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Be creative at the Piano (Part 2)
Creating Within Limits
When I first started playing the piano, I wanted to learn how to compose. The idea that I could create something tangible really appealed to me.
So much so that I read everything I could get my hands on to learn the great art of musical composition. The e problem was that these books assumed that you knew certain things like form, structure, harmony, and counterpoint. What a disappointment!
It was hard trying to take the feelings I had on the inside and put them down on paper. The real problem was that I had it backwards. Instead of
trying to learn composition first, I needed to learn how to improvise – how to free the inner voice from criticism and judgement – so I could be free to create the music that was inside me.
And so I began to read about how to improvise. Again, I was disappointed. I couldn’t find good books on the subject,or books that would show me how to play in the New Agestyle – the style I loved. Eventually, I stumbled on a simple book that showed how to play using chord changes with 8-bar phrases. Now, here was something I could do!
All I had to do now was learning chords. Once I knew how to play a few chords, I began to see that in order to really be creative, there had to be a set of limitations. An irony, yet one that works! By playing chord changes within a set framework, I was learning how to create within limits. Even so-called “free improvisation” has certain rules. For example, you may decide that you’ll improvise using the chords and scale of D Major. That’s creating within limits. It’s not necessary to use limits to create music, but it definitely helps one to focusing on expressing yourself. Instead of thinking about what toplay, you’ve already made that decision and are now free tocreate.
Creating Your Own Compositions
The idea of actually creating a complete piece of music to play frightens many students. They just don’t understand how someone could come up with something, put it down on paper, and call it their own. The e good news is that you don’t need to read music to compose. All you need is to understand a little about chords and musical phrases.
For example, in the lesson “Reflections in Water,” we have 4 chords to create with. We have the order in which the chords are to be played -and then we play, creating an entire piece of music. Now, this piece is actually an improvisation. But if I wanted to “compose” this same piece, I would just draw bar lines, notate where the chords should be played, i.e. every
2-bars, every 4-bars, etc., and either pencil in the first 2-bars of melody, or record it, so I could remember the melodic idea.
This is how I compose! I’ve been doing it for a very long time, and it’s a great method to quickly capture musical ideas. If I were to write out the same piece note for note, it would take hours! There’s no need to do this because once you have your chord changes down and know the arrangement of the piece (Reflections in Water is a broken-chord arrangement) that’s that!
Creating Your Own Unique Music
Have you ever dreamed of penning your own compositions? Writing music has been a dream of mine for the longest time. And it’s a dream I am fortunate enough to have realized.
The idea of having a finished piece of music in front of you is exciting to say the least, but many students rush the process and end up with music that is less than what they originally thought of.
The e way around this “composition trap,” as I like to call it, is to be able to sit down at the piano or keyboard and be able to play for at least 15-20 minutes without judging what is coming out of you. Once you can do this, your ability to capture musical ideas as they first came to you increase.
First thoughts are powerful!
Your first ideas will ALWAYS BE YOUR BEST IDEAS! Why? Because this music comes straight from the heart and does not have the censorship of the critical mind attached to it. Always improvise first, then memorialize your ideas if you wish. I do this by jotting down an 8-bar section. Once the melody is recognized, I pencil in the first 2-bars and try to fill up the 8-bars with chord changes. Once I have the first 8-bars, the whole piece is practically done. I usually do not finish a piece in one sitting, however, I do make it a point to at least get 8 bars of music down. This is a very doable goal and one you can accomplish as well!
Creative Dry Spells and What to
Do About Them
A student recently emailed me saying that she was through with piano playing. She was very upset because the desire to play piano had disappeared. My sage advice? It happens to everyone!
Look, if we were meant to have the muse on 24/7 we would burn out faster than an accountant on espresso. There’s something about the creative spark that does not like to be pressured. Sure, you can show up at the piano and try and enter in to the music, but if your spirit is not in it, chances are you’re not going to want to play.
As frustrating as these “dry spells” can be, they are necessary for further creative growth. Patience is key here, but many creative types (myself included) are not patient people. As I said before, forcing rarely works and will leave you even more frustrated. The e only real solution to this is to see that we are more than who we are when we sit down to play the
piano. If we identify only with our creative self, we set ourselves up for frustration. It’s also good to know that 99.9 times out of 100, creativity returns, and we can relax and entertain the muse once more.
Don’t Be Afraid of Melody
In New Age piano music, there are basically two styles -textural and melodic. The e textural style is usually associated with George Winston. You hear beautiful backgrounds created by the left hand while the right improvises melody. The melodic style popularized by David Lanz places melody at the forefront.
Many students fall in love with the textural side of New Age piano. While there is nothing wrong at all with this, it’s also a good idea to not put melody off to the side. It’s a very good idea to familiarize yourself with both aspects of New Age piano playing.
For example, the piece “Egrets” focuses mostly on melody. In fact, the first thing you hear is the theme, which is, repeated two times more after the introduction. It’s a simple theme that most would say is “New Age.” In the lesson piece, “Cirrus,” we have something entirely different! We have textures created by broken chords. Melody is not playing the lead role here. In fact, there really is no discernible melody at all – although there really is no music without melody – (a whole new topic!) While I’m the first person to say, play what you feel and don’t try and force yourself into playing something that’s not your personal aesthetic, I’m also an advocate of not brushing off something completely just because it’s not “your thing.”
Leaning how to create pieces with melody at the forefront is a skill that will come in handy whether or not you enjoy this side of New Age piano.
Everything I Play Sounds the Same
Many students want to create music that has a certain emotional quality. For example, I once had a student ask me to show her how to play something that sounded happy.
