When I introduce a student to chord chart reading, one of two things always happens. Occasionally, the student looks at me in bewilderment and is very confused. I usually attribute this to overanalyzing. Learning music theory is very important to a musician, but I think that comes after using music theory.
Think how we learn to speak our native language. My parents did not place a dictionary in my crib or drill me with flash cards to learn vocabulary words as an infant. They said simple sentences to me, and I learned to mimick--probably saying one word such as, "potty" or "bottle." Eventually my vocabulary grew even though I didn't realize I was learning a language. Baby's soon say, "Mama" or "Daddy," "bird" or "kitty." My language grew as I grew and my one-word pre-sentences became more complete sentences. "I am hungry." "I have to go potty."
The ii-V7-I progression is very common in jazz and pop music. It is really just a small alteration of the very common classical progression, IV-V7-I. Last month, I wrote about using the chords of that progression in different ways including turning it into the blues progression to allow a student to "get off the page" and improvise.
When we change the IV chord to ii, our progression works essentially the same and we find this progression in countless jazz songs.
This is where learning the progression by sound and feel is more important than analyzing and when introducing this progression. I ask the student to simply play the notes as I give them and I give them a pattern of II-V7-I with good voice leading. Generally, I'll voice it with the third on top of the II chord and leave the 5th out and putting the minor 7th in the chord with my thumb. Then, I'll let the third become the 7th of the V7 chord and use the root and third, again leaving out the 5th. My thumb lowers 1/2 step to the third and the root jumps. Then, we move back to the I chord with the third on top, major 7th in the middle, and root on the bottom. Again, we skip the unimportant fifth of the chord to have a nice voicing. It looks like this:
We then create a progression of continuing ii-V7-I's. The third and seventh of the CM7 chord can be lowered 1/2 step each to create a C minor 7th chord which becomes the II chord to go to Bb which becomes the ii chord to go to Ab and so forth. It can be never-ending.
Students can learn the progression, develop some muscle memory, and learn to easily recognize the pattern in pieces. It is a fun exercise, but only if the student just imitates and doesn't over-analyze or over-think. The student who frees themself to learn and internalize this simple progression will make tremendous steps to moving forward in their ability to express and play the piano.
A piece that is undoubtedly one of the most recognizable and loved piano pieces of all times, the Moonlight Sonata--as we usually refer to it--wasn't titled that by Beethoven. The first edition of the piece was titled, Sonata quasi una fantasia which translates to, "sonata in the manner of a fantasy" or even "sonata played as if improvised." The "moonlight" name came from the German music critic, Ludwig Rellstab who described the first movement as moonlight shining on Lake Lucerne. The moonlight description stuck, and today it is thought of as the Moonlight Sonata.
Daniel Barenbaum performs this piece beautifully and expressively and the "fire" in the third music is very exciting.
I was performing in a concert just last night and talked with two other musicians who are very talented rock musicians, but both said they play only by ear and can't read music at all. They had both taken classical piano lessons, but found the traditional lessons irrelevant to what they really wanted to do, so they quit. A statement like that always strikes me a little sad. These musicians are top-notch and don't need to read music, but my question is always, why not? It is unfortunate, their teachers didn't find a way to connect their desires with the important foundation they were learning in the traditional lessons.
I think as piano teachers, we often lose a student's interest when we focus on note reading as the key to reading music rather than chords. We fail to help the student achieve what they really want to do and keep a student in a curriculum limited to classical music. Note reading is important, and one simply cannot play traditional "classical" literature without reading notes, but often a student becomes great a reading music, but has no understanding of what they are reading. They become robotic, computer playbacks without truly knowing the music they are playing. I've witnessed talented college music majors who are unable to play "Happy Birthday" for their friend unless they had sheet music!
A knowledge of chords and chord reading can be the key to help a piano student unlock a whole new world of understanding music and even open doors to new interests such as pop music and jazz.
Most piano teachers teach scales and along with the scales is usually chord patterns. The chord pattern is usually taught is I-IV-I-V (or V7)-I. Along with that, most teachers probably help their students understand basic theory such as the names of the chords and scale degrees such as tonic, sub-dominant, and dominant. Of course, this flows naturally into understanding the dominant 7 chord.
Too often, we leave it at that point as teachers. If our students have this simple progression learned, let's take it a step further. The subdominant leading through dominant and back home to tonic is foundational in all kinds of music, but we also see the backwards cadence used often in contemporary music: V-IV-I. Allowing a student to explore this backwards cadence can be great fun and a wonderful way to explore some new styles. Encourage to use multiple keys. Make sure they understand the classical scale degrees, but also help them to see chord patterns calling the chord names what they are: G -F- C for example.
Take this a step further and change the progression to I-I-I-I-IV-IV-I-I-V-IV-I-I with each chord taking four beats. You've now taught them the 12-bar blues pattern using chords and voicings they are already know. Show them the many places the 12-bar blues pattern is used through blues, rock, gospel, and country music. Encourage them to explore, play the pattern in multiple keys and discover melodies of songs they know. With this simple step, you've introduced them to blues and are allowing them to improvise in a natural way. You might introduce the blues scale at this time, or perhaps move on to something completely different like a song they would like to learn and play.
I would encourage introducing the Nashville system of chord reading at this point. There is such a easy flow from the classical system to the Nashville and it encourages the student to think about the music theory. The student will have a great grasp of the music theory behind the chords they are playing by learning this system.
