Category Archives: Piano Performance

Musical Desire Meets Taskmaster

I play the piano. And have played for 50 years on again and off again. The last couple of years have been on again, and it has been a joy. But for someone who likes the jazz medium, its too bad that I’m tied to notes on the page. I haven’t developed skill at improvisation.

I’ve approached it many times. Whether it is a teacher or a book, the set is the same: There are 5 variations of the 7-chord. For each chord, there is a root position and 3 inversions to learn. Learn the 5 variations and 4 voicings in all 12 keys. Do that in both the right hand and the left hand. After you have that done, you are ready for lesson two! Talk about hitting a wall at lesson one! I’ve hit that wall several times.

The most recent book I’ve acquired is Bill Dobbins, “A Creative Approach to Jazz Piano Harmony”. I’ve been working at lesson one for about a month. I’ve learned major-7 and dominant-7 in 12 keys. I’m working at the minor. I will still have half-diminished and diminished to work on! This is not exactly what you call instant gratification! But I think I’ll hang in there.

Yesterday, I read, or perhaps re-read, Mr. Dobbins introduction to the book. What he had to say was profound. At least it was at that reading.

The question may be asked, whether or not it is really necessary to practice all material in all inversions and in all keys. The answer, of course, is that it is not really necessary for any of us to do most of the things we do. If we are really interested in developing our bodies we submit to endlessly repetititve exercise regimins with little complaining, as long as we eventually see some positive result. If I wish to have a richer harmonic vocabulary than I do now, and to use that vocabulary with both greater effectiveness and spontaneity, it seems only logical that I will need to practice differently than I do now. Unfortunately, contemporary society and the media strongly condition us to expect to be able to have anything we want almost immediately, and with the investment of as little time or money as possible. No one seems to notice that most things which can be so easily obtained are not worth having to begin with.

So Mr. Dobbins sent me that message loud and clear. Since I’ve already bought the book, I might as well hang in there and do the work. Unless I don’t want to. I think I do!

A minor victory for the aspiring pianist

I can’t say how long I’ve been practicing Marian McPartland’s Twilight World. Months and months! The transcription is 8 pages long. For some time now, I’ve had pages 6,7, and 8 memorized. But I’ve been stuck on page 5 for quite some time. I suspect that practice technique (or lack thereof) are to blame, but I have been stuck! Finally yesterday morning was breakthrough. The bottom 3/4 of Page 5 works without referring to the transcription.

I have a lot to learn about memorization, and I still find it somewhat frightening … because honestly, once it is done, the playing of the song is some kind of miracle.

I wish I could get into another musicians head, and see how he or she thinks!

Despite it all, my memorized repertoire is growing. I need to tackle the top bit of page five with rigor, and see if I can speed the process along. Twilight world is such a beautiful tune, I’m not bored with it, but it would be nice to grow the repertoire faster!

Piano performance opportunities?

I’m looking for like minded adult piano students in the Ogden area who would like some informal performance opportunities. Perhaps monthly get togethers in the homes of members of our “group”. On a more formal basis, an example of this is the Adult Music Student Forum of the Washington DC area ( I would like more experience performing for others than I get at my teacher’s recitals and playing for friends (they say they enjoy it, though!)

Is there a group in this area like I describe? Or can we form one?

Rhythm Syllables

While working at jazz pieces and some Stephen Heller exercises that have sextuplets (six note patterns in one beat). I needed to add to my counting vocabulary. My earlier training engrained syllables for a few patterns:

eighths: (one-and two-and … )
eighth triplets (one-trip-let two-trip-let … )
sixteenths (one-e-and-a two-e-and-a … )
quarter triplets (over two beats) (one-o-let three-o-let)

The above paradigm provided a specific syllable for each positional timing, and insisted that the first syllable of a pattern be the beat number in the measure. When patterns became more complex you would leave out the unplayed counts. All of this didn’t really help me when getting to the new pattern of sextuplets (e.g. in the patterns of McPartland shown in an earlier post).

