It occurred to me that there are really three broad catagories of piano lessons: Classical piano lessons, chord or improv piano lessons, and lastly, play-by-ear piano lessons.
While some people including many parents may feel that "piano lessons are piano lessons", the reality is that's hardly the case and within those three broad catagories I mentioned, there can be a wide variety of difference in both content and quality.
If we address the issue of beginners or novice students then, what would be the best route to take should one be interested in taking lessons?
I'm also assuming for simplicity's sake that the lessons are not necessarily private lessons, but let's open it up to all venues such as internet piano lessons whether online or by purchasing at-home courses and also we can include perhaps self-taught students in the traditional sense who buy theory books and store-bought instructional aids.
The point I'm trying to get to though is this- The most well rounded and most thoroughly trained pianists are not only able to read music in a classical sense, but can execute that music in a skillful and musical way. Plus, these pianists have the ability, whether through training or natural talent, to learn songs by ear.
Lastly, they are able to improvise any song at the keyboard based on piano chords. So people like Bruce Hornsby, Billy Joel, Elton John, all of these folks have all those skills and this certainly enables and facilitates their being at the "top of the game".
Jerry Lee Lewis and I believe Fats Domino too, are strictly "play by ear" "raw talent" type players. Jazz players, just as a generality, tend to be highly versed in all disciplines though you still do see and certainly there have always been "raw talent", untrained brilliant jazz pianists. The $64,000 question for people starting out though is, "what route then should I take?".
Here's my take on that question. First off, play by ear, you see courses all over the net for it, is not the way to go if you are going to use it as your ONLY skill.
You can not use the examples of brilliantly talented folks who never had a lesson in their life and well, you know that story. For the majority of folks including myself, if you were starting out, you either should go the classical route to start off or the way I teach, the chord piano, improv way. Play by ear can be simultaneously learned but by no means should it be the main way to learn songs.
A great and tremendously valuable skill to have, yes, so start off right from the beginning with instruction on it but certainly do not rely on it as your main course of action.
I've been playing for a very long time and I mostly certainly use my ear to help learn songs, it is just one of the tools I incorporate in my "toolbox of skills" to play piano songs. Put it this way, learning to ride a bike right from the start without hands on the handle bars would be certainly not the way to initiate your training. However, hands-free riding is very valuable and used by skilled riders and is eventually incorporated as one of the skills in their "box of tricks".
Now chord piano, piano by improvisation, is the best route to take if you're interested in playing pop, rock, blues and country. Gospel works well too with this approach but classical does as well for that style.
Professional pop pianists almost always use this chordal approach which gives you the freedom to arrange your own songs, make them sound better than the published arrangement and also paves the way for songwriting as well. It is more fun than classical or play by ear.
Let me tell you, playing by ear can be really difficult and tedious. We all have to learn that skill but geez, having to rely on that by itself from the beginning is not the way to go. Plus, even if someone has a great ear and a "trained ear" if you are asked to learn 60 songs in the next week, do you think you'd want to start learning them by ear? No, you'd use chord charts!
And finally classical, ideally, a pianist has classical training but one doesn't necessarily have to start with classical. On piano, I did the "backwards" training route which is by learning improv, chord piano first, and followed that training with the classical path.
Also consider that you don't have to be on a concert pianist path with classical, but the mere fact of being able to read notes, having the ability to bring out the melody, having the ability to play scales and arpeggios (broken chords) smoothly, will only serve to make you into a better, more musical pianist.
You also see really great, self-taught pop and jazz players who have great technique (classical skill) but they basically learned this on their own rather than formal classical lessons.
Regardless of how they learned though initially, having that strong technique will always enhance your playing and people will always be aware of what a better player you are with that skill level behind your playing. Of course strictly classical career oriented players usually only study classical performance technique.
So I hope these piano tips will be helpful to those of you starting out or those who started out and feel they began on the wrong path.
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Learning how to play piano chords is a multi-step process. What this blog is about today is some key introductory points, general piano tips to consider before you set out on your journey of learning piano chords.
I'm just going to list a couple of piano tips but these are critical issues in my view- ones that should not be overlooked.
First off, let's look at piano chord books or piano chord manuals. When I look at the books, and I continuously am always looking for the "latest and the greatest" ones, I am particulary amazed at the multitude of chord piano books that have a photo of a hand where the fingers are placed on the picture of the keyboard! We do not want that and here's why...
Here's the deal, piano is not guitar, obviously so. With guitar, it makes sense to have a picture showing the hand fingering the guitar chord as many times one finger plays two or more notes all at once, one finger may dampen a string, etc.
