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Tips and Tricks for the (Solo) Piano Learner: Pt. 1

Updated: Jun 24

The piano can be a very intimidating instrument. It’s a big deal, in terms of range, harmonic possibilities, percussiveness, etc.. Also, the piano plays different roles depending on the setting: solo, with or without a bassist, piano trio, small group, with or without a guitar in the rhythm section, comping for soloists, in a big band, and the list goes on. 

And excellent piano players range widely from virtuosic soloists (think Art Tatum, Mary Lou Williams, Chucho Valdes) to singer-pianists (Blossom Dearie, Dr. John, Nora Jones), and of course great keyboard explorers (Chick Corea, George Duke, Domi). For me, knowing where to start was challenging, especially because I did not go to “jazz school.” Like many people, I started out with classical music and then my interest in jazz and related styles grew. So, figuring out how to learn – how to teach myself, basically – is an ongoing process . . .

This post is the first from Amy where I’ll share some of the tips and tricks I found useful along the way. I hope it’s helpful for you – please reach out if you have questions about anything you see below.

Part 1: The Imaginary Rhythm Section

When Tracy and I were working on Inside a Melody, we were so lucky to work with Bill Stevenson in Halifax, Nova Scotia (Canada). Bill has a long and storied musical history, although most people aren’t aware of it. He coached me a lot and I could probably write a book about how his approach is still helping me.

But in terms of solo playing, the best lesson I learned from Bill was listening to him play solo at a restaurant. With the piano, it’s tempting to try and “do all the things,” because pianos can do that! But when I tried it, it sounded too cluttered, busy, and incoherent. It sounded like somebody trying too hard, with no artistic focus.

As I listened to Bill, sometimes only playing 1-2 notes at a time, I realized he could hear an imaginary band in his head, and he was playing along with them. And somehow, almost like magic, we could infer a bit of what they were doing just by listening to his playing. And then I realized why it’s a truism that “it’s not what you play, it’s what you don’t play.” Because we already know what a full rhythm section sounds like, and if the pianist is playing in a similar manner our imaginations will fill in the gaps for us. You don’t need to play all the notes. Wow. A major shift in thinking. If you click on Bill's name above, you can hear his style.

Another good record that can help you hear this is Bill Evans – Alone, one of my all-time favourite solo

piano records. It’s so melodic and swings very hard even without a bass player or drummer. Check out Here’s That Rainy Day and how he moves rhythmically in between half-note rhythms and triplets at 1:30, and finally brings in a double-time feel around 2:07. We can feel and hear the transition using very few notes. There are tons of great moments on this record where the piano is leading an imaginary rhythm section, and this is something we can emulate very easily once we activate our imaginations. It eliminates the pressure of trying to be everywhere, all at once.

So, get your imaginary rhythm section going – the good news is it can include your favourite players, and it’s free :) Of course, playing along with recordings is also a good step in this direction if you find it hard at first, but after you get the feel of it be sure and try it solo. I found it to be a powerful concept and made me feel much more comfortable in improvising solo, because I could imagine the band supporting my playing in the background. It also gives you a great opportunity to record your practice, listen back to your playing, make adjustments, and appreciate parts of your musicianship that are going better than you think.

Another fantastic place for solo learners is on the Skilled Musician Youtube Channel. Corey Taylor is awesome, and his page is a wealth of knowledge. The videos are setup so you can see/hear/read what he is doing at the keyboard instead of taking hours to figure it out. If you heck out his solo improvs at the beginnings of longer videos, you can tell his imaginary rhythm section is fully energized.

I’ll have some more resources to share with you in a couple of weeks, so be sure and check back for Part Two in this series. Thanks for reading, and have fun!


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