Focus On Your Repertoire
For newer cocktail pianists looking to perform publicly, a first and foremost piece of advice I like to share is this: Focus on building your repertoire. If you are simply playing for a hobby, you’ll see that this applies to you as well.
Yes, you want to familiarize yourself with lots of those tricks of the trade, including how to dazzle your listeners with tasteful piano fills, lush chord voicings, and awesome improvisations. However, first thing’s first. Let’s face it. If you don’t know songs, you don’t have anything to add those wonderful things to. After all, where are all those cake toppings going to be placed if there’s no cake to start with?
Having a nice list of songs that you can perform confidently is a more than just a feather in your cap. It’s a necessary requisite to landing a gig! Once you know a song well, it’s easier and just plain lots of fun to embellish it with all those decorations.
Play Within Your Means
By learning a song, I’m referring to being able to play that melody in a fluent way and accompanying it with chords or voicings that come naturally to you. Again, you can decorate it later. The first priority is being able to present yourself in a confident manner. Remember, the majority of your listeners in a restaurant or club are not judging your playing by how many 9ths, 11ths, or 13ths you’re playing or how many two-handed voicings you’re using. They simply want to hear a good song played in a manner that sounds good. When it flows, they know it. When it compliments the ambiance, they feel it. When you are confident, it comes across that way.
David VS Goliath
Personally, I’ve been in the scenario where I had the opportunity to listen to a couple of players in the same evening, one following the other. The first knew chord voicings galore. It was evident that he listened to a good number of jazz players and had familiarized himself with many of the voicings he was exposed to. However, when he played, he did so as if he wanted you to know that. The volume was loud and the playing was overly boisterous. Five minutes of listening to this guy was enough for me. The second player knew how to play chords that didn’t amount to much more than 7th chords in their basic positions. In addition, he only knew how to play in the key of C. However, he felt his music. He played with sensitivity. His body moved with every phrase because he was in touch with what he was playing. His dynamics were interesting. His knowledge of chord voicings was practically zero but I could have listened to him all evening.
Yes, keep an open mind (and ear) to learning fills, voicings, and all those styling techniques that you aspire to be able to play. Don’t be in a hurry to learn them all at once. Gradually incorporate them into the tunes that you can play with confidence. As I continuously say to my ProProach members, appreciate where you’re at and build upon that!