th (see below). Also note that a plain 9 chord indicates a dominant 7th with a 9th added.

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  • Dominant chords (plain 7th chords that often function as the V in a ii  V  I chord progression) sound great with many different extensions. In fact, the 5ths and 9ths of dominant chords can be raised or lowered, leading to many unique harmonic possibilities, including 7♭9, 7#9, 7♭5, 7#5, 7♭9#5, 7♭9♭5, 7#9♭5, and 7#9#5.

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  • Often, in jazz lead sheets and chord progressions, the dominant extensions above aren’t specified, but can be added to taste.  This goes for the 6ths and 9ths in major and minor 7th chords. There are almost always extensions added to 7th chords. Many times the 5th is excluded from the voicing, especially if extensions are added. If it sounds appropriate in the progression and leads smoothly to the next chord, it’s probably a great choice.

4. Know how to practice: The easiest way to become familiar with these jazz piano chords is to practice ii-V-I progressions in every key.  Another great resource is playing pre-written arrangements found in books such as Piano Stylings of the Great Standards (Vol. 1-6) by Edward Shanaphy or The Jazz Piano Book by Mark Levine. These books provide you with many great voicings that are clearly labeled.  And of course, having a quality hard copy or digital “fake book” full of jazz standards, such as The Real Book by Hal Leonard, is a must for practicing your jazz voicings. Happy practicing!

ChrisFChris F. teaches guitar, piano, music theory, and more in Tulsa, OK. He has been active in collegiate percussion ensembles, marching and concert bands, various choirs, chamber music groups, jazz combos, an award winning jazz big band, bluegrass combos, drum and bugle corps, and private lessons on several instruments, as both a section leader and as a teacher. Learn more about Chris here! 

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