5 Things I've Learned About Accuracy in Playing

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I’ve been told that I play with a great deal of accuracy. If that’s the case, it’s because of two main factors that have greatly influenced my musical approach. The first was studying during my teenage years under the tutelage of Mischa Kottler, the former master pianist with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. He was a strict Ukrainian who had no problem setting me straight on all matters classical. His approach to playing with accuracy involved the use of a good, old-fashioned metronome—no mystery there. The second factor has to do with my years as a studio musician, for which I’ll be forever grateful. Learning how to play with stability (regardless of groove, tempo, or genre) while making records was a priceless experience. Here are five things I’ve learned about playing and performing with accuracy.

1. Practice = Slow and Precise

There’s just no getting around it: Practicing slow and steady with a metronome is the only way to make your playing eventually become fast and impressive. When practicing playing bass lines or intricate passages with both hands, use the space between what you’re playing to keep your time solid. Music is much more enjoyable when the audience can understand what you’re playing.

2. Don’t Assume—Listen

My biggest pet peeve is when musicians play what they think something is as opposed to what it really is. I’ve been blessed with good ears, but today’s technology has made it easier than ever for musicians to replicate what they’re hearing. Take advantage of all of your listening options, especially for more difficult pieces. Software lets you slow things down, isolate a track from the mix, and much more. And if you’re listening to something simpler, don’t just assume you’ve “got it.” Pay close attention until you master the music at hand.

3. It’s All About Voicings

Voicings are a situation where the devil really is in the details. A simple example would be a tune like Bob James’ “Westchester Lady.” That two-voiced melody is E-A, F-C, C-E, E-A, and D-F. If you’re not paying close attention, it would be easy to assume it’s E-G, F-A, C-E, E-G, and D-F. Also, when you listen to a harmonized melody, focus on the lower harmony. It’ll help with your ear training.

4. Groove Loves Company

After you’ve listened until you’re blue in the face, go jam with other musicians. Learning how to groove with others is paramount to getting your time together. Building a more accurate groove is like making love—it’s a lot more effective when doing it with company!

5. Don’t Skip the Stock Sounds

When duplicating sound design from recordings, (usually in preparation for live events), I often go with stock keyboard presets. My belief is, it’s 2014, so if I can’t find what I need in the box, it’s probably not a very good keyboard! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve shocked musicians when they realize I’m using sounds that are already in the patch library. Today’s instruments offer a gargantuan selection of sounds, so explore them until you find the right one. Then, if necessary, get a second opinion to keep you on the right track.

“If you happened to see The Beatles: The Night that Changed America, I was the Black guy with the huge grin on his face! Without question, that was one of the top three highlights of my entire career,” says Los Angeles-based keyboardist Greg Phillinganes, who has played with everyone from Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, and Donald Fagen, to Eric Clapton, Toto and beyond. Phillinganes was also musical director for the PBS In Performance at the White House episode celebrating “Women Of Soul,” featuring Patti LaBelle, Jill Scott, Melissa Etheridge, Janelle Monae, Ariana Grande, and of course, Aretha Franklin.

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