Stress-free piano playing

Although we often hear how “wonderful” it is to play piano, and how “relaxing” is can be, the truth is that not every pianist experiences this. All too often, playing piano becomes the very source of stress we sought to avoid by learning music in the first place!

I was reminded of this by an email I received a few minutes ago from a student, who told me that she’s finally learning how to approach playing the piano in a relaxed way after stressing out about it for 40 years. (Bravo, Carole!)

For some people it’s a subtle tension and for others it’s more on the surface. And, of course, some of the lucky ones have been completely relaxed from day one!

I remember when I was first starting out as a professional musician in New York City, back in the early 1990s. I got to the top pretty quickly, and by 1993 I found myself helping to create a Broadway show called “Swinging On A Star.” (We received a Tony Award nomination for “Best Musical” in 1995.)

While I had a lot of fun doing great projects like this, I suddenly found myself being the youngest person in the room most of the time. This meant that everyone else was older and more experienced than me. Furthermore, since I’m versatile and play everything from musical theater to jazz to classical to pop and rock, I soon realized that most of my colleagues knew far more than I did about the music we were working on at the time, simply because they specialized in it. In other words, the other musicians on a jazz gig knew more jazz tunes than I did, because most of them played jazz exclusively. In a Broadway rehearsal, I was literally sharing the piano bench with people like Peter Howard, who had written the dance arrangements for shows like Hello Dolly and Chicago in their original productions. And when I played in a wedding band, the other musicians knew far more than I did about styles such as disco and Motown.

So yes, I found myself getting tense.

But after a while… I realized that once I learned the music, I played as well as they did. This helped a little. And it gradually dawned on me that all of my diverse musical experiences actually gave me an “edge.” I played jazz with the sense of drama I gained from the Broadway stage. People began to enjoy this aspect of my playing! And in a pop/rock context, my bandmates commented on the improvisational flexibility I brought to the group. They said I was like Mike Garson when he played keyboards with David Bowie. (Of course I then had to look up “Mike Garson” and learn who he was!)

After a few years, I began filling in the gaps in my musical knowledge. I learned all the jazz tunes that vocalists like to sing, I played so many Broadway auditions that I became very familiar with the repertoire from all the shows, and I began to effortlessly segue from “I Will Survive” to “Boogie Oogie Oogie” during the wedding band’s disco medley.

I began to feel more confident because other people were confident in me. I occasionally led the big band for swing dancing at the famous Supper Club in the Edison Hotel, and I enjoyed writing orchestrations for the NY Pops Orchestra and performing with them at Carnegie Hall once a year for a charity benefit.

But real relaxation, however, came to me in very unexpected circumstances.

A friend of mine, who had sung in a vocal group I accompanied before I moved to NYC, asked me to teach piano at the school where she conducted the choir. Most of the kids were in the younger grades, ages 8-12, and I incorporated improvisation into every lesson.

The students loved improvising, and something magical began to happen to my own playing. Because I encouraged them to relax and simply listen to the notes they played without putting pressure on themselves to “play great,” I began to relax too. In fact, my jazz playing in particular became about 10 times better. I could finally play the way I had always dreamed, and it was from teaching kids!

The key to relaxing with our music is to thoroughly enjoy what we can play at any given moment. For instance, once we can play a piece slowly, resist the urge to immediately try to play it faster. Enjoy that slower tempo for a while. Once we learn a new chord voicing, play it in various tempos and musical styles, and enjoy it as a 14-year old would. “Wow – this sounds great!” And above all, resist the temptation to always try to play better than we are right now. This is like walking into a job interview and trying to be wittier or smarter than we actually are. Not only does it make us tense and freeze up, it inhibits our true light from shining through.

Have fun with your music this week, and enjoy every sound that comes out of the piano. Not only will you play better than ever, you’ll enjoy it more and you’ll also be tilling the soil for your future musical development in a big way. And… you’ll begin to relax more (unless you’re already one of the lucky ones!).

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


PS – Here’s my latest Journey Through The Real Book video, with Duke Ellington’s “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart.” This video will teach you a wonderful Ellington chord voicing and show you some ways to use it while playing jazz standards. It’s a fun tune to play!

Journey Through The Real Book #161: I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart

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