Creative Piano Lessons: First Month from My Actual Syllabus Over 4 Years (Part 1/6)

In this article, I want to start to spell out the materials I covered over the past 4 years of creative piano lessons, starting from being a nearly complete beginner to reaching an intermediate level, and most importantly touching many genres of music, especially jazz and pop, but also classical and improvisation, and all the way to some heavy metal. I’ll only get to the first month here, but it already provides a lot of material for getting started!

I was very lucky to have found an up-and-coming, young piano teacher, who is also a composer and the lead of the band Shpik, Arnaud Spick-Saucier (e.g. listen to the atmospheric jazz piece Tiny Shack and notice the complex harmonies). I find that he has a uniquely creative manner of teaching music and the piano, which I want to share.

Here, I will explain his methods, build a syllabus from the actual lessons, and eventually I’ll update this article to include links to my own playing (for now, there is only Gymnopédie #1 by Éric Satie).

Besides providing you with a concrete piano syllabus, one motivation for me for writing this up is that my teacher gave me his blessing a few months ago to start teaching piano beginners. Although I have not yet started teaching, I’ve given some thoughts about it, and this article is the beginning of how I would approach teaching adult students in the future, based on my teacher’s methods.

My Musical Background

I started the last 4 years of lessons at age 44, but I had done various musical trainings before. At ages 5 and 6, I had recorder flute and piano lessons. That stopped when the teacher told my mother that I played like a robot without a soul, that I only wanted to learn a piece, play it as fast as I could, and move on to the next without polishing it, and he was recommending that she didn’t waste her hard-earned money on lessons.

But music was very important to me, and as an adolescent, I spent my pocket money on flute lessons, from ages 17 to 21. That ended when I moved to the USA to do my PhD in particle physics, and where I chose to have voice lessons at ages 23, 30 and 42-43, while at ages 23, 27 and 31, I sang in choirs. At age 36, after I resigned from my investment banking job, I enrolled into a music program at a community college (Richmond, in London) with flute, piano, theory, and composition. I bought a Clavinova CVP-305, which I still use twelve years later.

What I recall from my 4 years of flute lessons is that I was becoming a technically proficient flutist, able to play very difficult pieces from the repertoire. e.g. Prokofiev’s sonata, and somewhat able to fine tune the pitch, but not very aware of music interpretation: my main pride was on being able to play very difficult music rather than on playing well. Later on, I tremendously enjoyed the experiences of singing in choirs, but having played the solo flute without metronome as the core of my musical training, I quite struggled with rhythm and being on the correct pitch, instead of singing a musical third away from the right note. I would have needed much dedicated help to get up to speed and at the appropriate level for the choirs.

And this dedicated help is what I got in my last 4 years of piano lessons: thanks both to a great teacher and to my greater maturity as an adult, I’ve had more patience and receptiveness to get through my difficulties with rhythm and pitch and to make real progress towards becoming a real musician.

The biggest difference, I would say, between all the above years of musical training and my current, creative, piano lessons is that much of the former was centered around playing musical notes written on a page as they were intended to be played, i.e. what we immediately think of when we think of children learning an instrument and classical music, compared to the latter, which I will describe as focused on an understanding of the functions of the notes to be played, on improvisation, on playing as part of an ensemble of musicians, and on a principle that there are many valid ways of playing a piece.

Year 1: Piano Technique and Pop

I arrived at my first piano lesson able to play Bach’s First Prelude from memory, the only one that I could recall out of about half a dozen pieces I had learnt in music school a decade earlier.

Lesson 1: Theory (September 15, 2015)

Theory element 1: We reviewed and immediately went beyond what I knew, about the theory of Chords. Page 1 in my notebook is the list of the “basic” chords in C: C, Cm, C7, Cm7, Cmaj7, Cm7b5, Cdim7, C/E. You can read the Wikipedia page about chords for details. If you have a piano, or using a downloadable online piano, you can practice listening to the different sounds of these chords.

