January 12, 2015 by Tony Lee
2014 was an amazing year of learning for me as a musician—and I think with a few New Year’s resolutions, 2015 can be even better. Great students, teachers, and musicians make concrete plans for growth. So, instead of writing about a particular technique or approach, I thought I’d take a minute to share with you my musical resolutions for 2015 in the hopes that you might consider adding one or two of them to your list.
This year, I resolve to serve the music, serve the setting, and serve the moment.
My first resolution is a three-part resolution. Learning to serve the music, setting, and moment are the first huge steps toward game-changing collaboration and creativity. A pianist’s/keyboardist’s biggest responsibility is to be mindful of these three things. Here are some steps I’m going to take to achieve this goal.
Serve the music
Know the vocabulary of this genre/artist.
Take the time to learn some of their frequently quoted phrases.
Know the music/tune/form well enough to really be able to look at and listen to the other musicians in the moment while performing.
Serve the setting
Know who am I playing with and what role(s) I fill. (Do I need to be playing the bass line? Should I be playing a strong rhythmic role if there’s no rhythm guitar?)
*A lot of this involves knowing what instruments you’re playing with in a given setting; the versatility of the piano/keyboard comes with the responsibility of being able to fill many roles.
Know whether the keys are providing primarily rhythmic support or leadership in the context.
Know whether the keys are providing primarily harmonic support or leadership in the context.
Serve the moment
Know when it’s my moment to shine or my moment to lay back in a tune.
Possess (by way of practice and study) technique solid enough that I can shine in my moment or support other musicians in theirs.
Be able to follow another musician or the singer if they get off track or skip a section; be able to follow them in the moment and keep the ball rolling.
This year I resolve to close my eyes and grow bigger ears.
I’ve made my biggest leaps in sight-reading, memorization, and musicality by learning to play with my eyes closed.
Depriving myself intentionally of the sense of sight allowed me to really listen to my playing and retain music mentally (i.e. memorization and music mapping) and kinesthetically. Playing all major and minor scales and arpeggios daily with my eyes closed was an experiment that I decided to try post-college and long after I’d started teaching. (It was an experiment inspired by a blurb on Marcus Roberts that I read in a book—if you don’t know who he is, you should! Look him up!)
I so wish someone had made me play with my eyes closed sooner! At first I sounded like a bumbling 5-year-old who had never taken lessons, but after slow, intentional practice I began to improve—not only in that skill, but across the board in leaps! Do it! Start slow, maybe just a scale or a 5-finger melody, maybe copy a lick you hear in your favorite tune and learn it with your eyes closed. Whatever your skill level, I cannot tell you how significant this exercise can be to your growth as a pianist.
So, this year, I resolve to learn more tunes with my eyes closed and my ears open. Who knows, maybe my ears will grow three sizes this year!