Sing Us a Song, You’re the Piano Man

Casio CTK 541

You can almost see it mocking me

I’m very quick to point out that while I’m a professional-level singer, I am not in any way a professional-level musician. I have just enough musical training to be dangerous – I can follow conversations around me just as long as no one starts in with the techno-babble, but that’s about it, I can’t really add anything to the argument. When I started doing gigs with my band a couple of years ago and I could hear all five members working together equally, I kept hearing something I couldn’t point my finger on; a few more gigs and I realized it wasn’t something I was hearing, it was something I was NOT hearing – something was missing and I was finally experienced enough to hear the hole in our wall of sound. For a long time I didn’t know what was going on; then last December the band and I were asked to perform at a benefit for my brother’s lead singer’s son, who’d been assaulted from behind and left in a coma (my brother is the drummer for another Dallas-based classic rock band, Rock Theory, and they are very, very good). My brother Kelly is an awesome guy; Kelly’s lead singer, Rock, is an awesome guy; and my band leader, Pauly, is an awesome guy – Pauly said, “Oh HELL yeah,” and we started making arrangements. One of Pauly’s arrangements was to call a local musician and friend of both bands, David Fox, and ask if he’d bring his keyboard and sit in with us – David said “No prob,” Pauly sent him the set list, and a week later The East Texas Garage Band with Special Guest David Fox proceeding to rock the hell out of the Jaron Vieu Benefit. Fox is soooooooo good at what he does, he didn’t even need a practice – all he needed was the key we were playing the song in and away we went. Completely awesome. It was at this performance that I heard what I hadn’t been hearing and finally realized what Pauly was trying to do with the sound of the band – we were missing a keyboard; Pauly had been arranging the music with a keyboard part in mind, knowing sometime down the road we’d fill that hole. What I didn’t know then is Pauly planned on me filling in that keyboard part.

I don’t play the keyboard. I’d purely love to be able to play the keyboard and the piano, been on my wish list since I was a teenager, but at this time I don’t. It’s time to learn.

There’s a right way to learn to play the piano and then there’s the not-right way to learn to play the piano. The right way starts with learning basic scales, how to find middle C, how to play the sharps and flats, how to crossover with your fingers, how to use the foot pedals, and how to read the two clefs you’ll be using for the majority of piano music; once you’ve choked all that down, you’ll start practicing easy old English folk songs and classical compositions from Handel; a year of that and you’ll be ready for the harder compositions from Mozart and Beethoven; and a year after that you’ll desperately struggle to conquer Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky; and when you’ve finally mastered the classics and tell your piano teacher you’re ready to learn Billy Joel’s The Piano Man, your once-proud instructor will deride you for wanting to waste all those years of training to play “popular music.”

This is why most people don’t learn to play the piano – learning the right way takes flippin’ YEARS before you can play anything anyone would want to hear, and then it is all folk music and Pachelbel’s Canon in D.

Scott Houston, the Piano Man

He's REALLY happy

Now, there is another way to learn to play piano, and it involves pretty much taking everything above and tossing it out the window – screw learning scales, forget about learning crossovers, and don’t worry about learning music you don’t want to play: you learn the base chords with your left hand and play the melody with your right hand. Done. Simple as can be. Because as the self-proclaimed Piano Guy, Scott Houston, will tell you on his many PBS pledge drive appearances, playing a piano is just a matter of target practice – it doesn’t matter which finger you use to play a C, it still sounds like a C, and if you play that C when you’re supposed to, you’re making music.

This is a much easier way to learn the piano, and since you’re only held back by how long and how often you practice, it’s completely up to you how quickly you can bang out the song of your choosing. And Mr. Houston strongly suggests you start with a song of your choosing, a song you’d want to play if you could, as you’ll be more likely to stay with the practicing that way. It’s all rather brilliant and I’m a big fan of this approach.

Problem is, I’m not performing alone in front of some close friends and family at a party – I’m in a five-piece garage band. I don’t want to play the melody line with my right hand, that’s what the guitars and lead singers are for – I want to play the base chords, maybe a harmony line if there is one. And as brilliant as the Piano Man approach is, it is absolutely no help in this area.

What I need is a fast way to learn to play easy chords in harmony with rhythm guitars, and for the time being, there isn’t one. I’m stuck trying to teach myself. And as I’ve already admitted, I’m not the best musician in the world.

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