Note: if you’re in the market for purchasing a keyboard, the very best according to pro band musicians are the Nord keyboards. This is what I will buy when I have some extra cash.

Theory element 2: Explanations on the main formats of piano playing:

  • In the trio format: the left hand (LH) contributes to the tune or melody and the right hand (RH) plays the chords. Another musician will play the bass and a third will also sing the melody.
  • In the accompaniment format, the RH plays the chords, and the LH plays the bass. Another musician sings the melody.
  • In the solo format, the LH plays the bass and the RH plays the melody, and both hands will strive to play the chords.
  • In the “Bach” format, the LH plays the bass and the RH plays the melody.

As a basic concept, every piece can be practiced in any of these formats, and learning techniques for each format and each piece is a key teaching tool from my teacher.

Theory element 3: Scales.

  • Review your major and minor scales, starting with C, G and F, each hand separately, and hands together. With metronome at 60 for a quarter note, do eights notes over 2 octaves and triplets of eights notes over 3 octaves.
  • Learn the Am blues scale, — only for the RH since blues scales are for fast runs of improvisation with the RH and are not used much with the left hand –, with notes A, C, D, Eb, E, G, A and fingering 1-2-3-4-1-2-1 (in the standard notation where the thumb is 1).

For next class: listen to music and come back with suggestions of what you would like to learn to play. Very appropriate for adult learners, my teacher maintained a good balance between suggesting songs that would challenge me to a next level, and encouraging me to learn specific songs of my interest, adapting them to my level.

Lesson 2: First Piece, Adele! (September 22, 2015)

The central reason for my return to piano lessons was that I had a girlfriend who was a talented singer with perfect pitch, and I hoped I could accompany her. That girlfriend is long gone, but my passion for the piano has stayed. Adele was immensely popular at that time, and my first choice for a piece was Someone Like You, which my teacher found to be an excellent choice for a beginner.

1- Add Bb to major scales. Pay attention to tension, and be more relaxed while playing. A good technique for that, among many, is the Alexander Technique. I received excellent training in the Alexander Technique from Malcolm Balk in Montreal, which I highly recommend (note that he also practices in New York).

2- Add Cm to the Am minor blues scale. It has the same fingering as Am. Go up and down 3 octaves with the RH.

3- First piece: Adele, Someone Like You.

  • Here are the chords for the song’s Part A: A (F), C#m/G#m (2), F#5 (F) D(2), and Part B: Eadd4 (1), F#m7 (F) and D (1). The numbers in parentheses are the inversions, which you can learn about in Wikipedia: chord inversions. As with nearly all the pieces that I will mention, you can easily find a score online to help you.
  • Step 1: Play the chords of part A and B with the left hand, playing the notes around middle C, i.e. neither too low (which is for the bass) nor too high (which is for the melody).
  • Step 2: Play arpeggios of the chords with the RH.
  • Listen carefully to the tune!

Lesson 3: Blue Bossa and the Pedal (September 29, 2015)

By the third lesson, a format for the lesson was clearly starting to take shape. We would begin by a warm up, consisting usually of scales, and adding a few scales to the earlier ones, perhaps increasing the speed or varying some feature.

1- Major scales: add D. Hands together, at the slower pace of 50 for a quarter note, for eights notes and 8th note triplets, over 2 and 3 octaves respectively.

2- Add Em to minor blues scales. It also has the same fingering as Am. Go up and down 3 octaves with the RH.

3- Adele:

  • Learn to chain up parts A and B
  • Learn part C: A (1), E(2), F#m (2), D (F).

4- Blue Bossa (from one of the several Real Books, the New Real Book in C, legal format, p.25), you can listen to one nice version here.

This first Jazz Standard proposed by my teacher was of course much above my level, but his purpose here was for me to learn to:

  • play the chords (start with part A only)
  • practice inversions of these chords
  • chose the fingerings in an ergonomic manner, with the rule of using the thumb and little fingers for the most extreme notes of a chord
  • introduce a very important concept in music: the 2-5-1 progressions. As an exercise, you are encouraged to find all the 2-5-1 progressions in Blue Bossa. Specifically, iim7 – V7 – Imaj7.

