Breaking big challenges down into smaller steps

You’re faced with a new musical challenge: accompany a choir on a slow swing tune and maybe play an 8-bar piano solo in between vocal choruses. Even though you’ve been playing for years and even know jazz harmony, you’ve never played this particular style and since you’re new to this choir, you want to sound good right away.

Yikes!!! What do you do?

Before going further, let’s take a deep breath. This is the kind of thing that happens all the time to us pianists, and in fact, one of my piano students is in this very situation right now (and she’s doing wonderfully!).

The key is to avoid feeling overwhelmed and to break the task down into small steps.

So instead of struggling to learn everything all at once and put it all together on the keyboard, let’s look at each small part in turn.

1. The introduction
Just practice the intro by itself. It’s usually just 4 measures long so it’s a good bite-sized place to begin. Think about the mood you want to set for the song. Is it exciting? Or quietly beautiful? Tender? Jarring? Swinging? Whatever you decide, craft something that conveys this mood as best you can. (Don’t play “wishy-washy” intros!)

2. The left hand pattern
Most pianist rarely practice their left hand part by itself in jazz and pop styles, but it’s a big help to do so. Firstly, you can really take the time to decide what you want to do with the LH pattern. Is it stride? Walking bass? An arpeggiated pattern? Part of a 2-handed chord voicing? Pedal tones? Syncopation? Secondly, you’ll benefit technically by practicing it separately, just like you would with classical music. I practice walking bass lines and ostinati all the time.

3. The right hand
If your left hand is playing something that provides a steady accompaniment by itself, such as a stride pattern or walking bass like, your right hand is freed up to be a little more flexible. You can play chords, melodic fills, and vary the level of syncopation and rhythmic variety from phrase to phrase, depending on what the choir is singing.

4. Your solo interlude
Once you have the basic accompaniment in place, it takes the pressure off. You’ll sound good and your solo will be a little “icing on the cake.” Don’t try to do too much. Just keep the groove going and play something that sounds nice. The more “brilliant” you try to sound, the worse you may actually play! Just take it easy and groove.

5. The ending
Don’t take the ending for granted. After all, it’s the last part of the song your listeners will hear, so make it count. Sometimes it’s effective to exaggerate the effect you want at the ending. Is it loud and brassy? The make it really loud and brassy! Quiet and sparkly? Same. Whatever you do, don’t just toss it off, as we hear so often. Stay with it until the very last note and the whole song will sound better.

You can apply this method to any piece you’re asked to learn. Take a deep breath, break it down into smaller steps, and then polish each musical element separately until you’re comfortable putting them all back together again.

Good luck with your music. You’re more talented than you probably think!

Learn the 5 Essential Left Hand Techniques with my free ebook: Left Hand Techniques for Jazz Piano
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