How to Play Jazz Piano (Part 7: Perform in front of an audience)

In Part 6 of this series, found HERE, we explored the importance of jamming with our fellow musicians. Now let’s look at public performances (yikes!):

How to Play Jazz Piano (Part 7: Perform in front of an audience):

There’s nothing like a live gig to give us that extra ‘spark’ we sometimes need! Nobody performs perfectly every time, however, so don’t put that kind of pressure on yourself. But there’s something about performing for others that helps us focus, make musical connections, and improve faster than we would otherwise do.

In general, there are 2 types of performances:

1. As background music: These are the easy gigs, such as playing for cocktail parties where everyone’s talking amongst themselves and only partly listening to the music. Since your main function is to just provide pleasant ‘ambient’ music, there’s little pressure to play note-perfectly. You can simply have fun and try new things. These types of situations are important in that they keep your technique in good shape and give you lots of experience playing different tunes and types of music. You can also meet lots of new musicians on these gigs!

2. For an attentive audience: This includes concerts and gigs like wedding ceremonies where people are highly focused on the music. Because the audience is listening intently to what you’re playing, this is where a different kind of magic can really happen. My experience has shown me that the listeners are an integral part of the performance, almost as if they are playing the instrument themselves.

Once, when I was in my late teens, my friend Klyph and I went to New York City to Hanratty’s, a little ‘piano room’   on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Jimmy Lyons, a very elegant piano stylist, was playing that night, and the small audience consisted of mostly older, knowledgable jazz afficianatos. My friend and I felt more than a little out of our element, especially since everyone else was dressed more formally than we were.  Mr. Lyons played extremely well, and spotted us sitting at a small table near the piano. During his break, he even came over and chatted with us, and was pleased to discover that I was studying jazz piano with his friend, Dr. Billy Taylor. During his 2nd set, he began asking us if we knew each song after he had played it. He just smiled as I repeatedly confessed to not really knowing the songs, which were clearly jazz standards. Finally, he asked me, “Well, what song do you know?” When I replied, “Misty”, he said, “Well then, why don’t you come up and play it!”

Needless to say, I was shocked, but somehow made my way up to the piano and launched into the tune, complete with a set of substitute chords that I had worked out in my lessons with Billy Taylor. In fact, it was going so well that I decided to go for a 2nd chorus, which was a bit of a mistake. Near the end of the bridge section, my left hand thumb hit a wrong note which put me in a distant, unrelated key. But then something extraordinary happened: my instinct took over and I played an incredibly complicated series of advanced chords which perfectly brought me back to the home key of Eb in the exact number of beats needed.! I couldn’t believe it! After I finished, Mr. Lyons encouraged everyone to applaud as he whispered in my ear, ”You played some chords there I never thought of.” I replied, “Thanks, neither had I!”

This experience showed me firsthand the possibilities of live performance . Even if we’re a little nervous, there’s a ‘higher octane’ at work that can bring out the very best in us as musicians.

The lesson here is to embrace every opportunity to play in public. It’ll help you grow as a musician in ways that you never imagined!
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