In order to play piano musically, you need to train your fingers to use the little muscles within the fingers and not the big muscles that run up and down your arm. You want to develop a sense that gravity is working with you to push down a key from the knuckles rather than feeling like you are pushing buttons using your arm muscles. This is counter to what the brain naturally wants to do so you have to get a little Zen about things. It is sort of like setting up a “trust fall” for your hands. Once your brain trusts that the finger muscles are safely supporting your hand, your arm and shoulder muscles will relax and you achieve a gravity-based down stroke of the finger that works with the action of a piano to optimally hit the string. You will notice that your technique is far faster, more expressive and less tiring. My piano teacher, had a good exercise for focusing on this that I still use today:
- Relax arms and shoulders.
- With both hands form the chord E, F#, G#, A#, C one octave apart.
- Hold down all of the notes.
- In slow/no tempo, one at a time lift up a finger and release it back to the held chord making sure that arms are relaxed and you are not “pushing” the note down but releasing the weight of your arm into the note.
- Listen carefully to the notes and try and achieve a uniform volume. Pay real attention to how your arms and hands feel. Do not just mindlessly play the notes.
It is a lot harder than it sounds.
People often ask me how to begin to learn to play jazz piano. Unfortunately, even if you are (or were once) a fairly skilled classical player there is no one semester class or latenight video infomercial lesson series that is going to work for this. You need to become somewhat obsessed – listening to a lot of jazz and also spending significant time at the piano learning chords, voicings and theory. Both of these will feed into your playing in a noticeable way if you keep the intensity up. To get started learning ‘jazz chords’ I recommend first learning to play all root chords by their notation symbol in all keys. You really can’t begin to tackle a leadsheet and understand jazz piano voicings and harmonies until you can bang these chords out on demand, picture them in your head when you see the symbol and hear them when they are played to you. Rather than reinventing the wheel, I will point you to places that convey these concepts well.
Mike Titlebaum’s Java Applet Ear Trainer
If you feel you have this down you should be able to answer the questions below without much thinking and you are ready to think about how to voice these chords for piano.
What notes are in the following chords?
I decided a while back that it would be fun to record my steady piano gig. I thought it would be good for my playing to listen to what I was doing after the fact and I also hoped that I just might capture the odd moment. I have a nice portable DAT machine but the problem was figuring out how to set up a couple of mikes. This is a pretty suboptimal recording situation to say the least. The room can be pretty loud. I came to the conclusion that the best way to deal with this was the trusty Realistic PZM. These were inexpensive mikes made by Crown for Radio Shack in the 80s that have maintained a loyal cult following because they sound amazingly good. I had one lying around from when I was in High School and just grabbed another one on eBay. They really do an amazing job isolating the piano if i record with these guys taped onto the lid and the lid closed. Things do sound a little “boxy” but the stereo separation is good and I think I can do some postproduction to make it sound a little less like I am playing in a coffin. Apparently you can convert these things to run on Phantom Power but I haven’t done that yet.