If You Don’t Play Piano at Least Learn This

Posted By: ryan On:

Sometime around 3rd grade my classmate brought his electric guitar into show-and-tell and played Beatles songs for the class. I was immediately smitten and started guitar lessons almost immediately.

From a composer’s perspective, though, if I could start over I would start with piano. The daily use of a MIDI keyboard and the way the piano can play such a wide variety of textures makes the instrument an incredibly useful tool for composition.

Over the years I’ve studied piano independently and occasionally with teachers, to build up enough competency to allow me to use the instrument for my writing. For any non-pianists interested in improving their chops, here are several recommendations:

* Learn the scales in all 12 major and minor keys, fluidly. Yes, scales are cliche and boring. But without basic dexterity, you’ll never be able to invent interesting ideas spontaneously. Yes, you can always write (“draw”) them in, but having conditioned fingers that can find notes instantly obviously speeds up the process.
* Learn all major, minor and seventh-chord arpeggios. When I’m writing a piece and experimenting with harmony, having confident control of every chord shape and pattern means I can focus on WHAT I want to play and not worry about HOW to play it. For example, if I ever wonder “what would that sound like in minor” I just play it in minor. Same thing if I want to try the whole tune a little higher or lower, I have no problem switching to a different key.
* Learn ii-V-I progressions in every key. Pick up an intro to jazz piano book or look it up online. Being able to play basic chord progressions in any key again gives you technical fluency so you can stay in creative mode.
* Get a real piano. Easier said than done, I know. I’ll go into depth in a future post on this, but for now know that I do some of my best writing at my old out-of-tune upright, away from a computer.

As a primarily guitar and bass player, I’m still developing my piano playing. I have a long way to go with my technique (my trills are horrendous), but every time I practice at the keys I become a slightly better composer.

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