How “Minimum Viable Piano” can take your piano playing to new levels

A few years ago I coined a new term: Minimum Viable Piano.

Minimum Viable Piano, or M.V.P. for short, means that when we’re learning a new style or technique, the first stage is to play it the simplest way possible that sounds good and has a sense of flow.

One of the students in the Piano Improv class from the workshop I did in Fairbanks, Alaska last month sent me an email. She is celebrating the fact that for the first time ever, she’s become comfortable playing the piano and singing at the same time. She’s an excellent vocalist and what she’s discovered is that if she plays a simple quarter-note accompaniment on her pop ballad, it sounds great!

The ironic thing is that most evolving pianists take the opposite approach. (I just made up another new term here: “Evolving Pianist” instead of the more usual “Aspiring Pianist.” “Evolving” implies motion, improvement, and maturation.)

However, instead of beginning with the M.V.P. concept, most evolving pianists try to do too much too soon, and don’t get a good sense of flow going. And without a good sense of flow, the advanced stuff will never sound good, no matter how much we practice.

As an example, you’ll benefit by playing the chords to Elton John’s “Your Song” as steady quarter notes before trying to arpeggiate them like he does. It will still sound great and indeed, there are recordings of the song that use this kind of accompaniment. Study the chords and inversions thoroughly and get “up and running” with this simpler type of accompaniment. Enjoy playing it like this. And then, maybe as soon as tomorrow, you’ll find yourself ready to begin playing it like Sir Elton himself. This will get you playing the song faster and prevent you from stalling out and never really becoming able to play it at all in tempo.

I spend a lot of time taking my students through the steps of Minimum Viable Piano. With the blues, this can involve slowing down the tempo and becoming able to play a slow, relaxed blues with just open fifths in the left hand while improvising with the blues scale in the right. We’ve found that if you can develop rhythmic flexibility with your soloing over slow, steady quarter notes, the fancier boogie patterns and soloing riffs will come much easier for you. And most importantly, you’ll be able to play them in tempo with a good blues feeling.

Think about the style of piano you’re learning, and focus on playing it in tempo in the simplest manner possible. Enjoy playing it like this and when you’re ready, add complexity while keeping the flow going.

All over the world there are pianists who have been playing for decades yet can’t sit down at their piano and easily play with a sense of flow and enjoyment. I want you to be able to do this. Choose a song right now and begin playing it with M.V.P. It’s what all the greats did, and still do on their level.

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”

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