This blog post is adapted from a free LIVE online piano workshop by Piano Picnic. These workshops are held each month and are centred around a different hot topic in the piano learning community. Register here to receive access to future workshops!
"Natural piano playing", "improvising", "piano freedom", "playing off-the-cuff", or my personal favourite: the "conscious pianist".
These all mean the same thing which is having the right skills to play the piano so that it looks easy...
Having the right skills to play the piano so that it seems natural, it seems like you are not trying, like you’re just going with the flow, but the reality is that you gained this ‘natural ability’ by building a solid knowledge of the fundamentals and experimentation.
This level of playing requires a plan.
What is natural piano playing?
The sort of improvisation that can be done in any style is sometimes referred to as ‘natural’ piano playing. Many people go into their piano journey desiring to play in this way, the sort of “maybe she’s born with it” of piano instead of makeup. To be able to sit at a piano and just play how you feel and for it to not sound like you tripped and fell on the keys! This sort of playing will not happen for you by accident, you need to set it as your piano goal, have a plan and work towards it.
I struggled with this...
I went through all the traditional piano performance grades with the exam-per-year approach. It gave me the skill of reading music and gaining good technique but I didn’t like playing the same pieces as everyone else and I didn’t like that all I was learning was one style of playing and I wasn’t even learning how to understand it or do it myself! I was reliant on sheet music.
At about Grade 5, I realised that I needed to branch out. I saw this woman, Brigitte was her name, playing in church these beautiful accompaniments while the congregation sang and she was just using chord sheets - which is basically the lyrics of the song with chord symbols written above. But she wasn’t just playing straight chords, she was taking that information, combining it with what she understood about music and her ‘riff-bank’, and coming out with a bonafide piano piece on the fly! This was ‘natural’ piano playing at it’s best and I wanted that! From then on, no amount of music read from a pre-approved examination book was going to satisfy me!
So I began on a journey, alongside my classical training, to learn all I could about chords.
Brigitte agreed to teach me what she knew about ‘comping’ from a chord sheet and I practised a lot. I learned how songs were built in order to understand how to make my own songs up on the fly, I learned how to gradually deposit the little patterns I learned from the songs I played into a ‘riff-bank’, and I learned how to take those riffs and turn them inside out and upside down into every possible iteration to make even more riffs! Then I was able to withdraw a riff at any time to use in my songwriting, improvisation, ‘comping and free-playing time!
I used these very techniques I’m about to share with you, but at the time I didn’t know I was doing it - it was just discovery born out of a desperation to imitate the pianists I loved. It took me years to build up my riff-bank and only when I became an online piano tutor did I really look at what I’d done and put together this roadmap from my experience! This roadmap should save you time and frustration going down roads that will not lead you to this goal.
If becoming a natural piano player is your goal, you need to be purposefully striving toward it from this point onward.
The difference between an average pianist and a natural one is.. Paying attention.
You need to pay attention to what you play from now on. To analyse and understand the songs you hear and play so that you can learn how music works - and what goes with what.
So how do we pay attention to the songs we play and hear? We BURP!
1. BASICS - MASTER THEM.
Learn basic chords.
Learn about piano scales and song keys (the same thing but applied differently).
Learn basic rhythm.
2. UNDERSTAND THE SONGS YOU PLAY & LISTEN TO.
- Learn to identify intervals.
- Learn basic chord progressions - the feel of a chord, how to identify them.
- Learn the function of chords and how they interact with each other to create a certain feel or effect.
- Learn the skill of ‘inner-hearing’ to identify the distance between notes (and therefore workout melodies).
3. RIFF-BANK - MAKE REGULAR DEPOSITS.
- Build a bank of riffs & rhythms.
- Imitate - learn to play pop songs and …
- Pull-Apart - what are these songs made up of? How were they constructed? Recognise patterns.
- Build a bank of ‘patterns’ learned from other artists (known as ‘imitation’!).
4. PLAY - FREETIME & EXPERIMENTATION
- Try the Swap Out technique - so learn a section of a song, learn it the way it’s meant to be - chords, rhythm, flourishes - then pick one element and change it up. Play the major instead of the minor chord, or add your own flourishes, change the rhythm for 4 bars, if you just change ONE thing at a time then the song will still be recognisable.
- This is improvisation - only the true greats are actually able to be truly original! For most of us improvisation is reaching into our riff-bank and choosing the riffs that will work best for each scenario based on our knowledge of harmony.
Here’s an exercise you can do this week:
Pick a pop song to learn and play - choose easy piano chorus, google the chord chart and learn the chord of the chorus. Listen to the patterns played and copy (pay attention to the solid/broken chords, rhythms, flourishes). (eg. The Scientist - Coldplay).
Memorise the patterns of the song. (chords, riffs, rhythms)
Swap one out (mix up the song by changing either one of the chords, the riffs, or the rhythms used, this way you are interpreting the song and IMPROVISING).
Put them in your riff bank. Literally make a note of what the riff entails or give it a name, or even record it on your phone and start to collate a library of riffs that you know. Then whenever you do your normal piano practise, put aside some extra time to run through the riffs in your bank. Each time you play them, change something about it - play in a different key, play slightly different notes, play different rhythms - find every variation of that riff.
To pay attention you simply need to B.U.R.P:
Learn the BASICS
UNDERSTAND the songs you play and listen to
Take the patterns of the songs you play and add them to your RIFF-BANK
PLAY with those riffs in different contexts to find out what works with what!
Once you’ve been through this process you will be able to sit at a piano and using your knowledge of what works in which situations be able to play something that STUNS your audience!
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