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I remember it like it was yesterday: me sitting in front of a piano in a practice room at college, wondering why I had to practice endless scales and read music that just didn’t do much for me interest-wise. I was a music major because I was a singer and it seemed like the logical step for higher education. The only problem was that back then (I don’t want to date myself too much here), there was only a vocal performance concentration and it required a LOT of jazz study. There was no music business major – there were no studies in publishing, no recording studios, no songwriting courses, no rock and pop courses at my college like the ones they have now. I wish they had all of those courses back then when I went to college! I spent my days singing Ella Fitzgerald songs, Billie Holliday stuff, and scat singing. Cool sometimes, but most of the time something just didn’t feel like ‘me’ in those classes and assignments, and after all of these ‘lessons’ I still couldn’t play really anything.
Anyway, there I was, wondering if I would ever ‘get’ this instrument at all. I studied four-part writing (of course, after learning the basics of theory), and tried to follow exactly what I was told to do. My heart just wasn’t in it. I didn’t really care that much about jazz (although there is nothing wrong with it). I was a rock-and-roll (and maybe a little pop music sometimes) girl, and this one-size-fits-all that I had signed up for was honestly depressing and a chore to do each time I was supposed to practice. My days were spent trying to figure out complicated jazz pieces as well as basic pieces that were so boring I ended up playing any original ideas that came to mind instead. Before I knew it, my ‘practice’ time was up, and I had to get back into life until the next time I was able to escape to that little approximately 9×12 room. At the next piano class, I would sit behind my keyboard and feel lost once again – trying to read complicated music scores, get my fingers to do opposite things at the same time and use the right pedals, aaaaagh! ‘Maybe I just wasn’t cut out for the keyboard or piano’, I thought as I struggled to keep up with the very coordinated and speedy classical and jazz students.
Surely Beethoven and Chopin had it easier. They WERE classical musicians, and were taught in that way. I felt I was missing a puzzle piece that would finally make everything ‘click’ into place. I wanted to compose my own music and do my own accompaniment whenever I wanted. I just wanted to be a singer/songwriter, maybe a rock star:), or at least be able to bang out a few cool songs that captured my feelings.
I would visit music stores too, to find that magical method book that always had a lovely arrangement of something torturously boring like ‘Michael Row the Boat Ashore’ or something similar that might work. I even worked at a music store and got discounts on books, most of which I only got to about page 4 in or so before they went on the shelf with the huge assortment that I already had. Something was definitely missing. I had shelves and shelves (and shelves, seriously!) of method books, of flash cards for theory concepts, of theory books that got into four-part composition. I guess I thought that if I had all of the books and videos and DVDs that one day I would ‘get it’ and everything would magically make sense. I was given a piano by a boyfriend, I bought a Casio keyboard, I quizzed my keyboardists in the rock/pop bands I was in – I tried everything I could think of. I wished so much that I could put some of those method books under my pillow and wake up with all of the awesome skills I needed by osmosis. Still, it never happened…
I have learned a lot since then. The most important piece of advice now that I would give my younger self would be to PLAY WHAT YOU LOVE USING CHORDS FIRST. Sounds so simple and even basic, doesn’t it? Somehow, during those college classes, the instructors didn’t get the memo. You see, I wanted to WRITE my own music, to play my own accompaniment, instead of forever having to rely on a pianist to get ideas across. I didn’t necessarily want to be Beethoven or Chopin, I just wanted to be able to play like some of the people could on MTV (it was the 80’s then, after all).
I think music theory is still really important. Yes, there are many rock stars (and pop stars) who don’t understand or care about reading music, but I still think there is value to it. Music is a language, and theory is a part of learning that language. Still, the biggest thing I wish I had been taught was the importance of CHORDS. Oh, how I wish I had known then what I know now! For some reason, when you take guitar lessons – especially rock guitar lessons – they instantly start to teach you chords – barre chords, root basic chords. If you take piano/keyboard lessons, however, you generally start off with a book that teaches how to read music notes and then start actually ‘playing’ with a very exciting version of ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’. Ugh.
