I recently received this email from a young pianist:
I'm a recent graduate of the MacEwan jazz program (piano) in Edmonton, AB. I had the opportunity to see you with the U of M faculty combo at the Yardbird Suite a few months ago. I really love your playing, and recently started reading your blog, which I have found very helpful and inspirational. I just have a few questions about playing:
What do you recommend to develop solo piano techniques? I find that after a substantial amount of work, I can come up with a good solo piano arrangement for a tune, but I feel that I'm stuck with using a few techniques. I've recently started transcribing sections of arrangements that I am drawn to (Monk, Mehldau, Fred Hersch, etc), and attempting to arrange in a mish-mash of styles. What is your perspective on growing as a solo pianist?
Are there any exercises that you do to develop rhythmic sophistication? I practice technique in odd rhythmic patterns and groupings, but I still haven't found a satisfactory practice method for rhythmic development.
Lastly, would we be able to do a few lessons when you're back in Canada in the Fall? I will be in Winnipeg for a week or so in September. Thanks a lot for all of your wonderful playing and blogging. Hope to hear from you soon,
Thanks for your letter, Alec. Glad you enjoyed the gig at Yardbird Suite. The ensemble I played with was billed as the University of Manitoba Faculty Ensemble, but it really should be called Steve Kirby and Friends, or maybe all of our names (Jimmy Greene, George Colligan, Steve Kirby, Quincy Davis.) I say this because Faculty Ensemble is very a non-descript sort of name, and gives the impression that our only musical common denominator comes from teaching at the same school. It's a pretty heavy band, and the interplay is stellar, since we had been playing every Wednesday night for a whole school year!
It's also interesting that you are asking little old moi about solo playing, since I didn't do much of that during that particular show, and it's not something that I'm readily identified with (although I have released three solo CDs on Steeplechase). I don't even think that I am that great at solo playing! However, I think that many young jazz pianists mistakenly feel that solo playing is out of their grasp (no pun intended). I think that most players have the tools already, but it's just a question of getting comfortable with the space. Most of my professional experience as a pianist has been playing with bands, so the number one problem I have when I play solo is THE SPACE! Space is good, but you might end up feeling naked without the bass, drums, and horns or vocalists to take the pressure of of you.
And speaking more about space, one should not think that they have to fill up every square inch of the music in order to be a functional solo pianist. Everyone hears Art Tatum or the stride players or what have you and thinks that they have to be able to do that. I disagree. Bill Evans played incredible solo piano, and I never heard him play stride or walk bass lines. So my first piece of advice is this: don't be afraid of solo piano! And don't shy away from opportunities to do it on the gig. Whether it be a solo intro to a tune on a trio gig, or a 5 hour solo gig at a restaurant, look for places to try it out.
One common issue with pianists trying to play more solo piano is the left hand. If you play in jazz bands a lot, you probably have a good right hand, but your left hand is lacking the speed and finesse. This is totally normal. So can you develop this? Here's piece of advice number 2: Practice everything that you play with the right hand in the left hand. It's not that your left hand is incapable, it's just asleep. You need to engage it more than you have been doing. And you can start with left hand alone:play melodies, licks, scales, voicings, arpeggios, anything, and just focus on the left hand. Even on the gig, try soloing with just the left hand. Don't worry about speed. Just think about developing a new, more efficient link between your left hand and your brain.
Piece of advice number 3: Start with ballads or slow tunes. Relax! Solo piano is a time to enjoy the softer, slower side, the lyrical side. Enjoy playing rubato. However, a word of caution: I believe that the best solo pianists understand and make a distinction between rubato playing and/or playing without strict time AND being able to keep strict time by themselves. I have heard many solo pianists in lobbies and restaurants throughout the world who clearly have gotten lazy with their time keeping. Like I said before, most of my gigs have been with bands, so I am more aware of keeping time when I play alone.
Here's piece of advice number 4, which was passed on to me by the great Bill Charlap: practice performing to get comfortable with your nerves. What Charlap meant was that you want to practice a solo piece and get comfortable with the idea of continuous playing, regardless of mistakes or anything that you didn't completely like. Later, you can go back and make it better, or tape yourself and take note of what worked and what didn't. But one thing I notice a lot from youngsters who come in to a lesson is that they play and stop, play and stop, without just developing a sense of how to get through a performance, regardless of imperfections. This is part of developing confidence as a player. We all play things that we aren't thrilled with, but at a certain point, you have to just keep playing and hope for the best. So divide your practice time into isolating the minute details, and then try just playing a tune as if you were doing a solo concert at Carnegie Hall, and just get used to that feeling.
I took a lesson with Fred Hersch last summer, and he had a lot to say about solo piano playing; I believe he is really one of the best solo pianists around. And Brad Mehldau studied with Hersch, and I believe he took a lot from Hersch, more than folks realize. Hersch talked about inner voices a lot. He advised playing through a ballad, and trying to develop almost a four part chorale approach, almost splitting each hand in two voices. Even if you started with just one line in the right and bass notes in the left, and then added an inner voice in the thumb of the right hand and then a 7th or a third in the thumb of the left, then you would start to see and hear things differently, especially if you are like me; single note right hand and "The Claw" left hand, banging out voicings. And Hersch talked about sound, about not "slapping"the keys. I believe that solo playing is a chance to really explore all the dynamics of the piano. So a softer approach can give you more colors in your sound.
I never have considered myself to be a rhythmic expert, even though I have played with many groups that use odd meters and a wide variety of rhythmic genres in their music. I think the first thing that most students need to do is develop a good time feel for even basic 8th notes and so forth. Playing with the metronome helps. Playing along with recordings helps also, even without transcribing the solos note for note. Another idea is to develop soloing where you limit the number of notes, and isolate rhythm as one element. For example: let's say you want to play over an F Blues. Instead of playing all of your blues and bebop licks, let's take a melodic cell: A Bb C# D Eb. Ok, so instead of thinking of that as a scale, think of that as a five tom drum set. Now, your note choices are limited, so how are you going to tell a compelling story using only 5 notes? Rhythm is the answer. So you can use 8th notes, 16ths, triplets, odd grouping of 8th notes, odd groupings of triplets, etc... See if you can keep the form doing this. I guarantee you that making up exercises like this will make you focus on rhythm differently.
I hope this has bee helpful. And Alec, I should mention that unfortunately, I will not be returning to the University of Manitoba in the fall. Because.....I will be teaching at Portland State University in Portland Oregon! I haven't officially announced this; that will probably be a subject for another blog. But I will be in Winnipeg in August if you can make it out there. Or perhaps I'll be able to do a clinic at your school at some point. Either way, good luck to you, and if you have any other questions, please let me know. And for the rest of you, gentle readers, respectful feedback is welcome.