Added 26 October 2014.

Further confessions of the

Keyboard Player


In 2007-8 I belated decided it was time to move on to the next step in keyboard playing, ie being able to both sight read better and play with both hands properly. Dare I say it, I was almost thinking of becoming - ulp - a proper piano player?
Well, no, not necessarily, but as the dynamics of the Space Truckers had changed yet again I decided it would be easier to find a bassist than a keyboard player, and so I started thinking about improving my technique. What follows is my own experiences of coming at the keyboard from almost a retraining point of view, and as an adult.

So am I changing my tune?

The last thing I would want anyone to think on reading this is that I had completely changed my mind about the basic approach to keyboard playing outlined in my other article on this site. I still value the basic techniques I taught myself, namely using a knowledge of chord harmony (ie what notes make up which chords!) to play, and that knowledge can still come in useful in situations where a completely manuscript-bound player would be lost. But read on....

Where did I start?

A perusal of the music section in the Central Library turned up some useful books, including the one I went with, Carol Barrett's Classical Piano for Adults. I went with this one because I assumed classical piano would feature technique (eg fingering) fairly prominently, and I was right.

One thing you must be prepared for when going back to basics like this is that you will have to work through what seem to be fairly basic if not childish exercises, eg just playing a simple melody with one hand. However, stick with it - you may actually learn something. If there was one thing I noticed as I progressed, it was that my fingering had been very rough and ready in the past - not that I was a bad player at what I was doing, but simply that it had held me back from going further.

It's also worth emphasising that you shouldn't rush through the basic exercises because you think that they are basic, or because you want to get to the meatier stuff. Taking time over the basic exercises and sometimes going back to them (as I did) allows you to work the technique into your fingers.

Left and Right Hands

Another benefit of learning technique from a tutorial book is that you can start at the right level for coordinating both hands. I had played with both hands before, but not in a particular advanced way, and again learning better ways of fingering helped improve my technique. As you progress you can also learn how to syncopate rhythm with the left hand using the exercises, which takes a little effort that really pays dividends.


Sooner or later you come to scales, supposedly the bane of every child pianist's life. In fact if you come to them as an adult and especially if you have a theoretical knowledge of them through playing other instruments (in my case, guitar and bass), they are not as difficult as people imagine, and again use of the correct fingering will help you play better. There are also jazz scale tutors available for the various grades which are also helpful in this respect.

This brings me to one of my major discoveries in keyboard playing, namely that what I used to dread - unison playing with both hands - isn't as hard as it seems when you start learning the correct fingering. Once you do this, your confidence in playing riffs (including blues riffs) really takes off, and in a band situation unison riffs with a keyboard playing the same as the guitar(s) and bass can sound stunning.

Sight Reading

Again, exercise helps. One of the first things one book taught me was that the player should be looking at the music and not at the keys or their fingers. I had always previously assumed that this was either a gift given only to certain mortals or something acquired over years of hard labour as a child and symptomatic of a sheltered upbringing. In fact, just as a progressing guitar player loses the need to watch the neck all the time to see which fret he's placing his fingers against, so I found that to my pleasant surprise, you can actually play without looking at your hands. It certainly does take practice, but again the benefit of a tutor is that you start with the easy stuff and progress, as opposed to coming in cold and sitting down to a Bach prelude.

The benefit of this is that even if you don't become a brilliant sight reader, the habit of not looking at your hands when playing can stand you in good stead as a player, since it frees you to look at other musicians (for cues!) and even to sing and play at the same time.

Pedal to the metal

Although I was acquainted with church organ pedals, having made a premature effort to learn that instrument many years ago (talk about running before walking!), I had never really understood the point of piano pedals or how they are applied. I don't actually use a piano at home but my trusty MIDI gear, but I was able to buy a plug-in pedal for £15 which was good enough for learning on, albeit perhaps rather more prone to wander about under the keyboard stand when accidentally kicked. However, the joy of pedalling was short-lived as pedal developed a fault and stopped working after a few months. Perhaps the lesson here is that you get the pedal you pay for?  Later I bought a Yamaha one which was similar in construction, not much more expensive and lasted up to the present.  The only thing to be aware of is that these smaller pedals do have a tendency to "walk" forward with continuous pressing, so that the pedal often ends up almost out of reach on the wrong side of the keyboard stand!

Putting it all in a group context

It has certainly been a pleasure taking what I have learnt from technique and using it in a band situation. Lest anyone think that I'm now playing Barry Manilow or neoclassical meanderings, I hasten to point out that most of the set is straight heavy or prog rock.

One interesting thing that has come up is playing left hand with the bassist. In some situations we have played the same notes in unison, his being an octave lower than mine. A bit of discretion is needed here as depending on the sound used by the keyboard this can be quite heavy, especially with an organ patch. If it's too much you can either play left hand an octave higher, play left hand chords or miss out the left hand altogether, although I feel a bit naked not using both in most songs.

Recently I had to do the singing as well as the keyboard playing, which is certainly a challenge. I have to say that if you are playing anything remotely complicated, such as a heavy bass riff on the left hand with chord stabs on the right, then doing that as well as singing will certainly stretch you. Actually, it does still sometimes mentally overload me - it seems that regular practice of such material is necessary in this situation.

Other tutors and books

Apart from the classical piano tutor, I obtained a couple of jazz tutors being sold off at the library. These assume some knowledge of piano playing (including fingering and coordination of the hands) so wouldn't be ideal for starting from scratch with, but they do give you some interesting exercises and I have learnt a lot more about soloing, scales and harmony from them.  The best books I found from a rock musician's point of view, though, were the "Rock Piano" series by Jürgen Moser.  This is a two-volume set: the first gives you the basics, the second looks at various styles.  Although some previous piano knowledge is assumed (in particular sight reading), the first volume does not start off at a difficult level: I began using it a few months after starting on the Carol Barratt book.  The beauty of this book is firstly, it is aimed at those who want to play rock, and secondly, it assumes you want to play in a band with other people.  The second book is more complicated and it pays to have worked through the first quite thoroughly, as well as having a reasonable sight reading technique, before going on to it.  Many of the exercises are also on the accompanying CD in both books.  Really I can't recommend this series highly enough.

Borrowing music collections (eg "Great Piano Classics", "Film Hits", etc) can be a bit of a mixed blessing. The authentic music is usually rather too hard for a beginner in sight reading and can end up in frustration. However some of the collections have been tailored for beginning or intermediate grades without remorselessly dumbing them down, and you can learn a fair bit from them as well as deriving pleasure from playing a well-known piece of music properly. Christian song books can be good in this respect, especially the old hymns, since many were written to be played as fairly basic four part harmonies, ie usually two notes per hand (songs like "Jerusalem" being the rather complicated exception!).

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