Updated: Jun 24, 2019
Contemporary piano as a playing style is a whole different ball game to Classical piano. Contemporary Pedagogy is often misunderstood by Classically trained teachers and quite under-rated in my opinion, thanks to the saturation of low quality YouTube tutorials and Synthaesthesia videos out there in cyberspace. The problem is, and something I had to learn early on in my teaching career, as much as I wanted my students to play scales and sonatinas, some students just want to learn to play songs they hear on the radio. So I had to adapt my teaching style and swap out Ravel for Rihanna. I figured, if I didn’t teach my students how to approach these pieces, then they would just go straight to YouTube, learn to play without developing healthy technique or understanding the theory behind what they are playing, and I would be out of a job.
But then I also thought, WHY do I want my students to learn scales and sonatinas? Is it because that’s what I was taught when I was learning piano? It’s a fairly standard line that teachers teach how they were taught. It’s true, I’m Classically trained but since graduating, most of my work has been in the form of contemporary playing. I’ve played a lot of musical theatre. I’ve played auditions. I’ve played weddings and parties. I’ve played cabaret shows. Rarely have I played an Etude or a Bagatelle as a gigging musician.
Contemporary piano is very much chord and harmony based. The most important things a contemporary pianist needs to understand is keys and chord function. A contemporary pianist needs to understand chord inversions and how to voice harmonies. They need to know chord shapes, how to move through a 1-4-5 progression seamlessly and how to transpose on sight. This is why I believe contemporary piano is vastly under-rated. There's a lot more to it than meets the eye. Chord theory can actually be quite intense and a vast fountain of learning opportunities. I love it because it’s my bread and butter, but it can be a daunting thing to approach for a teacher who is not familiar with playing contemporary style. If you're a Classical teacher looking for tips on how to improve your contemporary chops here is my best tip for you: Purchase an app called iReal Pro. It's a backing track app that comes pre-loaded with hundreds of chord charts and exercises. You can select the tempo, the key, the playing style. You can also create your own chord chart or gain access to other users' charts. Plug it into your speakers and just start jamming. You don't need to do anything fancy, no fills or improv at this stage, just focus on playing around with chord shapes and voicing.
The art of contemporary piano is all about using one instrument to create a full sound, so it's about understanding the registers of the piano and the function of each hand. Luckily for us pianists, the piano has an enormous range to play around with. Your middle register, from about F below Middle C to C above Middle C is where you'll get your full, rich sound. Chords sound tasty in this zone. If you want to create a bit of lightness and space in your arrangement, use the registers above C above Middle C. Your Left Hand is super important as the bass, creating the grounding of the chord and providing rhythm. If you want a full sound with extra lightness on top, using the upper registers of the piano, you need to be able to pedal correctly and navigate your Right Hand around the instrument quickly and effortlessly. This technique captures the chord in the middle register in the pedal while moving on to add some higher tones for effect.
I often get asked about playing and singing at the same time. This is essentially what contemporary piano is popular for – playing for singers, whether that’s yourself or someone else. For me, it’s about layering the process. You’ve got to be 100% secure in what’s happening at your fingertips, then you’ve got to be 100% secure in what’s happening with your vocals, then where you’re breathing and finally memorising the lyrics. There is so much going on at once in that little brain of yours that if one part of the process isn’t itself at 100%, it’ll let the whole team down.
Start slowly and separate the elements. Learn the keys first. Work on the arrangement and be confident playing through the accompanying part on its own. Learn the lyrics separately. Develop the vocal technique on its own, so you can focus on one area of technique at a time. When I’m working with a student on self-accompanying skills, when they've mastered the chord chart and are ready to add vocals, I’ll often get them to play through with just humming first. In fact, that’s often my first strategy when I’m learning a new song. It’s just about breaking things down into small steps, becoming confident in each step and then putting them together slowly. Contemporary piano is a lot more layered and intricate than it appears to be on the surface. If you are a vocalist wanting to learn how to self-accompany, find a good contemporary keys vocalist to help you. If you are a Classical piano teacher wanting to improve your confidence in contemporary piano, start jamming. Remember, Bach's preludes are basically all just chord based riffs anyway! As always, happy playing!