What to Work On In Your Solo Piano Technique

The beauty of being a solo piano artist is that you don’t need anybody else, or so one might think. But then reality sets it: doing it all on your own can be downright difficult.

Quickly, you begin searching for a third hand, which obviously isn’t there. This means that as a solo piano artist you’re just going to have to conjure up other ways to play melody, chords, and bass, without sacrificing one for the other.

Let’s look at the tune, "Softly As In a Morning Sunrise". It’s a standard. Every solo piano player should play it, and it’s a fairly easy learn, with lots of room for exploration and interpretation.

Memorizing is the first step to mastering a tune. Do this as quickly as possible. For the average solo piano artist, this shouldn’t take more than an hour for the usual lead sheet song.

Melody and bass notes are important at the outset. Play, play, and play until you’ve got it down. Improvisation and reharmonization? Forget it! This kind of stuff just prolongs the memorization process for the solo piano musician.

Deal with the trouble spots. Work them out! A lot of solo piano musicians tend to skip over the trouble spots. It’s something they don’t like to do so they ignore them. Bad decision.

As an example, if you encounter a problem with something like a three note passage in the sixth measure of a tune, then go right at these notes. Get yourself a metronome that can be used for solo piano and play these notes evenly and slowly. After mastering the passage, then spread out to the notes that occur before the problem area and after by a few beats. Go back now and play everything again. This is called working outwards.

The next step is to address the left hand—the bass player, at times the drummer, and usually the weakest link of the solo piano player’s skill-set. It’s usually weak because jazz pianists focus on playing melodies like he or she is a horn player. That doesn’t work. You end up with single note lines.

You have at your fingertips 88 notes and ten musicians, or in this case ten fingers. Use them! And about this myth, you know, the one about short fingers short-changing you. That’s bunk. Lot’s of solo piano musicians can’t reach an octave without stretch and strain, but that doesn’t keep them from tearing up the ivories.

The fact is, long fingers don’t guarantee great solo piano music. It’s a good left hand that gets the job done, along with discipline, something every solo piano player needs—in great abundance.

What you will notice about the lead sheet for "Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise", is the simplicity of the basic chord structure and melody. To make this song sound big, the solo piano artist needs a strong left hand. With many songs, playing the bass notes and melody notes with the left hand at the same time can be a good start for developing a strong lefty.

Time to turn our attention to the right hand—that dear friend of ours whose job is to produce sparkly and clean passages while fooling the left hand, who we all know is constantly reminding us that it’s the weak link. Oh well!

In effect, for the solo piano player, the right hand is the singer in your band. Five digits are there for whatever you want. But remember, the melody has to come out. It’s the single most important thing in your playing.

Going back to our lead sheet, let’s take a crack at playing the melody in the ‘A’ section—just as it’s written, note for note. By reading the words and singing them out loud, the solo piano player can gain direction in determining what the composer was trying to accomplish—style-wise.

Now it’s time to put it all together. You’ve worked on your left hand. The right hand was always your strong suit. Can you sound like a professional? What’s the trick? Start simple by playing the melody and the bass line as we’ve discussed in the earlier part of this article. And above all, remember, solo piano playing is all about personal taste…and practice. Lots of practice.

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