Developing Mental Technique

Frankly, I am aghast with the excessive discussion on piano technique to be found online.  Further to this, discussion on playing jazz piano has spun out of control not so much because of the answers, surprisingly, since they are usually most useful, but because of the questions.  In this article, I wish to discuss both piano technique with an emphasis on what I have coined 'mental technique', followed by a blasting in the direction of jazz piano students but with the purest of intentions to direct them to be able to pose suitable questions in order to advance in a more productive, self-discovery manner.

I have a huge wall to smash through; a wall constructed of millions and millions of piano teachers' and advanced players' minds.  The cement holding this wall together is a mix of stubbornness, closed-mindedness and brainwashed neurones.  Heaven forbid I come out the other side alive; alas, I charge forth...!

A massively disappointing (in my opinion, but technically factually in terms of music) change took place in the world of Western music around the turn of the 20th Century; suddenly, everything became 'easier' and required much less talent and skill: ragtime, 12 bar blues, swing, barbershop quartets, etc., becoming rock n' roll, rock, diso, electronic music, boy/girl bands, etc, etc.  Musically, we went from the ├ętudes of Chopin and operas of Wagner, works by Brahms and Stravinsky involving wonderfully-complicated-yet-simplistically-beautiful melodies and chord structures, to 3 chords and bass drum / snare drum / symbol crash over 4/4 time for 100 years accompanied by 3 bass notes to accompany the 3, nay 4 (!) chords and monotonous melodies.  Don't even get me started on the endless, flooded genre of 'love' lyrics.

Whatever happened?  Why did it all suddenly get so mind-numbingly boring and rotten, musically speaking?  Now, speaking as a jazz pianist who loves playing the Great American Songbook, from which many, many beautiful songs may be plucked, one simply cannot deny either that the majority of songs in that repertoire are based on VI, II, V, I progressions and are thus very easy to master and/or internalise quickly.  I love Cole Porter and Gershwin, but if you look at a Fake Book (of jazz songs written by these two gentlemen, as well as others), you should be somewhat disappointed that most are written in Eb and revolve entirely around the VI, II, V, I progression; only the melody and tempo are different.  Did they not get bored?

I do love the melodies of a few, and lyrics were sometimes splendid, but all-in-all, I feel it would be criminal to say the songs are complicated or difficult.  As for composers in the same league as Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven et al, well, surrounded by such simple music and everyone wanting to play the aforementioned composers' music as well as others from the 19th Century, it's no surprise really that nothing new of the same calibre has sprung up and it also isn't surprising that piano technique became and has remained quite a stale topic.

Because of this, piano technique inherited from the teacher's teacher's teacher's teacher's, ... teacher has been so incredibly targeted on the fingers (fingering, hand positions, etc.,) and absolute adherence to the score.  It is now infamous to learn of somebody's piano beginnings only to learn that the reason they quit was because the teacher insisted on scales; even now I read questions from piano teachers of how to deal with bored students or parents who complain that their sprog doesn't practice so much because, it seems, they're bored.  Without making this an article about teachers again, they do need to take more than just scales and sightreading into consideration when teaching, especially the younger generation.  These two things are not the be-all-and-end-all of piano playing after all.

This obsession with technique has students become professionals and perhaps then become teachers who have been moulded into what I consider a deformed shape.  This pianist plays well and knows all scales and arpeggios by heart, at speed, and can read most any score with relative ease.  My response?  So what!  The image I have selected to represent this shows the piano students of China.  What a morbid, heartless, zombie army of finger technicians we shall all have do painfully endure in the forecoming years!

I turn your attention to a little study of Liszt who is quoted to have said to his biographer, Lina Ramann,

"Technique should create itself from spirit, not from mechanics".

This is exactly what I urge piano teachers and self-proclaimed 'good' pianists to consider; your body follows your mind; an excellent mental technique will always create an excellent physical technique.  Excessive mindless practice creates a technician, not a musician with a musical personality.

I can now seemlessly cross the divide between piano technique and what I wanted to discuss regarding jazz piano questioning by students of late by continuing the discussion of Liszt insofar as his awareness that musical production comes from conscious awareness, not only technical drills.  A jazz pianist would do well to create what Liszt can be said to have called a 'sonic image'; this is a beautiful description and highlights profoundly what a jazz pianist must do to produce his tones.  Most questions focus around not using 'boring notes' (notes of the chord or major scale).  While these are indeed safe notes, there is nothing wrong with them, as I shall now discuss.  They certainly not need be boring.

Every note on the piano has a note value (and in my jazz piano eBook, available from this site, I go into much detail about Note Value Awareness) and that note can be played in a variety of ways.  Instead of playing 'this note', consider the flexibility of it; how it can be sustained, repeated (slowly or at speed), manipulated for its dynamic range, partnered with other notes to create a 'bounce' effect.  The choices are endless but most certainly more numerous than just 'this boring note'.  With a little self-discovery, questions by jazz piano students almost become redundant because the journey becomes a search and production of a 'sonic image' created in the student's mind rather than a 'physical need' to know 'which notes to play which sound good' - this results in less theory questioning and more self-discovery.  As I said in the beginning, a large wall I through must smash!

I recommend the jazz piano student go and study one song and come to a conscious decision as to how they want that song to sound under their fingers.  Experiment with particular approaches (such as those discovered through listening to professionals/jazz legends playing the piece, on any instrument, not only piano) and see if you can make something of them through implementation.  Consider the notes of the chord required and try voicing them (playing them in a particular order) in different ways such as without their root, or the 5th on top, or the 9th on the bottom.  For the right hand, consider blues notes, highlighting interesting notes (7ths, b5 (blues), extentions: 9, 11, 13ths).  Such realisations go far in creating a musical personality and answering questions before you even know what they are since, once a 'sonic image' has been created, the body will naturally find a way to project it.

If pianists of all calibres began to see and play the piano as an extension of the body producing what the mind has create as a 'sonic image' (playing with your eyes closed, for example) and realise that obsessive scale study doesn't produce a pianist much in the same way that spending much of your time (alone or with a student) on arm positions is not a carved-in-stone solution for everyone, I assure you that playing the piano will become a much more enjoyable, personal affair and a lot of the energy wasted through worrying about doing things wrong will be chanelled into doing what your heart and ears feel as right.

 Wall smashed?

Probably not.