June 23, 2011

It's Not the Notes, It's the Rests

Some things in music seem obvious to me now but took a long time to figure out. A prime example is that students have much more trouble NOT playing than playing. When they have a measure with a three beat note followed by a rest, the rest becomes hard because it’s a place that you’re not supposed to play, but you still have to count it. It seems difficult for students to feel the concept of a space being as important as a note, so I encourage them to think of rests as “notes of silence.” In addition, long notes are harder than short notes. The method books all had us play whole notes first, then we played half notes, then quarter notes, then the “fast” notes like eighth notes. As kids learn to play more notes per beat, the concept of “faster” becomes a problem, because eighth notes are not necessarily fast. But that’s how they start to think of them — they’re faster notes so they try to play them as fast as they can. Consequently, the long notes become harder to play because they require too much time. We get lazy and cut them short. It comes back to being able to feel and keep a pulse inside you while you’re playing and while you’re not playing. And so long notes become hard, and long rests are next to impossible.

It’s doubly hard for students to play eighth or sixteenth notes and then arrive at half notes, or — God forbid — whole notes, and not completely cheat on the proper number of beats. Thus the long notes become harder than the short notes, and similarly, the slower the tempo the more difficult it all becomes.

Fast music requires a certain finger dexterity that has to be learned along with articulation and hand-eye coordination. Of course this can be difficult to learn. But once you master that, suddenly the slow passages become hard as we become impatient and we can’t seem to relax and feel the beat. It’s easier to feel a fast beat; a slow beat challenges our short attention spans. I find myself writing “PLAY THE RESTS” in my boldest pen in a hopeful attempt to remind students to keep this concept in their head when practicing at home.

You might think this counting issue only applies to young musicians, but I have heard adult working musicians who also have not learned this. I have heard and have played with pianists who drop rests or shorten long notes in an apparent attempt to keep the song moving forward. Take this example for clarification: think of the first two measures in the song “Yesterday.” The time-challenged piano player may play this phrase and on the syllable “day” almost immediately skip to the note for the word “all.” Not only have they cheated on the length of the long note for the syllable “day” but they also ignore the rest that occurs on beat 1 before the word “all.” The majority of listeners in the room may not notice the hiccup in time, but those who do may feel inclined to fling their drink at the pianist, who obviously would not be aware of the time faux pas.

June 15, 2011

Tips for Aspiring Singers

Some skilled singers are regarded as musicians by their fellow instrumentalists. As regularly encountered on gigs though, those who approach a piano player and want to sing rarely impress due to lack of musical homework.

“American Idol” and its spinoffs may give the impression that anyone can be a successful singer as long as they’re given a microphone and the spotlight. As a pianist, I enjoy the role of an accompanist, and have played this role with many vocalists of varying degrees of talent. Legendary stories abound of amateur singers boldly desiring their 15 minutes:

Once a woman approached me at the piano and asked if she could sing a song. I said “sure, what do you want to sing?” She said “I don’t know, what do YOU know?” I said “How about ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’?” She said “oh yes, yes, yes, that’s a great one. Have you got the words?”

From my friend Rick Montalbano, there was the singer who said “that key is too high, can you do it in minor?”

A variation of this theme is from Bill Crow, who accumulated many jazz stories over the years and has put them in a great volume called “Jazz Anecdotes.” Someone requested “When Sunny Gets Blue” from the band. The singer says “I’d like to do it, but I only know the first line.” The piano player says “no problem, I’ll feed you as we go long.” They start the tune and the singer sings “When Sunny gets blue…” and expectantly looks over at the pianist. He whispers to her: “B flat minor 7 to E flat 9.”

Here’s my advice to aspiring singers as to how they can best enter the real world of performing on stage with a band:


… buy your own microphone, cable and stand

… aim at buying your own portable PA system

… acknowledge your accompanists on stage

… make it your business to have your own collection of lead sheets tailored for you (melody and chords, intros and endings, in keys that fit your range)

… Learn how PA equipment works and offer to help pack up at the end of gigs

… know your lyrics, but be able to make up alternatives on the spot if you forget them

… be able and willing to sing songs that may not be your favorites

… learn how to introduce songs and engage the audience

… learn the etiquette of performing with a band and sitting in (go see live music)

… consider learning the piano or guitar so you have a better understanding of chords and song structure

… read about and listen to your favorite singers, then listen to the artists who influenced them; and learn from instrumentalists also


… give your accompanists dirty looks if he/she makes a mistake

… stop singing if something goes wrong

… make apologies if you are not in great voice

… be careless with equipment, especially if it’s not yours

… be shy when opportunity knocks (be ready)

… think about acting like a diva unless you have earned it!

A general fact to keep in mind is that any musician who wants to work needs to be as valuable as possible. This means having personality and versatility to complement your talent.