Wednesday, February 9, 2011

How I Practice Piano

I tried to quit piano lessons many times when I was a kid. I can remember playing basketball outside with my friends and hearing those dreadful words, "Rick, tell your friends goodbye. It's time to go to piano!" We'd hop in our white Astro van and drive 20 minutes across town. It's not that I didn't like playing piano; it's that I didn't always like what my teacher made me play - classical music. Beethoven, Bach, all that stuff. I wanted to play what I wanted, you know, stuff I heard on the radio. There was a specific time I remember making my last and final attempt to quit piano lessons. My mom saw that I was serious this time, so she called my teacher to prep him for what would be an un-motivated student at the next lesson. When the next lesson came around, he said something that would eventually propel me into my calling as a pianist: "Rick, if you can learn to play classical music, you'll be able to play whatever you want one day."

He was right.

Dont' get me wrong - I can't dish out a Bill Evans solo without any practice. I wouldn't be your first pick to sit down with a couple of locals and break out into a Latin samba. But I've got the tools and the foundation to figure it out. It might take me a year - but it's not beyond me. How? Because I studied classical music.

So when it comes to practicing piano, I work on two things: 1. My roots, and 2. developing new roots. What I mean is this: my roots is classical music. Since graduating college, I've seen that, in order to maintain the level I'm at now, I still need to practice classically. That includes reviewing my scales, playing through old Bach or Chopin pieces, and also learning new classical pieces.

When I talk about developing new roots, I practice something that will stretch me to become better - jazz. Practicing jazz has multiple benefits for the classically trained pianist. One, it forces you to learn how to play chords in your left hand. This is especially useful if you don't have a guitar player strumming along on Sunday mornings. Playing left-hand chords makes up for the missing texture of the guitar. Second, it forces me to learn new scales and theory. Most of the time, hymns and worship tunes won't have very many jazz chords, but sometimes they do. In a few months, we're going to introduce a Bob Kauflin version of "And Can It Be." Though they're subtle, there are a few jazz chords in that song that might have taken me awhile to figure out had I not been studying jazz theory. Lastly, practicing jazz has trained me to hear "melody." If I'm writing a new song or doing a piano solo, learning to internally hear melody helps me be more creative in what I'm playing, and also in what I'm writing. I'm not aspiring to be the next Oscar Peterson, but I am aspiring to stretch my boundaries...

So I practice classical music to maintain my muscle memory and technique, and I practice jazz to expand my boundaries and become an all-around better player. All this can do is help me to be more creative when it comes to leading God's people in worship.


  1. Rick,
    I'm right there with you on this stuff. I studied jazz in college, and now I need to go back to that every so often to keep my head straight. However, I'm also creating new roots all the time. After college, I worked on learning a lot of Delta Blues as well as a few low level classical pieces. Now, I'm digging Congolese guitar. You never stop being a student.


  2. Kirk, where did you study? Are you the main worship leader at your church? How have your found creative ways to use what you're currently learning in the worship service?