hands at piano

Learning = Listening (and Stealing a few Licks!)

Lately I’ve been finding myself responding to questions from TV show viewers and students with the same answer over and over. The questions usually go something like this… “Scott, I saw one of your guests playing a tune that I just love. I found a lead sheet to the tune and learned the chords and melody, but what I’m playing certainly does not sound as good as what your guest played. Can you teach me how to play it that way?”

How to answer that is somewhat of a conundrum for me. Here’s why: If I transcribed what a guest played verbatim, I could give it to someone and with enough brute reading effort they could eventually play it note for note. Problem solved, right? From my perspective, no… In a classic example of the old saw “give a man a fish and he eats for a day, but teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime,” I’d much prefer to teach the viewers how to do it themselves. That’s what creates a true Music Maker, and creating lifelong Music Makers is my ultimate goal as a teacher!

So, what is the best way to learn someone else’s style of playing a tune? It boils down to serious listening in an effort to steal some licks.

Steal? That’s right, steal. Although stealing may sound harsh, it’s not only OK; it’s flattering to the player from whom you’re stealing! I know this probably sounds strange to the uninitiated, but “copping” or “lifting” licks is the way great players have learned to play non-classical piano throughout history. We don’t memorize huge amounts of someone else’s playing verbatim, but instead learn a few signature licks used by that player in that tune. Then, you keep those little “nuggets” from the great players who have come before you in your bag of tricks, ready to pull out and use whenever appropriate. That allows you to not only sound authentic playing the tune, but also gives you the freedom to keep making music instead of reproducing someone else’s playing note-for-note.

Now, let’s find a few ways to give you a head start in your efforts to steal some licks while listening. First of all, go to your piano or keyboard with whatever recording you are trying to imitate. Attempting to learn it from memory is really tough for a beginner. You’ll need to be able to continually stop and start the recording (whether on video online or just audio from something like CD or your phone?) while sitting at your piano. Hopping up and down to run to the stereo or TV probably won’t work too well.

Next try to get a version of the lead sheet (or traditional sheet music containing chord symbols if the lead sheet is not available) to the tune to which you’re listening. If you’re lucky it will be in the same key of the recording, which will tell you what the chords are to the tune. That helps because so much of what most licks are comprised of is chord tones. It simply narrows down your search for likely “correct” notes. Finally, just listen to a tiny bite over and over in the recording and “hunt and peck” until you nail down that section. If you are working from a video of someone playing with a camera shot of the keys, (like my Piano Guy weekly TV series did) do your best to find the hand position of the performer to quickly hone in on what is being played.

For those of you who consider yourself “only a reader,” the thought of just sitting down and figuring something out like this by ear probably scares you to death. That’s OK! Stretch yourself and do it anyway. You’ll be shocked at how naturally well equipped you are to do this. It will show you a new creative door you never knew existed and will open you up to a whole world of piano playing you might now be missing due to your reliance on needing to see things notated.

For those of you who are not so adept at note reading, this will allow you to finally get under hand a lot of those neat “tips and tricks” like we talk about on the show all the time, without struggling to read some arrangement note-for-note that limits your creativity.

Remember, listening – really listening – and then learning the licks you like is the purest, fastest, most authentic way to get to the point you want to be in your non-classical piano playing. Stealing, lifting, quoting, copping… whatever you want to call it… is the way to give yourself the musical colors you need to turn a lead sheet, that by design is simply an outline of a tune, into a beautiful performance of a tune created not by someone else, but by the Music Maker who matters the most, you!

So with all that said, how about you steal a couple licks from me? I still teach piano to thousands of students to help give them the skills they need to learn how to play. Right now if you sign-up for Piano In A Flash courses 1-2 as a bundle you will receive a $100 discount on one of those courses! Get the foundation you need to learn how to play non-classical piano authentically, like pros play!

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