Saturday, October 07, 2006

How To Play The Piano Using "Shorthand" -- Chord Symbols -- Instead of Reading the Full Score

Fm7 Bb7 Ebm6 Edim7

Most people who took piano lessons as a kid, including me, grew up learning to read music exactly as it is written on the printed page. Being able to read music is a valuable skill, and I am delighted I learned that skill at an early age.
But there is a downside to only being able to read music without understanding what you are reading. A couple real-life examples illustrate the point:
What happens when you are playing and your sheet music slips off the piano and onto the floor? Unless your name is Victor Borge and you can turn the situation into comedy, you will probably find the situation extremely embarrassing. I have seen it happen several times to pianists who play well but who don't know how to improvise, and it's not a pretty site. It happened to me once years ago as well. I was accompanying a singer and someone opened a side door, letting a gust of wind sweep into the auditorium and right across my piano. The sheet music scattered onto the stage and a couple pieces blew off the stage. If I hadn't understood the music and had a grasp of it's harmonic form, I would have had to stop, pick up the music, get it back in order, and so forth, delaying the soloist and the performance. As it turned out I had several people ask me how I kept playing without the music in front of me. I replied that I knew the chord progressions of the song, so was able to "wrap the chords around the singer" and therefore keep the song going.
So what are chord symbols, and how do they work?
Chord symbols are a shorthand way of writing what is going on harmonically in a song. For example, if I were to write the chord symbols of the first line of What Child Is This? (also known as Greensleeves and several other titles) in the key of Am, I would write:
Am G F E7 -- which corresponds to the first line of the song and would appear directly above the melody line in the treble clef, so all the pianist would need to do would be to read the melody (tune) of the song -- not all the supporting notes.
I think you can see that once you know a few chords this would be infinitely easier to remember than the entire score of the song. Not only that, but that chord progression -- A, G, F, E7 -- repeats several times during the song, so once you know the form of the song, you have a huge advantage over someone who is chained to the written music and has no idea about the logic of the song.
So how does a person learn this "musical shorthand"? It's no secret -- there are books galore on learning chords, plus web sites that teach chords, or you could even pick up a chart of chords in your local music store.
Then buy a "fake book" -- a songbook with hundreds or even thousands of songs, each song showing just the melody of the song with the chord symbols listed above it. Each song alone would be known as a "lead sheet", but cumulatively the collection of songs is known as a "fake book". Then every day play a dozen or so songs just with the melody in your right hand and the chord in your left hand. It will sound barren at first, but you're learning how it works.
After a couple weeks of that, instead of playing the melody in your right hand, sing the melody (doesn't matter at all how it sounds) and use your right hand to break up the notes of the chord you are playing in your left hand. Once you get the hang of it, you can start breaking up the chord in both hands and experimenting with various rhythm patterns.
I am not saying it's easy; I am saying it's fun and exciting and that it is worth it many times over!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Immense Popularity of the Piano Continues To This Day...

Every since about 1709 when Christofori announced that he had invented an instrument to upscale the harpsichord, which plays all at one volume level -- no soft or loud -- that played both soft and loud -- which he appropriately named the "pianoforte" (which means "soft-loud" -- later the name was shorted to just "piano") -- people throughout the world have been entranced with the harmonic sound of the piano - it's richness and fullness in enabling musicians to play many notes at once or in rapid succession.

(An excellent history of the piano may be found at )

Most instruments are not solo instruments in the sense that they require an accompanianist, but not so with the piano. It can play alone as well as with combos, orchestras, or whatever. It's unique sound qualities make it the first choice in musical instruments for millions of folks the world over.

Because of that fact, multitudes of people around the world have purchased pianos and continue to purchase pianos in hopes of mastering the "musical monster with 88 ivory teeth". Some of the dominant manufacturers are Steinway, Yamaha, Baldwin, Kawaii, Bosendorfer and many others. Pianos come in various shapes and sizes, including:

Grand Pianos:

Parlor Grand. Size 4'5" to 5'5"

Baby Grand. Size 5'0" to 6'5"

Medium Studio Grand. Size 5'6" to 6'5"

Semi-Concert Grand. Size 6'6" to 8'0"

Concert Grand. Most concert grands are 9' in length

Upright Pianos:

Spinet. Size 35" to 39" tall.

Console. 40" to 44" tall.

Studio: 45" to 47" tall.

Professional. 48" to 52" tall.

Every since the invention of the piano, parents have signed their children up for piano lessons in hope they would become the next Mozart, or a least be able to entertain family and friends. But for every 100 kids that start piano lessons, probably less than 20% or so actually continue with the lessons long enough to play decently. Still, it is a good education in music, and certainly good for developing self-discipline and focus.

To really master piano playing, a beginning student must gradually learn many different disciplines and aspects of music including: sight-reading sheet music (or the score of a classical piece); fingering of scale passages and chord formations; keyboard chords, from major chords to minor chords to augmented chords to diminished chords to 7th chords and more; music theory, including major scales, minor scales, whole-tone and chromatic scales, and the "church modes", plus some specialty scales such as the Mediterranean scale, the blues scale, and so on; the tonic note or tonic tone, triads, arpeggios, the concept of key (key of C, key of Eb, key of F#, etc.) unisons, intervals, inversions, chords -- both primary and secondary, figured bass, chord symbols; dynamics and dynamic markings such as sforzando, presto, largo, allegro, etc, pedaling, body position, ear-training, music appreciation, a study of the great composers such as Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven, etc., interpretation, arranging, and a host of related subjects in the harmony and music theory areas.

This often involves years of learning at home with a teacher ( sometimes supplemented by online music lessons) and numerous music books, chord charts, fingering diagrams and musical scores. Meanwhile the student learns to play songs and classical pieces galore that contribute to the warmth of the home and the enjoyment of the family.

And if the student fails to become another Brubeck or Garner, he or she has still benefited tremendously in terms of music education, appreciation, the ability to concentrate, and many other qualities that flow out of having taken piano lessons. Plus he or she has brought the sound of music into their parent's home, and hopefully will continue with it when they form their own family.

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