Blog #4: Improving my Solo Piano Sound

In the last post, I briefly discussed my gig at Churchill’s, along with some advice from my jazz piano teacher that brought about my desire to become more connected with the piano. It is my goal to create a clear line of communication between my mind, body, and the instrument. It is what I call the ‘clear vessel’. 

“Becoming one” with the instrument is an overarching theme and desire for my playing, but I would like to discuss a more specific goal I have been working on: solo piano. Playing solo is something I have done my entire life, mostly in the form of the infamous piano recital, the pinnacle of musical anxiety. 

Today, my solo piano journey looks a little different. While I spent most of my younger years learning classical pieces, I now spend a great deal of time arranging pop, jazz, and other songs for piano. Arranging tunes and learning written arrangements have been the most essential catalysts for my development in this area. Seems obvious right? If you want to get good at solo piano, play solo piano arrangements! It doesn’t matter what level you are at, the only way to get better at something is to try it! Lucky for me, I was forced to learn a few dozen songs in a short amount of time for my solo piano gig. 

(You can see several of these arrangements on the video section of this website, or on my YouTube channel. My favorite was my take on Vulfpeck’s ‘Baby I Don’t Know Oh Oh’. See Video Below!)

Along this journey, I haven’t always stuck to my core principles that I outlined in my first two blogs. I wasn’t focused, I practiced mistakes, and didn’t clearly identify what my goal was and how I would get there. After taking a short online ‘Elements of Solo Piano’ course, I identified some key points I could improve upon: groove, hand independence, and orchestration

There are two things I have done to ‘improve my groove’. The first is metronome practice. I start every practice session by playing scales, patterns, or arpeggios to a metronome with both hands, and it has improved my time little by little. I will also play my arrangements to a click. The second action I have taken is playing along to recordings and learning different grooves. I found that funk music is a great source of groovy keyboard patterns, but you can find them in every genre! My favorite intro groove is from Donny Hathaway’s “What’s Going On”. Learning different grooves not only improves your feel, but it cultivates a level of hand independence, which is my second focus.

Playing different rhythms in the right and left hands can make a performance a lot more interesting. In the Donny Hathaway recording, he plays both the bassline and a guitar like rhythm in the right hand for the first 4 bars. This pattern was a good challenge and can enhance the performance of that tune when I arrange it. I have also been practicing a Bach Fugue, which is equally demanding in both hands, and involves completely different melodies and rhythms at the same time. 

I make sure to always practice technique with both hands. I have neglected my left hand the past several years, which makes it very difficult to play solo, as both hands are crucial for a full performance.

The third element is orchestration. Orchestration refers to the arrangement of music for several instruments. Thinking of the performance as a collection of different ‘parts’ (bass, guitar, drums, strings, brass, etc) allows us to create that full sound we are looking for. An easy way to orchestrate is to simply mimic the different instruments in a recording. For example, if you were to play George Michael’s ‘Careless Whisper’, you would want to start with the saxophone part, which is a central motif of the song. Then you could add in some bass, guitar, and background vocal fills. 

These three elements fit together well as the challenge of playing several different ‘parts’ becomes easier with an improved hand independence and groove.

If you would like me to expand on any of these topics, feel free to reach out! Or if you have any other insights on effective solo piano performance, drop a comment below. 

Peace, 

Peter

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