View Full Version : Help my lack of understanding perhaps?

03-24-2009, 05:09 AM
To cut right to it, I'm having an incredibly difficult time feeling like I have any idea what I'm doing with piano. I taught myself and have been playing for five years now and just recently, I've started playing in a band type deal for a youth group show and I got behind the keyboard and couldn't participate at all when everyone started playing the songs. Let's just say my confidence has plummeted and I feel like I'm learning piano all over again. I think my main problem is I have no idea how to improvise maybe? I know the chords but that's as far as it goes. I understand that cmaj means c e g and so forth but that gets really dull when playing with a group when all I'm doing is hitting those chords when they are suppose to be played. I don't know anything further like what sounds good with what or how to play with that knowledge (or lack of). This has been incredibly confusing and frustrating for me because I can play and sing to any song when written out as sheet music but can't seem to look like anything but a fool to myself as well as everyone else when told to 'mess around with my c#m, g#..etc part.' I don't know how else to explain this but if anyone has any free time on their hands and ANY information that you think could help me, that would be fantastic and much much appreciated! (I apologize for my negative attitude on the subject, it has been quite degrading on my self esteem as a musician the past while :o )

Victoria Rose

03-24-2009, 10:47 AM
I'm not a pianist, but this is a common problem whatever instrument you play. Improvisation skills don't come naturally.
What I suggest is learn to play the melodies of any song you know. You may do this already, but listen to recordings and play along with the vocal. Either try and copy the vocal exactly, or repeat phrases in the gaps.
Think about how the notes of the vocal go with the chords - which notes are stressed? Are there particular notes that stand out as more expressive than others?
Listen to piano solos in the kind of music you want to play. (Or any solos, come to that.)

In technical terms, the choice of notes comes simply from the chords themselves. Obviously as you say, on a C chord, you have the notes C E and G - which is bit dull! But what are the other chords? If you have F and G chords (say), then you can use those notes (on the C) in addition to C E G. (Obviously you end up with all the white notes this way - in this key - but the idea is to treat the chord notes as primary, and the others as fillers. When you get to the F chord, then F A C are primary and the others (E, G, B, D) are fillers or passing notes. You should find that melodies work the same way.)

But the way you put those notes together into logical sounding phrases is obviously the hard part - and it comes from studying melodies (vocals and improvised solos).
The additional thing about piano (which you can't do on most other instruments) is you can solo with 2 or 3-note bunches. You can use rhythm (remember the piano belongs to the percussion family ;) ) and dynamics. (Think of all those rock'n'roll solos where the guy is just banging a repeated chord high up in 8th notes!)
Add blue notes. Eg, instead of just hitting E and G (say on a C chord), hit the D# as well. (Depends on the style of song, of course, whether this will sound right, but on most rock, blues or jazz it will work.)

But all these ideas (and more!) should come from listening to playing and singing styles in the kind of music you're interested in.
Improvisation isn't a matter of inspiration springing from the air by magic. It's a matter of building a library (vocabulary, database, whatever metaphor you like!) of licks and phrases - which you get by copying other people, mimicking anything that catches your ear - from which you then draw, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously.

It isn't a matter of instrumental technique either. You can already play the piano. What you need to do is find "something to say" with it. If you can play the tune of the song (that you want to improvise on), that's a starting point, some useful raw material. Start a solo by repeating the part of the tune that goes over those chords - then you can start messing with the tune: missing out some notes, changing the timing, etc. Then you're improvising!

If it's a question of jamming - just messing around on some chords with no melody - that's harder, because you have to do more invention. But still, you should have something previously heard and learned that you can insert - or you can just think about the chords, and how you might link one chord to the next with a few notes between chord tones.
Pick a note on the next chord as a "target", and plan a path to it from a note on the current chord.
Don't worry about leaving space, or not playing enough notes. Great solos can have very few notes - as long as they're timed right. (Listen to Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk.)
Even if the piece has no tune or lyrics, think of some words - any kind of verbal phrase, and try playing that on the piano (its rhythm and shape, with pauses).

