Here is a true story from Paul Abrahams who has made a living as a professional keyboard player and piano teacher over the past forty years, yet failed all his music exams at secondary school. His failure was partly due to the arrogance of being a typical teenager. He made it very clear to his beleaguered music teacher that he preferred listening to his Ray Charles records than being forced to study the harmony of Bach.
But by the age of 16, he was already playing a Hammond organ in rock bands and music at school had no relevance to him. Although he had learned to read music from private piano teachers, this skill had no place in the environment of a rock band.
He learned tunes not from sheet music, but by listening to records and then transcribing the chords.
Many years later, when employed as a musical director and theater composer, his musical education became both a hindrance and blessing. He was now not only surrounded by classically trained musicians, but actually in charge of them. Then suddenly, during a rehearsal of one of his compositions, this uncomfortable situation was turned on its head, when he made the following, seemingly outrageous suggestion to the musicians:
“I haven’t written out this arrangement. Here’s the chord chart. Let’s just improvise and see what emerges!”
In that moment, he witnessed classically trained musicians freeze at the very mention of the word ‘improvise,’ he recognized the true value of his improvisational skills. The realization that he possessed a skill that ‘straight’ musicians didn’t have turned his musical life around. It was this moment that ultimately led to his current profession, which is to teach jazz piano to classical pianists.
He possess what is known as ‘a good ear.’ When he hear a tune or song, he can usually identify its chord sequence and translate them on the piano. His ‘good ear’ is not a talent he was born with, but a skill that was developed over the years when accompanying singers and transcribing chords from records.
So here’s the irony: Yes, he would dearly love to play a faultless, exquisite rendition of a Beethoven sonata. But, equally, many classically trained pianists would pay money (and do pay him!) just to sit at the piano and play a 12-bar blues or solo over the chords of a Gershwin tune.
Clearly, there is a middle ground; for any musician, both of these skills are invaluable. But if he were to fight in his own corner, he would state the following:
“Playing music is an aural activity, rather than visual: it requires the ear rather than the eye. Sheet music is just the information. Whether interpreting a Chopin Nocturne or a pop song, we need to grasp the harmonic journey rather than just typing out the notes. And we grasp this harmonic construction with our ‘musician’s ears.”
But this is more than just a theory to ponder; you can work on developing this skill right now, by testing yourself with a simple children’s song or Christmas carol.
- Try identifying the chord changes, then translating them to the piano. Begin by just spotting the tonic to dominant movement: this is chord 1 to chord 5.
- Now add chord 4, the subdominant.
In the key of F major the sequence I – IV – V is simply C – F – G.
If you can recognize the movement between these three chords you have already decoded thousands of 50’s pop songs.
In summary: stop relying on the music and start using your ear.
Learn Jazz Piano and jazz music with Paul Abrahams at http://www.learnjazzpianoonline.com