Internet research shows that piano educators are in no particular agreement on what’s best, so I came up with something that works for me from the various schools of thought. What I like are pronounceable syllables that roll off the tounge with appropriate syllable emphasis. So for a six syllable word to aid in counting the sextuplets, I use:

  • rump-i-ty-hump-i-ty
  • This “word” places appropriate emphasis on the first and fourth syllables, which helps to keep the note pattern flowing properly. Because “rump” is different than “hump”, the word helps to reinforce where I am in the measure when learning long runs of sextuplets. I also find that hump is naturally stressed somewhat less than rump in the pronounciation of this word. That effect is also appropriate to the playing of sextuplets.

    While researching this, I found one simple phrase that is quite helpful with triplet patterns. I tend to rush them! The following is interesting:

  • stuck-in-gum
  • When used as an aid to counting a triplet pattern among straight eighths or quarter note patterns, it helps me to avoid the rush just because the image of “stuck in gum” slows a guy down a tad. Funny how the mind works!

    This week’s challenge is to learn a septuplet (seven note pattern) among a bunch of sextuplets. In this piece, I’m moving along with a bunch of rumpity-humpities, and now I have to deal with a ??-???-???-??-??-???-??? What is the aid I use?

    What I came up with is:

  • noodle-ee-bee-doodle-ee
  • It rolls off the tounge and places light emphasis on the final syllable. In addition, it focuses the mind on the symmetry of the pattern. (A seven note pattern has middle element –“bee”.) So I know that if I’m playing eighths in the left hand with noodle-ee-bee-doodle-ees in the right hand then the second eighth falls after the bee but before the doodle! I started out toying with noodle-ee-doodle-ee-doo, for septuplets, but that word has a problem! It places a strong emphasis on the last syllable, and I soon found that noodle-ee-doodle-ee was just another pronounciation of rumpity humpity, so it was counter productive. With this pronounciation it was easy to confuse the six note pattern with the seven. The word I chose, noodle-ee-bee-doodle-ee, is suitably distinct as a seven note pattern.

    I’m learning to talk “New Yorker”. So to use my favorite New York slang: How weird is that?

    Here’s some links to material I used in forming my thoughts on the subject.

    Practice Technique: Don’t look at the keys!

    I’m sure its written. I’m sure you’ve heard it. Don’t look at the keys!

    Sure. But when the going gets tough, we look at the keys don’t we?

    I was practicing a line of McPartlands If You Could See Me Now (line 3 Page 46), which has a series of 10ths in the alternating bass line. Tenths are a stretch for me. In fact white key tenths are reached on the tips of the keys, above the key slip. So they are a challenge.

    I found that though I practiced for hours, I really wasn’t getting more consistent at striking the tenths confidently while playing at a good tempo. Then it dawned on me! I was constantly (twice per measure!) moving my eyes from the score to the keyboard. Something had to give. Either the score, or the keyboard. I’m of the opinion that ideally one should get to the point that vision is not essential to performance, so I chose to eliminate sight of the keyboard. (Hopefully the score will go away sometime, but that’s another story)

    To keep my eyes from the keyboard, I wedged three music books between the music desk and the fallboard, so that I was playing with my hands below the books, while I was referencing the score above the books. It really worked! I found that while my vision of the keys was eliminated, my initial performance was no worse than with full sight. Interesting. As I practiced, I found that my accuracy improved. More later … The quest for excellence continues.

    Joy of performance

    When I got back to the piano a few months ago, after a 15+ year absence, I didn’t know what would happen. Ooo boy! A lot has happened. I have practiced with abandon, found a great teacher — Rebecca Wren of Ford Piano Studio — and things really are happening! The joy of it is that I find I can perform at a level which was not a part of me 15 years ago. What a fine feeling.

    For the past two months I’ve been working on learning a piece recorded by Marian McPartland many years ago. The piece is her interpretation of “If You Could See Me Now”. I am working from the transcriptions of Don Sickler and John Oddo: “The Artistry Marian McPartland” (c 1985) I purchased my copy of this book on eBay. Amazon also lists it..

    When first approached two months ago, I thought the first measure of page 48 was going to be out of reach. Today, well … I’m just so happy with it!
    1st measure of page 48

    Here’s an mp3 clip of my playing earlier this evening For me, it’s pure magic!

    You can also hear Marian McPartland’s performance of this piece on Rhapsody (free).