In this post, I’m advocating for you to learn the keyboard. The piano is the foundation instrument for western music, and the more we get our hands on it the better off we will be as musicians and, dare I say, human beings.
There are only 12 distinct notes to deal with, people, and when you gain both a clear picture and auditory relationship of these notes then the sky is literally the limit. It astounds me that we are still creating new music every day based on these same 12 notes!
The possibilities and inspirations are seemingly endless, but first we need to notice the relationships between the keys and use our ears to corroborate what we see.
The piano keyboard is math, only base 12. Our western numerical system is based on the number 10, the keyboard 12. So, part of demystifying the piano is realizing that scales and intervals are all built on patterns based in ONLY 12 distinct tones. For example, the major scale we all know and love is built on a particular pattern of whole and half steps. If you start on any note and follow the formula of whole and half steps you will play a major scale. Easy, right? Yes, actually it is that easy. What I’ve discovered is that children are the best at picking this concept up because they have no baggage or extra thoughts telling them “this is hard” or “I don’t get it.” I promise, if you play a major scale for a kid they can tell if it “sounds right.” Everyone can identify whether the scale sounds “correct,” or “incorrect.” This is really, really good news because it lets us know that the brain is (most of the time) automatically wired to hear the western classical major scale. This scale is fundamental because you can play it all on white keys from C to the C below or above. No mess, no fuss, just play all the white keys from C to any other C and you have the major scale pattern.
Once you learn the letter names of each key, you can start learning to visualize them in your mind. One of my favorite music teachers is Marianne Ploger because she developed a brilliant system of learning intervals (space between notes) that incorporates your visual, kinesthetic, and auditory learning modalities at the same time! This might sound challenging, and it is (no lie), but it also makes you a piano ninja in short order because you are engaging your whole brain in music.
And I must reiterate, you don’t have to be a virtuosic piano player to glean the benefits of knowing the keyboard. The piano is your friend! It wants to have a lovely relationship with you. It is waiting for all of us to discover its mysteries, both complex and simple. The benefits of learning the landscape of the keys and intervals between those keys will improve your musicianship faster and more deeply than anything else. I propose that all musicians should have some awareness of the piano, not just saxophone and guitar players as I say in the video here! I implore everyone to let go of having to be a “great piano player” in order to enjoy the benefits of learning how it works. Please, just sit down and take a calm look. I promise you will be amazed.
As for voice, singing along to the keyboard, whether you are playing a melody or playing chords under the sung melody, locks you into the pitch center and gives you ground to stand on. I often wonder how singers who have not played piano (or another instrument) feel. Is it like floating in space? Do you wonder where you are in relation to other instruments? Does the pitch float around and seem like a mystery? I don’t care if all you do is sing do-re-mi on all the white keys while you play, just get in there and start building scale into your voice.
This post is for singers and musicians who haven’t yet given the piano a chance. The amount of empowerment I feel for knowing how to play some very simple things on piano is indescribable. You kind of owe it to yourself to give it a shot. It might just change your life.
In case you are hungry for a great piano resource, here is my favorite jazz piano book for just about everyone. Brilliant, truly! You can find it on Amazon for a reasonable price, and the Amazon will also deliver it to your house. Sweet.