‘Tis the Season to be Playing
Usually at this time of year in The Playground, we like to provide some playing projects for festive season songs. This time around, we thought we could continue the conversation about sharing your music by discussing some of the ways you might find yourself playing for others at this very social time of year. Christmas, other celebrations, and the closure of the year can provide low-key opportunities to play for a supportive audience.
Many piano teachers like to end the year with a recital, either in class or at a gathering of all their students and friends. We have some advice on recitals in an earlier article on playing for others, but the brief summary would be:
- choose pieces that you like and would like to share
- choose pieces that are not too close to the outer regions of your comfort zone
- give yourself plenty of time to prepare
- try to get good at playing on no matter what, not letting mistakes phase you
- try to focus on the music itself, instead of you.
Then there are the gatherings of family and friends that are a regular part of the festive season. Have you ever felt the flutter of butterflies after Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner waiting for someone to say “play us something on the piano”? Maybe that little pang of dread reflects a somewhat overinflated picture of people’s expectations, and they’re really just thinking of something to relax by while they rest their weary bellies. It’s about as safe a way as you can imagine to offer a little music.
It will suit the laid-back atmosphere to play something simple. Simply Music students have a few advantages, like learning blues so early. A lot of piano students never get to learn blues, yet after only a few lessons you are getting onto pieces that sound authentic and, if played with some enthusiasm, are great fun. A piece like Alma Mater Blues played with a good, steady rhythm is bound to go down a treat, compared with a stumbling version of a more ambitious advanced classical piece.
Maybe you could simply be providing a little background music. You could just improvise over a few chords. Try this – with your left hand, play the chords C, G, Am and F. Break up the chords from bottom to top, making the first two notes of each chord shorter and the third note longer. This common chord progression is immediately pleasing to most ears – a thousand pop songs can’t be wrong! Improvise on white keys with your right hand, keeping it as simple as you need. Some people could play like this for hours, but a few minutes will suffice for an audience, although you could extend it by finding new ways to break up the chords (some of the Simply Music Arrangements will give you resources for this). You can also structure the right hand a little by thinking of a simple melodic theme you can return to occasionally during your improvisation.
Of course the real opportunity at a Christmas gathering is The Singalong. Gathering everyone around the piano to sing to your accompaniment is fun and takes the focus off you a little compared with playing pieces all by yourself. You are there to provide the rhythm and chords, and the melody is everyone else’s job. Of course, you need to be rock-solid and know your chords, but you can supply everything the singers need without having to be Elton John. Most Christmas carols can be boiled down to just three chords – yes, I, IV and V.
Elizabeth Gaikwad’s Songs for Christmas program provides a swag of familiar Christmas songs using just I, IV and V in the key of C – that is, C, F and G. If you know more than just those three chords, she also provides more developed versions, and you can also apply any of the variations from the Accompaniment Variations program, or any other ways of varying your chords that you’ve come up with or your teacher has shown you, but for the most part, all your singers need is the simplest chords played evenly with the correct L to R ratio. It will help your singers if you can begin each piece by playing them their first note, but really, if a few people are a little wide of the tonality mark, nobody will really care, and it might encourage others to sing a little stronger to drown them out.
If you don’t have Songs for Christmas, you might even be able to work out a few I IV V charts by ear. It just takes some trial and error. Most traditional songs start on the I, and they almost always finish on the I. So, staying in C for simplicity, play the C Major chord and start singing the melody over the top. When you get that sounding right, you just work your way through the song trying each I IV V chord until you find one that fits. When I say getting it sounding “right”, I mean finding the melody notes in the correct key and playing the chord at the correct time. That might sound too obvious to be helpful, but when I do this exercise with my students, it fascinates me how naturally they do this, with very little intervention from me. That’s just our innate musicality coming through. Our ear will commonly find the right combination of pitch and rhythm. This is particularly true for rhythm, but if the pitch of the note you’re looking for eludes you, here’s a clue: at the moment you play the chord, the melody note will almost always be one of the notes of the chord. So if your first chord is C, the melody note as you play the chord will usually be either C, E or G. Conversely, if you know the note but can’t figure out the chord, look at the note and see which of the I IV V chords includes that note. For example, if you’re singing a B, you will see that B occurs in the G chord, but not C or F, so chances are the chord you want is G. It doesn’t work every time, but is a good way to narrow your options.
Can you always easily work out an accompaniment by ear? Of course not. Some melodies are more elusive and some songs include chords that can’t easily be reduced to I, IV or V, but there are plenty of other songs to choose from. Once you’ve worked out your best approximations, write the chords down. Have a handful of songs ready, and drag those sleepy souls off the couch!