Be sure to have them also read the progression from the chord note names as well: such as C-F-G-C. Encourage them to experiment with 7th chords. In classical music, the dominant 7th always leads back to tonic. That doesn't always happen in pop, blues, and jazz. The blues progression cries out to be played with all dominant 7th chords. But, encourage them to try it with major 7ths and minor 7ths as well. As long as you're now talking bout 7ths, you might as well explain diminished and augmented 7ths as well.
A final step in this little set of exercises based off the common student chord progressions is to introduce 6 chords. The 6th chord is a great place to start with introducing the wide variety of interesting chords we have in our musical palette. 6ths are easy to find and make a pleasing sound. Once they are confortable with that idea, set them free. Challenge them to find 9ths, 11ths, 13ths... The sky is the limit when we alter one of those notes.
By now, the student is freed from the confines of the simple chord progression we started with and is hopefully starting to understand and feel free to try things and do something new. The key is listening to oneself when playing.
These steps could be developed over a couple weeks or several months as there are no limits to what a student might do. Eventually, one will want to explore some new chord progressions. My favorite to introduce at this time is the first chord progression I introduce to a beginning jazz piano student: ii-V7-I. Next time, we'll talk about the great fun a student can have with this foundational progression in jazz music.
It was a recent online discussion I had about 21st century piano composers that drew my attention to David Chesky's piano concertos. Chesky molds the inspiration of his eclectic stylistic interests and experiences into his composition. This concerto is inspired by the frantic pace of his adopted home, New York City. You'll hear jazz and classical ideas and inspiration in this exciting work.
Every piano teacher has had a student who has said this. Sadly, too many piano teachers don't know how to respond to that request.
Some immediately respond with a short sermon on the importance of classical literature and why this is so important to learn and that we should not get distracted by anything that will take our attention away from our goal.
That answer is very unsatisfactory to me and I think most students. Wanting to learn to play the music they love and listen to is not necessarily saying they don’t want to learn classical literature. I also think it is a short-sighted idea that music can only be learned from something that is old and written centuries ago. Perhaps “our goal” should be exactly that, and with that request, playing music of today is part of that shared goal to grow and develop as a musicians.
To be honest, I think most teachers respond with a bad answer because they simply don’t know how to teach a student the songs they listen to. Usually, the only options a teacher has is to do what they do with classical music and seek printed music. As a teacher, we might seek out a collection of popular music arranged for the student’s level and believe this is going to meet the need.
Sadly, this usually goes poorly as well. Songs hit the radio, Spotify, or iTunes and have instant popularity with our students. In contrast, it takes 6 or 10 months or even more for it to get noticed by a print music publisher, and then and even more time for it to get to an arranger. By the time it goes through arranging, editing and on a company’s publishing schedule two years may have passed. How many 6th graders do you know that want to play the music they liked as a 4th grader. That is a lifetime ago to them! They want to play the music they listen to right now. Even if a publisher could speed up that timetable the printed arrangements always come up short in other ways. The rhythms aren’t quite right, or the key is changed.
As a piano teacher, we can see either an opportunity or an impossibility. In a short series of a articles, I’d like to discuss the opportunity we have as teachers when a student approaches us with this request. Today, I’ll give an overview and we’ll dig into these ideas in subsequent postings.
First, we must recognize that this is an opportunity to train the young musician’s ear. Ear training or aural musicianship is a very important part of a music education. Unfortunately, it is also one that is neglected.
We don’t have music to read? Let’s learn the song by ear! I’ll bet that is even the way the performers learned it. Why shouldn’t we? Think of the opportunities we have to teach intervals, as well as recognize chords, note patterns, and rhythms.
Speaking of chords, this is a great time to put a practical use to those chord progressions we drill through our students to practice with their scales. The truth is that those same classical chord progressions are used in pop music. They are not always used in the same way, but chords are chords and this foundation the student already has is a great place to build.
As they learn to understand and play chords, we can help them understand pop chord notation. What a great time to teach a student how to read a guitar chart with lyrics and chords only. A student who is beginning to excel in that or one that has done well with Roman numeral chords will be fascinated by the Nashville system for chords and the practicality of it for a studio musician. Yet another great opportunity to teach and challenge your student!
Speaking of practicality, learning to play by ear and growing in one’s understanding of chords and the way music is written can help a student become a great sight reader and can open doors to accompanying, playing in a school jazz band or on a church worship team. As teachers, we should be raising up students who can fill these roles and have these skills.
So that is the overview. In my next article, will focus on chord reading and playing. In the meantime, see if you can think of other benefits to broaden--not replace--a student’s musical education by helping them learn to play what they love to listen to.
Dave Brubeck heard this rhythm played by Turkish musicians on the street and was intrigued by it. When talking with one of the musicians he was told, "To us, this is what blues is to you." That is where the title came from and the foundation for the piece. The Turkish melodic hook sounds almost classical to our ears and then the piece moves into a great blues feel. Also check out the recording on Brubeck's album, Time Out.
Banned at times in the WWI era for criticizing the Soviet regime, yet admired by Stalin himself. Maria Yudina's playing mimicks her personality. Free, somewhat rebellious, muscular, and reinventing. It is fitting that she recorded this at a time in 1962 a year Stravinsky was finally invited back to the U.S.S.R. after 30 years of having been banned himself. Yudina is a pianist worth listening to and in addition to Stravinsky, has brilliant recordings of Liszt and Bartok
Do you ever feel that way about performances. It is like the anxiety takes over our body. We try to relax. We try to remember what we've prepared to do. But, something just makes us tense up and the more we think about the possibility that we'll tense up and make a mistake makes us tense up even more. What do you do?
Here is a great article on dealing with and coping with performance stress. There is no magic cure, but knowing we all deal with it in various ways can be an encouragement. Check out the article here.