The Playground

The Simply Music blog

Simply Music Student – Grant Powell

Found in: Simply Music Community

When I first met with Grant Powell, the fact that he had been playing for a long time was quite apparent. He was definitely not the typical, potential student who comes to me looking to begin piano lessons. He most definitely was not a beginner. He was very passionate about learning to play piano better and about learning to create better music. It was also obvious that there were holes in his learning and that he had developed some bad habits. Both the holes and the less than ideal technique were getting in the way of him accomplishing the goals he had set for himself.

Grant took lessons for a couple of years in elementary school and he had learned to play the blues from his father. He also learned to play quite well by ear. We spent a couple weeks exploring what he did and didn’t know. I soon discovered that he was depending on his ear for everything. For example, he couldn’t tell me automatically what notes are in a particular chord or scale but he could pluck around on the keyboard until he knew it sounded right. He also wasn’t familiar with phrases, chord progressions, and the various parts of a piece of music (intro, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, outro).

After making an assessment of what Grant really knew, we dug into the Simply Music Foundation 1 materials to begin filling in the blanks. Because he plays by ear so well, I taught him everything away from the piano on the paper keypad and wouldn’t let him hear what we were learning until the first time he played it on the piano. This was a real challenge for him and he resisted strongly and very vocally. I think this made him uncomfortable and he felt like he was handicapped by not being able to use his ear. However, time after time, he was amazed how he could learn a piece and play it well without having heard it first. This approach served my purposes of making him aware of the structure of the piece, of the fingering, of the shape of chords, etc.

After Grant learned each foundation piece, we moved immediately into the more complex arrangements. Not only did learning the arrangements help him become more aware of structure and form, his technique began to improve and he said that he was playing styles that he hadn’t been able to play before.  As soon as he learned the arrangements, I pushed him to create his own arrangements. (Sometimes I had to push really hard!) He quickly discovered that understanding the form, chord progressions, and later scales, make the process of arranging and composing much easier.

In addition to not completely understanding chords, chord progressions, and scale, lack of knowledge of form had hindered Grant from being able to easily compose an entire piece. He was blindly trying to put notes together into something that sounded good. With each piece, he was starting out on a journey without having a map of where he was going. Soon after learning the Dreams Come True arrangements, he did an electronic arrangement based on one sentence that was full of wonderful, creative ideas, but it didn’t go anywhere musically. We explored song form a little more deeply and I encouraged him to bring more variety into his pieces by writing more parts to make his pieces much more interesting AND easier to write. The next original he played for me was definitely much more developed than the first few I had heard.

From the beginning, I told Grant that I am not well-versed in electronic music. Most of the electronic music that I listen to has an element of vocals (Family Force 5, our friends, Eleventyseven, and my favorite song at the moment, Too Close by Alex Clare, which has a “dubstep chorus”). His favourites, Wolfgang Gartner and Deadmau5, don’t have vocals and are all electronic. We have thrown around some ideas of trying some different styles of music and different instrumentation that isn’t typical of electronic music because of this. I still knew that there was much he needed to learn and I have much that I can teach him. I even enlisted the help of my songwriting daughter to listen to some electronic music to get an idea of the form. (I tried listening, but I had a hard time listening enough to get a good idea.  Haha!) I asked a friend of mine, (Ryan Morgan, the guitarist of the band, Seabird) if he knew anyone into electronic music who could help Grant with that aspect. He put me in contact with a friend of his (Jori Johnson, who is a Monitor Engineer/GTR Tech for Scotty McCreery, the winner of American Idol Season 10). After encouraging Grant to contact Jori for a few weeks, he finally called. The outcome of that conversation was that Grant decided to attend Full Sail University online, working toward a degree in Music Production.

During his first theory class, he said he realized how little he really knew, even after having played for 20 years and teacher after teacher telling him they couldn’t teach him anything. It was a case of not knowing what he didn’t know and no one teaching him what he needed to know, but he knew he was missing something because he had hit a wall and didn’t know how to get over it. A couple of weeks ago, he told me that he was working in class on the same things I had been teaching him so maybe there was something to it. Haha! Now, because of his piano lessons and coursework at Full Sail University, Grant is finally moving toward his goal of being a pianist, composer, performer, and music producer. Working with Grant has been a learning experience for me, as well, because I have had to dig deep to find ways to work with a student who is the total opposite of the typical experienced students I have taught (usually they can read but have no experience with composition, improvisation, arranging, etc.) and has forced me to explore unfamiliar styles of music. And, it has been a team effort between piano teacher, college coursework, industry professionals, and even family.