Why is it that piano and keyboard instruction focuses so little at first on chords? I think it is because the instructors assume that you want to play classical and/or jazz piano/keyboard. Only in the last few years has there been so much focus on rock/pop piano playing, and especially only in the last few years has there been any related instruction in colleges (with the exception of MIT/KIT/GIT/VIT etc., of course). I remember having a piano lesson with a lady who told me I should just read the sheet music to my favorite rock songs. I thought about that later, and I don’t recall any of my rock influences sitting up on stage with a book of sheet music. It just seemed weird.
There are so many well-meaning instructors who make you spend years and years learning theory and understanding how to play complicated four-part writing. They teach you about all of the composers – mostly classical – but many of them dissuade you from studying your favorite artists, at first. The problem is that not all students want to go that direction in their playing; some of us just wanted to be able to play that Def Leppard song and sound really cool:)
So if I could go back to that younger ‘me’ and tell her what to do instead, it would be to learn chord shapes of my favorite songs first. Sounds simple, and it could have been. It almost makes me sad to think of how much I struggled to feel like I would ever ‘get’ the keyboard/piano at all. Yes, I am thankful that I understand a lot of theory. Yes, I am thankful that I was exposed to a variety of music styles, but still, there is that sadness and longing for what things could have been like musically for me if I had known this earlier.
If you are a rock-and-roller (or even if you want to be the next pop star), I would highly, HIGHLY suggest that you find a few songs you love and just learn the chords on piano/keyboard to those before doing anything else. You can also probably pick out the melody, but at first, learning the basic chord shapes is so much to your advantage. This will honestly save you years of struggle – like the ones I have had to deal with.
Chords are to music like words and phrases are to learning English. If you want to be able to write a book in English, for example, taking a typing class can make things much faster and easier technically. However, before you ever take a typing class, you speak your language first and learn your alphabet and rules of the language. You learn to speak short phrases when you are young, before you learn your alphabet or learn to type in your language. When you speak, you don’t speak an alphabet; you speak words you’ve heard or phrases you’ve picked up – you mimic sounds. To me, chords are like this – they help you get your basic ideas across, even if you miss a few notes or if you only play the bare bones of a song. Learn simple words and phrases before you worry about the alphabet or try to type your novel. Speak the basics before you try to write every single word out perfectly. Some may not agree, and some may criticize my views, but this is what I would tell my younger self. I would also tell her she didn’t need to spend so much money on all of those method books! 😉
So how do you learn to PLAY WHAT YOU LOVE USING CHORDS FIRST, without reading music? Shapes. That’s it. When you take guitar lessons, you learn SHAPES of chords. The same is true with piano chords. Just learn the shapes first, and things will fall into place easier musically for you later. There are so many chord books you can buy, and so many resources online. There are YouTube videos you can watch. By the way, you DON’T need any books (right now) called ‘1,563 Chords’ or something similar. Just learn the few chords in your favorite rock or pop song. Generally there aren’t that many chords in rock and pop, so this is not too complicated. You can also learn all 12 major chords, 12 minor chords, 12 diminished, 12 augmented chords and also 12 minor seventh and 12 major seventh chords (seventh chords are used in rock as well). This is what I wish my younger self had known, and I am playing ‘catch up’ now because no one ever told me years ago that it should be that easy. I’m not affiliated with this site in any way, but after a quick search this is one example I found for learning chords: http://www.piano-keyboard-guide.com/piano-chords.html Another awesome resource (I am also not personally affiliated with) is the Piano Genius course by Tim Gross. Tim is the current touring keyboard player for Rick Springfield and has worked with many other famous and talented musicians. I really, really love his teaching style and how he focuses SO much on chords. You can check out his site here: www.pianogenius.com and if you like, you can sign up for free videos too. I am currently studying his course, and it is great!
So remember – focus on learning the CHORD SHAPES of your favorite songs first – JUST CHORDS – first. I hope I can save you the years it took me to figure that out.
Peace and love,