Monday, June 14, 2010

Can a Classically-Trained Pianist Learn to Play Chords?

Yesterday after church a middle-aged woman who was visiting our church approached me to express her enjoyment of the music. I told her thank you and that I was glad she was able to attend. She mentioned that she was a music teacher and piano player. She also mentioned something that I hear alot: "I really want to learn to play chords, but I'm stuck in my classical background." This is something I think about alot, so I thought it was time for me to blog about it.

Like this woman, I was also trained classically. I remember going through all the kiddie piano books with the art work of animals and children frolicking around. I remember graduating up to Bach, Mozart & Beethoven. I also remember the first time my teacher bought me a "pop" song to add to my repertoire. It was "A Whole New World" from the Aladdin movie. I stunk at it! By the time we got done with it, my teacher had written in every single beat (1, e, &, a, 2, e, &, a) and even drew lines to the notes that the beats went to. I could fly through my Beethoven, but when it came to syncopated pop music, I was not very all.

Yet during that time of my life (age 5 - approx. 14), my ear was developing. My mom kept our car radio tuned to Magic 96 which was the adult contemporary station. They played anything that was 70s, 80s or 90s, so that included Elton John, Billy Joel, Bruce Hornsby, Richard Marx, Mark Cohn, Michael McDonald, Rod Stewart, Toni Braxton, All 4 One, Mariah Carey, etc. Although I didn't yet have a concept of chord theory, listening to these artists over and over and over began developing my ear for pop piano. As my interest in piano and music continued to grow, I started buying more pop song books (I still have alot of them at home, including Boyz II Men, Pop Chart Hits '96 Michael Jackson's "You Are Not Alone"...). Slowly but surely, I began to learn what it felt like to switch over from classical piano to pop piano.

Once into high school & college, my life as a Christian had come in to play, and I had opportunities to take part in worship bands. These guys required less and less of note-reading and more and more of chord reading, and they showed alot of patience with me. I began listening to "Christian pop", which had a very similar piano style to "secular pop," so the switch was pretty natural. Although I was still taking classical lessons, the technique and performance experience I gained from that aided me tremendously when it came to chords and church music (contrary to popular belief, classical music is made up of all chords - they're just broken up). The more opportunities I had to try out the things I was hearing on my cds and playing from my pop books, the more I started sounding like them.

So here's my observations from my own life as to how a classical pianist can also switch over to pop/contemporary Christian styles:
  • listen to piano players that play the way you want to play.
  • Play from the songbooks (Fernando Ortega, WOW Worship, others)
  • Try it out, mess it up, try it out again.

I'm an advocate for chord playing AND note-reading, classical training AND pop training. Both are valuable and both have relevance in church music.

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