5 Things Andrew McCormack Has Learned About Playing Solo Piano

Music and career tips from a pro
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Performing solo piano concerts is possibly one of the greatest challenges a pianist can face. During a solo concert, an artist’s technical and artistic abilities are pushed to the limit, with the added task of holding an audience’s attention for a long period of time. One of the things I enjoy most about performing solo is the special dynamic between my audience and me. When it works, it’s addictive. Some of my favorite solo piano recordings are by Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Brad Mehldau, and Kirk Lightsey. But I always find myself going back to Keith Jarrett’s spontaneous improvised concerts, as they are extraordinary achievements. The Köln Concert, in particular, would certainly be one of my desert island discs! Here are five things I’ve learned about performing solo.

1. P is for Preparation

Being a performing musician is a bit like being an athlete. All your training and expertise comes in to play, and you need to be warmed up and ready so that when you’re onstage, you can maintain stamina. It’s all about practicing regularly and making sure you cover technical issues, as well as knowing what it is you want to say musically. Include a solo piece in your daily practice and rehearse the act of performing that piece. Try recording yourself and then listen back, not only imagining that you’re in the audience, but also focusing your ear on specific parts of your performance. For example, how steady is the time? Are you staying in the same range of the keyboard for too long? Examine these and other issues and address them in your practice.

2.Make a Set List

Think about the story line of your set. Presenting a variety of songs isn’t enough on its own; there’s an emotional journey that you can convey to your audience. You have to earn the slow and quiet music, and it’s important to work out how to get there. One of the most interesting dynamics in any performance is the two-way relationship between the artists onstage and the audience. Making your set flow is a major tool in getting listeners on your side.

3.Maintain Key Contact If you want to control your sound, you must learn to maintain proper contact with the piano keys. Even if you’re playing really fast melodic passages, your sound will be much stronger and clearer if you’re digging into the notes rather than skimming over them. Keith Jarrett is one of the absolute masters of this. Work on exercises like those by Hanon with the goal of maintaining proper finger/key contact.

4. Use a Variety of Textures

Always remember that the ear gets tired of hearing the same thing for too long. In jazz, we tend to use a “theme and variations” model to elaborate our ideas on a given song. Remember that the variations should be interesting as well as logical to the theme. A simple example is to finish a melodic sentence with a single voice in the right hand, followed by a block chord soli-style passage using both hands. Try alternating these (and other) textures as an exercise to bring variety to your arrangements.

5. Learn the Language There is a plethora of solo piano music recorded and available today. The most efficient way to get your solo piano chops together is to listen to and transcribe recordings by master pianists. Even if it’s just a short passage, you can learn a great deal by learning to play it, analyzing how it works, and then assimilating it into your own playing. Look at specific issues like how an artist uses his or her left hand, or where they change textures.