Of course, this student missed the entire point of my teaching – to play emotionally and to not try and come up with something. I tried to explain to her that if she were feeling happy, then the natural outcome of the music would be flavored with this emotion.
As a natural outgrowth of the preceding statement, there will be times, many times perhaps, when the music that comes out of you sounds the same. Many interpret this as being uncreative, when in fact, you are being true to yourself. When you don’t try and come up with material, but instead, let the music come up, you are not forcing or willing the creative
act. Instead, you are allowing yourself to express at the moment -whatever the sound may be. If someone tells you that everything you play sounds the same, acknowledge it silently as a compliment and know that you are being true to yourself and the integrity of the artistic process!
When you are more concerned with enjoying the act of creating than trying to come up with material, you’ll be way ahead of the game!
How I Compose a Piece of Music
A number of people have asked about my own methodology for creating a complete piece of music at the piano. At the risk of oversimplification, the steps are as follows:
- I sit down at the piano without any thought of creating something and tune in to my feelings.
- I start to play the first thing that comes to mind. In other words, my fingers come before my brain. I let it all hang out and see where the music wants to go. If something resonates or has energy, I stay with it until
- the energy dissipates. If the music does not seem to want to go anywhere, I get up and leave. Now, (assuming that I am on to something) I draw bar lines – enough for an 8-measure phrase. I then write down the chord changes on top – hopefully for the entire 8 bars. If the entire 8-bars don’t come, I try for four – but I usually succeed in filling up this 8-bar space. I’ll then pencil in the melody, but only the first 2-bars. This way, I let the rest of the melody come of its own accord. The first 2-bars is enough to allow me to improvise the rest until it gels into its final form.
- After the first 8-bar section is complete (or incomplete, it doesn’t matter), I’ll write down another 8 or 4-bar phrase and listen for the next section of music – if there is a next section. If something comes, I follow
the same procedure as above. What I usually try for in this section is contrast. Something different. In this regard, I do usually start out with a
preconceived idea of what the final form of the music will be. It will be A-B-A form 90% of the time. Knowing this allows me to use the techniques of composition (repetition and contrast) better.
The e piece is finished only after I play it a number of times, and it has a chance to gel. I can’t think of a better word for this process. Aft er you play what you have written down a number of times, the music settles into what it will finally become. You just know when the piece is finished. It is an
intuitive thing. Sometimes I’ll repeat sections a number of times because the inspiration is fresh and because it feels right. Other pieces are very short because more repetition of a section just does not work.
How To Compose Your First PianoPiece
Many students love to improvise. But I’m often asked… “When can I learn how to actually create a complete piece of music?” To which my response is, “when do you want to begin?”
I often tell students that they should wait to learn how to compose until they can freely improvise on the piano. And when I say “freely” improvise, I mean being able to sit down and just play without criticizing what’s coming out of you. When you can do this, you’ll be able to compose a piece of music without having to stop every 2-bars or so. Having said that – and assuming you’re already able to freely improvise, let’s see how to create our first real new age piano piece. First, understand that most music is composed in sections. In fact, musical composition is just the art of repetition and contrast. The first thing I have students do is learn how to complete an 8-bar phrase. Once you can “fill up” this section with either melody or chords, your work is halfway done. Why? Because this 8-bar phrase can be used as your (A) section.
For example, take a look at the lesson “Ice Crystals.” Here we have 8-bars for the (A) section and another 8-bars for the (B) section. Th e chords are already indicated, so all you have to do is improvise your way through. You see, once you can feel an 8-bar phrase, you’ll be able to really “get” the idea of musical sections. And you’ll be able to understand how composers use repetition and contrast to create an entire piece of music.
For “Ice Crystals,” we have a small piece of music in ABA form. It lasts for a few minutes, and then it’s over. The great thing about this lesson in particular is that you learn how to take an improvisation and use it to “fi ll up” the 8-bar phrases. A skill well worth learning!
How To Create An Original Melody From Scratch
There are 2 ways to create an original melody. The first has to do with improvisation. Here, you simply “come up” with material and either transfer it directly to sheet music or record it, so it can be remembered later on. The second way, and the one I’m going to show you how to do, is actually composing a melody from scratch. Some think this method (as opposed to free improvisation) is more difficult. Not if you use rhythmic patterns!
What are rhythmic patterns? They are simply note values, i.e. half notes, quarter notes, eight notes… etc.
Let me show you exactly what I mean… Let’s say you’re walking around, and a melody comes to you. Now most people do not have perfect pitch (myself included) and can’t jot down the note qualities, i.e, a D note or an F sharp note. However, when you work with rhythmic patterns, you don’t have to know the quality or name of the note, You just have to be able to jot down the pattern.
Here’s how I do it. First, I only jot down the first 2-bars of the pattern. Why? Because this allows you to capture an idea without having to compose the whole thing on the spot. It’s like a quick sketch visual artists might do. They capture the mood or feeling of a scene and later flesh out a full composition when they get home.
Now, you can draw out 2-bars anywhere. You don’t need sheet music to do this, and I never use sheet music. Any piece of paper will do. Then you simply notate the musical idea. For example, it might be something in 4/4 time. The first measure may be a half note and 2 quarter notes, and the second measure could just be 4 quarter notes. With this idea, you can really remember your initial idea. Remember Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? Of course, you don’t remember the whole thing – but the first few notes you
do… da da da duh… da da da duh…
This is the foundation for the entire symphony! That one rhythmic pattern. Of course, it took the musical genius of Beethoven to create an entire movement out of it, but you get the idea. In the next parts, I show you how I do this step by step.