Optional: Learn the melody in the right hand.

5- How to use the (right) pedal on a piano: The heel is always on the ground. LIFT UP the ball of the foot briefly after the notes to sustain, then bring it back down.

Lesson 4: Table of ii-V-I Progressions (October 6, 2015)

1- Add A to the major scales

2- Am as a first minor scale

3- Add Gm to minor blues scales. Still same fingering.

4- Adele:

  • Step 1: Play the chords using the pedal
  • Step 2: Play chords in LH and arpeggios of the chords in RH at 72 for the quarter note.
  • Step 3: Play the whole song, parts A, B, C and repeats.

5- All of Me (careful not to confuse it with another wonderful All of Me, which I studied a couple of years later!) and An Afternoon in Paris, another two Jazz Standards: Only analyze the chords and inversions, focusing on identifying the ii-V-I progressions.

6- Tables of major ii-V-I in the A and B positions. Arnaud encouraged me to learn the chord progression in their “advanced” form from the beginning, meaning ii9 – V13 – Imaj9. For position A, the notes of the ii chord are the fundamental 3, 5, 7, and 9th order in increasing pitch, while for position B, there is an inversion so that the order is 7, 9, 3 and 5th.

This is the “jazzy” manner of playing ii-V-I progressions, with embellishment by the 9th and replacing the 7th in the V by the 13th note. Simpler ways of playing ii-V-I as in pop music are obtained by dropping some notes.

Here you are encouraged to practice the major ii-V-I progressions, after writing down explicitly on paper what notes are to be played, by how much each finger moves in the progression, where notes of each chord end up in the next chord, etc. This is a fundamental exercise.

Conclusion

I only covered my first month of 4 piano lessons, but hopefully I conveyed several messages:

  • You could get up and running with piano playing in a relatively short amount of time.
  • This manner of teaching music is very different from rote learning of notes on a page. It is much more creative. It emphasizes a combination of listening skills, technical exercises and realizing how musical theory is applied in practice.

I’m very much looking forward to your feedback on this article, to help me write the next articles, and improve on this one, in a way that better responds to your needs. I’ve covered a lot of “basic” material here, but I understand that it is not at all that basic, but quite deep too in some ways, and that you can easily have many questions. I’ll be glad to answer them below.

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4 Responses to Creative Piano Lessons: First Month from My Actual Syllabus Over 4 Years (Part 1/6)

  1. Jen says:

    I’m sorry to hear that your first music teacher was so mean. It sounds like he didn’t really give you a chance. It also sounds like you had a lot of talent at memorizing and playing the music.
    I can see how there’s a difference between mechanically playing the music and actually understanding each note and playing with feeling. But even just in order to do that you have to be able to mechanically play the instrument so it’s good that you had that going for you.
    I wish your teacher had tried more nicely to explain that to you better instead of just giving up on you. It sounds like you have become a very talented and comprehensive musician. I look forward to hearing more of your music and reading your articles. Take care.

  2. Daniel says:

    Hi, I must say that this article is very helpful and informative. I always wanted to play the piano even since childhood but life was leading me to another profession. I still have a piano in my home and I play it just like that for my soul, I am not a pro although I would like to become one, never is late. Based on your experience how much time it needs to master the piano completely?

    • Phil says:

      Hi Daniel,

      it’s not possible to master the piano completely, there is always room for improvement, as in any art form. The piano has an advantage over many other musical instruments like wind and string instruments, in that you can play notes, even several notes at the same time, without extensive technical training. The piano thus allows you to produce music immediately. A complete beginner can sit down at the piano, start a recording device, and produce some good quality improvisational music, just by playing notes in succession. Try it, and listen to the recording, and you’ll be surprised at how masterful you can be in improvisational piano!

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