My Relationship to the Piano
I’ve been playing the piano since I was four.
It was pretty much a love-at-first-sound affair. I love the sound of the instrument. It’s orchestral scope and infinite possibilities. It can be deeply poetic, sharply funky, and downright dirty. It can sing, growl like a trumpet, whisper like a light rain.
Whether on purpose or not, it can also be ugly. A bad piano, a bad performer, or simply badly written or improvised piano music. Or it can be ugly because that’s the creative choice.
The piano is the great compromiser. It gives the accomplished performer a seemingly infinite array of creative choices, but at the expense of a certain degree of musical naturalness. Unlike other instruments—say string, wind, brass, and percussion (e.g. pretty much all acoustic instruments)—when you play the piano, you really aren’t directly interacting with and shaping the sound. You don’t bow, pluck, or bend the strings. It certainly can’t vary a single held note with infinite shadings the way a singer or sax player can.
Still, you treat it right. With respect. Then it lets you produce a gorgeous array of sounds.
I divide my solo piano work into three—sometimes overlapping—subcategories:
- Completely written works
- Completely improvised performances
- Somewhere in between those extremes
The third option is nominally my favorite—though number 2 is more fun. Number one is troublesome, but the most necessary for making numbers two and three work at all.
Let me briefly explain.
I love to improvise. Improvisation is musical freedom. Improvisation is a means of avoiding stasis, predictability, musical death.
However, I like to improvise a particular way. I like improvisations that unfold organically and thematically, have contrapuntal elements, and add up to a satisfying whole. Somewhat like, but not quite like a through-written composition. Without the discipline of composition—a discipline that forces you to consider how all the elements are interacting over time, weighing and balancing each musical decision against what came before and what is yet to come—I could never improvise in the idealized way I prefer.
Completely written composition can often feel tendentious, as if you are trying too hard to make a point, trying too hard to make it all work out in the end. And indeed you are—even if you are consciously trying not to. It can feel planned, even when it isn’t.
On the other hand, completely free improvisation can be meandering, pointless—a wash of self-indulgent sound that “feels” good for the performer, but goes nowhere for the listener.
So option three seems like the ideal state of affairs, right? Not really. Not at all, actually. What I’ve found is that there is a place for all three. The job of the pianist-composer is to know which one to employ in any given context. In BPF, I freely mix the three techniques. In my Piano Diaries blog, it’s all free improvisation. On the Written Works pages of this site, you’ll find my more “formal” compositions.
I still find completely written composition constricting—and improvisation wonderfully liberating. The combination of the two can feel like structured freedom.
My strategy for staying musically alive is to never believe too strongly in anything I think, but let musical instinct tell me where to go.
Part Planned, Part Offhand...
This is a track from Blues, Preludes & Feuds in which the written seamlessly meets the unwritten. The first 20 seconds are as written. I then improvise on the theme in a sort of mini-cadenza, then return to a written part at the 1 minute mark. The idea here, as with much of BPF, is that each performance will be slightly (or sometimes radically) different. There will always be something familiar, mixed with something unfamiliar. That mix is fundamental to my musical thinking.
And here is a randomly selected and very recent free improv that is a part of the ongoing Piano Diaries series. The whole idea with free improvisation is to not have a plan. Having a plan tends to kill the creativity. When I listen to these, however, I often remember what I was thinking about at the time. In this case, I was writing the appreciation piece on this site about Keith Jarrett. I took a break from writing that piece and play this. But I was clearly thinking about Jarrett.
- McCoy Tyner
- Randy Weston
- Keith Jarrett
- Thelonious Monk
- Duke Ellington
- James P. Johnson
- Fats Waller
- Cecil Taylor
- Brad Meldhau
- Herbie Hanckock
- Bobby Timmons
- Alfred Brendl
- Oscar Peterson
- Bud Powell
- Glenn Gould
- Arthur Rubenstein