The bottom line though on piano chords, please "Just tell me what notes should be played and keep the fingers out of the picture" so you're not blocking and obscuing the notes. You also very rarely play two keys with one finger for piano but only rarely so.
When you learn the rules of fingerings like I present in my course "Play Piano Like a Pro" and you know "what buttons to push", i.e., what piano keys to play then you have all the information that you need to play that chord.
In short, if you want to buy a chord book for piano, pick up one with only the piano keys highlighted but make sure there's no hands on the keyboard. My top recommendation is Creative Keyboard Publ. "Deluxe Encycopedia of Chords" by Bob Kroepel which is available online or in stores.
The next issue is on really, really learning the piano chord which then relates to how you memorize the chords. Remember this phrase "muscle memory" Yep, that factor if not "the" most important factor, certainly in the top two.
After playing a chord many, many, many times, between your mind logging it into your memory or maybe the position your hands were in when they played the chord, gets "uploaded" into your memory. That's why we play the chord a million times when learning it.
You can look at a picture forever, but until you physically commit that piano chord and play it with your hands, you'll never memorize it. Of course too, you want to play the chord with the "correct fingerings" or else you've committed to memory, the wrong fingering for that chord.
Learning Piano Chords- Part 2
Let's look at a very critical issue when you are learning piano chords:
1) Black and white key groups and does this help us in life when we're learning chords?
There are countless piano method books that attempt to simplify learning piano chords by using all sorts of memorizing techniques.
The fact remains that regardless of the shortcut you use or can we call it "gimmick"or artificial memory aid, memory in learning chords follows the rule for all learned events where memory is involved- that is, once a task is learned it's really difficult to unlearn it later on.
I think a good way to think about learning chords is a backwards analysis. So, if I can easily play chords and chord inversions, what enables me to always remember the chord or voicing and what really helps you to not only play that chord but understand it so you can utilize it in the context of the song?
The plain-as-can-be answer is that the chords are a derivative of, chords are formed by, the corresponding SCALE for that key. If we play a C minor seventh chord, symbol is Cm7, when I play that chord and if I look down at my hand, I can see the C minor scale right there or more simply, all of the notes of a C major scale C D E F G A B .
The minor part comes from lowering the 3rd of the scale, the e, the 7th part means the dominant 7th note or the 7th tone B, lowered one half step.
What I do not do is look to see the relationship of the white keys to the black keys. That method can possibly save you time in the beginning learning, but doesn't do a whole lot and in fact, interferes with things when you end up playing that chord in context of the song.
Who cares that there's a black key here and 2 white keys there or whatever? When you are playing a piano song, things are going by so fast, you don't have time to start deciphering white vs. black notes and artificial groups like that.
What I can see though and even fast is the VISUAL PICTURE of the scale on the keyboard. For the scale, yes, we look at the black and white key relationships.
What we don't do though, as some teachers suggest, is learn let's say all chords by organization into white versus black keys: Example, learn chords that have only white keys:
Example of: THE WRONG WAY TO LEARN CHORDS:
Learn a G major chord (G,B,D) and then learn a C chord (C,E,G) and maybe an E minor chord (E, G, B) . Here then, the teacher is trying to organize chords not by the Key but organizing by key type, in this case, all white keys.
The problem with this method is that a G chord comes from a G major scale, the C major chord from a C major scale and the E minor chord from an E minor scale. Learn the chords by the Key, not organizing by the number of white keys versus black keys.
Again, that wrong method makes it simple in the beginning but the way you should learn is you have to memorize the chords based on the key it's derived from , not grouping it by the number or white or black keys. Always thinking in terms of the scale picture also helps me with adding color tones and helps me to improvise when playing that song.
So the moral of the story?
When you're learning chords, you learn and study them for only One Key at a time.
Pianists always love the key of C so you could begin by practicing a handful of chords that day all in the key of C. Try to get a picture of the C scale as it looks on the piano keyboard. (I always recommend "Creative Keyboard's Deluxe Encyclopedia of Chords")
Even better, try to point out on that scale, each numbered position such as "where is the 9th tone?" where is the 6th tone for that scale?" where is the sharp 5th tone for that scale?" and physically point with your finger on the keyboard where each tone is.
CORRECT EXAMPLE OF LEARNING CHORDS:
So we'd then practice for example: KEY OF C (post your picture of the C scale on your piano stand)
C major triad
C minor triad
C augmented triad
C diminished triad
C dominant seventh,
all in the key of C. This way, regardless of the chord type also know as the "chord quality", you are always referring to how it looks in relation to the visual picture of the C major scale.
If you want to learn chords in the Key of D, make sure you get a picture of a D scale and then proceed learning chords in the key of D.
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