Saturday, August 10, 2013

How I learned to play piano (the way I play it)



I have often been asked how I learned to play piano the way I play it, so I wrote this explanation of how I acquired my style. I also talk a little bit about my piano influences.


Me in my youth with my piano teacher



When I was eight years old, I started taking piano lessons, and I learned about chord theory. But I stopped taking piano lessons three years later, and I have played piano by ear ever since. I think the chord theory I learned helped me to play by ear. I can hardly read music now (the only sight-reading I can really do is what's needed for singing purposes, and what's needed to figure out what key a hymn is in, before playing it on the piano). I play entirely by ear now. I can learn most music by listening to it on a CD.


Me playing piano in my youth

I was interested in jazz when I was young, but didn't know much about it. I had fun jazzing up hymns, though I hasten to add that I did not play my jazzed-up versions of those hymns in church meetings. That would have been inappropriate.


PBS "Jazz" documentary by Ken Burns

When I was twenty, I watched a 19-hour Ken Burns documentary film called "Jazz," about the history of jazz music in the United States. The documentary focused on the part of jazz history after audio recording technology became available, and it used a lot of old records to give a sample of the musician or style being discussed. Thus I gained exposure to a lot of styles, and learned a lot about the music. Since I play by ear, listening to all of that old music helped me to learn how to play it. I learned better what kind of music I liked best, and got some good history to boot.

(Disclaimer: I do not claim to be an expert on jazz or jazz history. My music-major friends probably know a lot more about music and music history than I do, and I only claim to have gotten some basic education about these things.)


Me playing piano at Flagstaff Institute

I am a fan of many kinds of music; and with the exception of music that glorifies wrongdoing, I have respect for nearly all of it. I have respect for the opinions of others, and I will not mind if your musical tastes differ from mine.

That being said, my favorite kinds of secular music have probably been ragtime and jazz, and particularly a style of piano playing called "Harlem stride piano." Perhaps it's the rugged individualist in me, or perhaps the introvert, that likes piano solos of all kinds; but whatever it is, I like hearing piano solos. I like playing them, too, because as long as a piano is nearby, I don't have to depend on anyone else to play them. I can play to my heart's content without depending on anyone else.


Video of me playing "Echoes of Spring" on the piano

So what is the Harlem stride piano I've referenced? There is actually some controversy over whether to classify it as ragtime or jazz, since its heyday was in the late ragtime era and early jazz era. I once considered it a consensus view that Harlem stride piano was jazz, but I have discovered that when I play it, most people that hear it consider it ragtime. I have seen people knowledgeable about Harlem stride piano on both sides of this debate. But however it's classified, it is fairly certain that it gets the "stride" part of its name from the pianist's left hand "striding" up and down the keyboard, often at very high speeds.

The New Orleans style of piano playing around that time is sometimes mistaken for Harlem stride piano. While these are not the same thing, they do both share strong roots in ragtime. "Jelly Roll" Morton, who epitomizes this style, was both a late ragtime-era pianist and an early jazz-era pianist. He falsely claimed to have "invented" jazz, but he really was the first person to write it down on paper. Like the Harlem stride pianists, Jelly Roll Morton is one of my favorite musicians, and a good showcase of his skills can be found in the video below, with a recording of him playing his composition "Finger Breaker." This video gives a good sample of the related New Orleans style of piano playing.


So back to the Harlem stride piano style: One of the earliest practitioners of this style is Charles Luckeyth "Luckey" Roberts, who was never very well-known, even in the jazz world. However, he is one of my favorite pianists, and I consider him an influence on my style. Like Jelly Roll Morton, Luckey Roberts was a late ragtime-era pianist and an early jazz-era pianist, but his Harlem stride style was somewhat different from Morton's New Orleans style. A good sampling of Roberts' playing can be found in this video where he plays his composition "Railroad Blues."


Another early practitioner of the Harlem stride piano style is Willie "The Lion" Smith, who got the nickname "The Lion" from his impressive war record in World War One. While he is not well known outside the jazz piano world, he is well-known within it, and he is one of my favorite pianists. There is some video footage of him available online, and one of the best exhibitions of his style is found in the latter part of this video, where he plays his composition "Finger Buster." (Incidentally, I played a somewhat simplified version of this song once at a Ward Talent Show in Flagstaff.)


Another favorite pianist of mine is the Harlem stride pianist James P. Johnson, who is not only well-known in the jazz piano world, but who has some fame outside it for writing the song "Charleston." (For those of you who have seen "It's A Wonderful Life," this song was played in that movie's dance scene.) As with Luckey Roberts, I have tried many times to find video footage of James P. Johnson online, but to no avail. But I have found plenty of audio of him, as he made several audio records. He also recorded several piano rolls, which are paper rolls that have music encoded upon them that can be played by a player piano. A piano roll of him playing his composition "Carolina Shout" (along with photographs of him) can be found at this link. This song is a Harlem stride piano classic.


James P. Johnson gave personal piano lessons to Thomas "Fats" Waller, another of my favorite pianists. (The nickname "Fats" came from Waller's heavy frame.) Fats Waller may have been, at one time, the most popular man in Harlem. He is still well-known today for his compositions "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Honeysuckle Rose." His piano skills are well-exhibited in this link to an audio recording of him playing his composition "Handful of Keys" (a stride piano classic), and some video footage of him performing "Ain't Misbehavin'" with his band is available at the second link given below.



I mentioned earlier that there is some controversy over whether Harlem stride piano is ragtime or jazz. If it is jazz, then the Harlem stride pianists were among the earliest jazz pianists. But if it is ragtime, the first jazz pianist may well have been another of my favorite pianists, Earl "Fatha" Hines. (I'm not sure how he got the nickname "Fatha," but some consider him the Father of Jazz Piano, so the nickname may be quite appropriate.) I consider him a great influence on me. His skills are well-exhibited in this recording of him playing his composition "Rosetta."


But the best jazz pianist of all time, in terms of sheer technical skills, may well have been Art Tatum. He was one of the later Harlem stride pianists, and this link to audio of him playing his version of "Tiger Rag" may be the most impressive piano playing I've ever heard. He's not as much fun for me to listen to as some of the others, but his skills are incomparable. There is some footage of him in the second video below, in which he plays his own jazzed-up version of Antonín Dvořák's "Humoresque," a classical song. (Incidentally, it is interesting to me that all of the pianists I've named had strong classical training, which I'm sure both improved their skills and influenced their compositions and performances.)



So now you know a lot about my personal favorites, whose recordings I have listened to many times while trying to learn their style. (Since my sight-reading skills are terrible, I have to listen to audio of them playing, to learn how to play like them.) I would like to reiterate that I am a fan of many kinds of music; and with the exception of music that glorifies wrongdoing, I have respect for nearly all of it. I have respect for the opinions of others, and I will not mind if your musical tastes differ from mine.


Me playing piano at my church in Prescott

A lot of this information could be gained from the "Favorite Music" section of my Facebook page, and some Web-searching of the musicians listed there. But I think this has helped to clarify my influences and tastes better than a mere listing of my favorite musicians. So now you know a lot more about how I learned to play piano (the way I play it). I hope those of you who have persevered through this lengthy post have found something of interest in it.

A review of Ken Burns' "Jazz"

Other personal posts


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