15 November 2009

Piano Proficiency (iii)

When I first started composing as a teen, the medium I worked in exclusively for the first several years was essentially the school band medium that I had been exposed to as a budding euphonium player. Even after I became involved in jazz as a player, it wasn't until several years later that I made my first attempts to compose in that idiom, and they were quite awkward and unsuccessful attempts, even in comparison to where my playing was at back then.

As I became more engrossed in jazz, I became more fluent as a jazz composer, and eventually spent some significant chunks of time writing only jazz compositions. Occasionally, lead sheet tunes would just come to me and I would write them down, but most of what I wrote early on had significant structural wrinkles, even if it was not truly through-composed. Coming from essentially a classical music composing background, I often had very specific ideas about how I wanted certain chords to be voiced, too specific for standard jazz notation, and certainly more specific than most players would want to put up with. In short, what this led to was either very dense harmonic structure (i.e. lots of chord symbols changing quickly), written out piano voicings and bass parts, or a combination of the two.

If I had been happy with the results, I would have persevered with this sort of concept, but eventually I became disillusioned with the results anyway, and seeing that they were, on top of everything else, rather unattractive if not downright unapproachable to many players (including myself at times), I began to think twice. My work has definitely become more polished after realizing this, and yet I still can't shake my attachment to very specific voicings, especially in the piano. In fact, even before I had a chance to play many of my tunes with real live people, I considered the piano to be the most important part of the ensemble, I had the most specific idea of how I wanted it to sound of any of the instruments in the band, and I would be apprehensive to bring in a tune of mine at all if there was no pianist in the group.

Similarly, I've often thought that if I, as the composer, could play the most important part in the band, that this would be most conducive to achieving fulfilling and accurate realizations of my tunes. That motivation to clean up my piano playing has always been there, and it remains the strongest motivation that I have. What I have been doing the past several months is mostly learning to play the tunes of mine that I feel will benefit the most from having the composer at the piano. It's quite a roundabout way to catch up on general technique, which is really what I need to do, but to be honest, the copious scale and arpeggio exercises used in traditional piano technique are the kinds of things that would make me absolutely hate to play, and given the fragile balance of circumstances that has inexplicably gotten me motivated to practice piano seriously for the first time, I feel like it's best to leave those alone.

Originally, I was a self-taught tuba player, but I can't really claim to be that anymore. I didn't have much help early on, but eventually I ended up taking quite a few lessons from a variety of tuba teachers with a variety of approaches, and while I've never changed my self-taught embouchure, most every other aspect of my tuba technique is very much by the book. I think it's safe to say that the piano is a far more intuitive instrument to learn than the tuba, and that it has a richer history of a variety of approaches, including the autodidactic, as well as those who simply do more with less. It's an instrument where I can clearly see how a traditional course of study benefits the player, and yet I can also see how the pervasiveness of that particular approach has yielded a certain amount of conformity among players, a conformity the type of which I'm inclined to avoid participating in if I can at all help it. Hence, my approach is to simply focus on learning to play what I want to be able to play, and in doing so, address the technical challenges of those particular pieces as they arise, even if that's not in order of progressive difficulty or an otherwise sensible succession of challenges that build on each other in a clear way.

The one area where I'll be forced to engage in purely technical exercises is independence. I've always felt that if I had great independence, I could do pretty much everything I want to do with the piano using just the minimal technique I already have with each hand on its own. That, however, is nowhere near the case. To this point, I've steadfastly avoided approaching anything that required even a hint of independence simply because I knew it would take longer to learn than the time I had to do it in. For now, at least, I've finally become motivated to do the grunt work required to overcome this barrier. We'll see if it actually works.

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