Playing Creatively Within Your Means

Cocktail Piano TipsAs a soloist, you have lots of control at your fingertips. When it comes to presenting yourself in a tasteful manner, it makes perfect sense to use that control wisely. If your aim includes captivating the respect of your listeners, nothing is more significant than this.

Being a “monster” of a player who has command of hundreds of fills, improvisational licks, and chord voicings does not automatically qualify that performer as a tasteful one. It’s how you use what you know that counts.

Don’t Be A YawnerDon't Be A Yawner

Have you ever listened to someone giving a speech or lecture who bored you out of your mind? Although that speaker had a huge vocabulary and was able to come up with the perfect word for conveying what was on his or her mind, maybe he or she seemed to want you to know that (yawn!). Perhaps the pace at which those words were spoken was too slow or too fast. It’s possible that their performance lacked contrast in dynamics, including speaking in a monotone.

Less Is More

Now, compare that to a speaker of much fewer words. His or her way of presenting ideas was complemented with a sense of humor. That person utilized moments of silence, taking a few breaths in between phrases. The voice inflection, with its dynamic highs and lows, keeps your attention. In short, this person is easy to listen to and you wouldn’t mind listening to more.

Each and every time you perform a song, equate it to a speech. If you were to compare your style of playing to one of the speakers described above, which of them do you most resemble?

You’re Already Better Than You Think You Are

This should all come across as good news to you. Why? Because you can know for a fact that, whatever level of skills you consider yourself to possess, you have what it takes to present yourself as a performer who is completely respected and appreciated by your listeners.

Let’s say that you are performing a rendition of Erroll Garner’s Misty. This is a song in A A B A form. This means that eight measures of the song will be heard three times by your listeners… and that’s only if you play through the entire tune once! So, here is the key question:

How will you make each of these eight-bar sections sound unique?

Know What’s On Your Paletteartist palette

Here is where you want to have a basic awareness of your current skills. It might help to think of each of your skills as a paint color on your artist’s palette. An artist with only three colors on his or her palette could easily paint a delightful picture, being a true artist.

So, it’s not the number of colors that makes that person an artist. It’s the painter’s tasteful utilization of them that sets him or her apart from the amateur.

Let’s play with this a little further. Suppose that the painter used all three of those colors in each and every segment of the canvas. The landscape was blue, green, and red, the water included blue, green, and red… the same with the sky… etc. Stepping back and looking at the big picture, there would be a canvas “splattered” with blue, green, and red.

Obviously, the true artist would use those colors differently. Put simply, that artist wouldn’t use everything he or she had on the palette all over the place.

Shh! Don’t Tell Them Everything!

Likewise, don’t use everything you know all at once.


painting with colors

long with this, here is some additional good news for the beginning player with fewer tools at his or her fingertips. Getting back to that artist with the palette of only three colors… what would it take for that artist to paint a tasteful painting that would have people in awe?

Transfer your answer to the question: having fewer tools, how would you present an arrangement of Misty in a tasteful way that would have your listeners wanting more?

Using Your Limitations As An Advantage

Having fewer colors at your fingertips forces you into thinking in a more creative fashion.

If only more experienced players really understood that truth.

Let’s list a few of these techniques that you have available to any player with any skill set:

  • The utilization of space/silence
  • Playing with various dynamics (from pp to ff, for example)
  • Resorting to different ranges of the piano keyboard (playing an octave or two higher, etc.)
  • Varying the activity of your accompaniment (playing sustained chords with your left hand vs playing arpeggios, etc.
  • Embellishing the melody less or more in each section
  • Playing in time vs with rubato

Add to this list as you please. Try this exercise. Grab a pencil and a piece of paper.

Choose a song that you would like to perform in a very tasteful, professional manner. We’ll just refer to Misty for this example. Write out an outline for the entire performance. So, let’s say that we are going to play through the entire song once, then go back to the bridge and play it to a finish. Also, consider that you may want to have a little introduction and an ending to take it out.

Actually take the time to come up with a description of how you will approach each section. Your outline might look something like this:

Misty Arrangement Outline

Of course, your arrangement outline may be significantly different. Also, have no concern for having the “perfect” arrangement. You see, the act of creating one will automatically have you thinking as a more creative musician. You may want to change it again and again.

Do you see that the approach shown above can work well for even the cocktail pianist who currently only knows how to play basic chords in their basic positions? That’s right. Even if you don’t have a clue about piano chord voicings or playing any embellishments (piano fills, etc.), you can present yourself like a pro. Why? Because, thinking this way about your music, you are a pro!

If you simply take this exercise that we have done and repeat it by creating a different outline for the same song over and over again, you will increase your musicianship by several notches instantly.

What you are doing is developing a higher awareness of what you are really capable of doing within your means and increasing your confidence as a performer with what you know right now. Yes, I’ve said it hundreds of times to my ProProach members and private students:

Appreciate where you’re at… and build upon that!




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