After I had been in the rehearsal room with my very first band for about 3 months, it was time for our first show.
I was pretty nervous, yet excited to try out my brand new stage piano. Man that thing sounded amazing. Classic vintage sounds and a much more real-to-life piano sound than my previous keyboard.
Trying to sort my place on the podium, setting up my new “rig” in a bar I was barely legally allowed, turned out in a fidgeting with all the cables and stands. Luckily Ruud, our band’s lead guitarist who had more than 30 years of stage experience, was there to help me.
During the show, I tried as best to keep my shit together and play everything as exactly like we had rehearsed.
What an amazing experience. I felt great.
After the show, when I was trying to give myself posture in this above-my-age environment, this guy comes up to me and starts critiquing my playing, saying that I played “too much of the same thing.”
I didn’t understand what he meant (we were playing different songs, with different chords, right?), nor was I mature enough to take the feedback and frankly felt pretty insulted.
Over the following years, not only did I learn to appreciate feedback in general, but I also steadily began improving the flow and groove that the different notes and voicings that I played collectively formed.
As opposed to continuously falling back on standard voicings and patterns, I started to implement some variation and alternations on both the “what” (Chords & Voicings) and “how” (Rhythms & Patterns) ends of the musical spectrum.
Still, the moment of really seeing what this guy had meant all those years ago came when Wiboud, my Conservatory piano teacher, told me about “the funk” and choosing accents that were not yet played (by other instruments) to form a complete groove.
Drummers’ traits & story telling
Think of a cool drum beat. Any solid beat has interesting accents outside of main beats – quarters or “four-to-the-floor.”
On top of that, they don’t play all their drums together all the time.
Then, think of how they play “breaks” (mostly after each 4th measure) – the fills and the alternations.
Playing freely with chords on the piano is like creating an engaging rhythm, beat, playing a selection of the optional notes from the harmony (chords) on various accents.
With that in mind, now think of playing like telling a story.
When someone just drones along, this becomes very boring. Interesting stories have changes in dynamics, pauses and -if we’re lucky- some moments of surprise.
When you tell something, you use fillers and side-notes to “embellish.” You fill the gaps with alternations.
This is the same with piano. Think of your main story as the chords with the main pattern. Note that his can be as easy as just laying down the harmonies on the changes.
Making that more interesting, is done by filling it with things that happen in between those main accents. In the gaps.
Now, apart from just filling the gaps already there, you also have the option to alter(nate) the playing and expressing of the actual main pattern.
Note that the rhythm (the main pattern) will be established into the ear of the listener quite quickly. As soon as you have established that, it’s not necessary to keep playing all its accents all the time.
In stead, you can then start to create gaps, both on the rhythm end, as well as in the voicings.
How to then come up with those interesting alternations, you ask?
A good place to start is to “improvise clap,” or – in other words – clap a fill.
To do this, just think of what a drummer might play in his fill, playing a combination of various optional accents that differ from the main groove.
When you’ve established a variation pattern like that, try it out both with full chord voicings, as well as with just different single notes from those chords.
All the info – accents and notes in a chord – are your options.
A pool to choose from. Not to use all at the same time, all the time.
You also would not do that with all the optional words you could choose from, when telling a story, right?
And remember – often times, less is more.
The proof is in the pudding, and the pudding is situated between the cake’s main layers.
Give it a go.
If you want to learn more about playing your chords with flow and creating interesting piano parts, Hack the Piano is where it’s at.