03-24-2009, 01:02 PM
its good advice. I tend to think "what do I want hear?" And I try to play something I like. If you don't like it...why play it?

03-24-2009, 01:16 PM
Yes take the sheet music away and most pianist are lost. Messing around is not taught, in fact most teachers will slap your hands when you start messing around. Piano Accompaniment is what you are being asked to do and that is different than solo piano.

Saw this the other day. The piano/keyboard is used in the following ways - you are being asked to do number four:

1) Solo instrument - piano plays both harmony, melody and rhythm.
2) Accompaniment to a lead instrument including a vocalist - piano plays harmony but no melody.
3) Accompaniment - Part of an ensemble - similar to solo but limited to a specific range for example a specific voice in a choral.
4) Accompaniment - Part of a band that includes a Bass and Lead - Piano plays Harmony but no melody -- my additional comment - and does not step on the Bass' toes. i.e. chords with the right hand and root or root five with the left hand. As you can imagine there are many different patterns that can be used. I'm shooting for about 4 and will mix and match those to fit the song being played.

Now each category can be expanded, however, that may throw another light on the subject.

I'm in a study group - on another forum - and we are learning how to play keyboard from a Fake Book. You may like to see what has been said.


You will have to find the string - How to play from a fake book - study group. Click "All" as it is several screens long. Then scroll down to "Blues flat 7" comments which will take you to Rodney's Method and "Peat the Bean" lesson site. Both are worth a look.

Good luck -- it is a different World.


P.S. This may help.

03-24-2009, 02:22 PM
Yes take the sheet music away and most pianists are lost.Uh-huh. It's the reverse for guitarists, as everyone knows...

03-24-2009, 02:27 PM
Well said! ;)

03-26-2009, 11:20 PM
Imo what you should do is find your favorite songs you like to which you have a recording, and then find what key they're in, and then learn the scale of that key.

practice it a little until you remember it without any problems or hesitation. you need to be really fast at playing it but you need to know the pattern easily. if you find a song in C major or A minor that's a good place to start because this part is already finished since both these keys are just all the white notes, easy. F and G major (and their relative minors, meaning in simple terms, the minor key that uses the same pattern of notes) are also not too bad since they only use one black key and the rest are all the white ones minus a white one next to the black key.

then, you can either play thechords you know with the left hand and fiddle around with the right or play the song and fiddle around.

what i mean by fiddle around is play sometimes notes that are in your chords you know, and also some extra ones that are part of the key scale you learned.

you will find nearly all the notes of the chords are in that key scale you learned.

during some chords, one might not be, this note was 'moved over' from the key scale. so now, during that chord, one note that's part of the scale will sound bad, and one note one semi tone over will now sound good because it's part of that chord.

also every once in a while play the chords one note at a time, change up the order too, change your rhythm as you feel like.

mess around on your own. make tons of mistakes, after a while you will learn what you like and what you don't.

it's like if you were learning to cook, i could explain to you all day the infinite complexity of how foods relate to each other, how cooking them differently, combining them differently will give different results, but really you need to try a bunch of recipes to know what you like, what combinations of ingredients you like, what kind of food you want to make.

some recipes you will fail, some you will succeed but just won't like too much.

so do this with alot of the songs you know. you will be learning every key as you do because different songs are in different keys, and you will begin to learn more how chords relate.

you'll be taking chords and adding notes to them when you do this, taking a major chord and playing the 7th over it, then notice that and you'll see that's the 7th sound. you'll understand that note as both the 7th of the chord that's playing as well as whatever note it is in the key scale you're playing, which imo is the most important part.

so basically trial and error but try to notice the names of stuff too the relationship of things in comparison to the chord and the key scale, especially when you do something you really like.

and just spend alot of time doing that.