Monday, October 13, 2008

Learning Piano by Listening to Other Pianists

When I first heard New Age pianist George Winston play
piano, I wondered to myself, "how does he do it?"

But it wasn't until I started creating my own music that the answers started to come. You see, if you've never played the piano before, it's almost impossible to understand what somebody else is doing on it.

After a while, I began to notice that the left-hand played a much bigger part in creating Winston's sound than the right.

The reason I wanted to know all this in the first place is because if I could figure out what he was doing, I could get the same sound myself. But that was only the beginning.

Soon, I could hear much more than chord changes and left-hand patterns. I began to listen for the "form" of the piece ... how the composer uses the tools of repetition and contrast.

In Winston's case, he will create a 4 or 8-bar phrase and loop it - improvising melody on top. This "method" really intrigued me for it seemed like an easy way to quickly "get down" music on paper. And it is! Instead of focusing on melody as the forward momentum that propels interest and the composition along, Winston creates an aural background and then changes that to create contrast. A perfect example of this is his piece "Rain" where a gentle background mood is first created. He then follows this with a thunderous section - all played with the left hand.

Now, another way composers compose is by leading with melody. Here the melodic idea takes center stage and I can think of no other person to learn from better than John Herberman. Listening to his music you hear how he uses repetition and contrast.

The first 8-bars is a complete theme for many of his pieces. This is followed by a contrasting section of 8 or 4 bars followed by repetition of the first section again.

All of this can be heard when you listen to music. A good idea when listening to dissect a piece is to listen for certain things. For example, you may say to yourself, "I'm listening for the form" and then focus on how the pianist is using form to create the composition. Other questions to ask are "What sound is being used?" Major? Minor? Modal?

Soon, you'll be able to understand the materials your favorite artists are using and then use them yourself in your own unique way.

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