Outside of C (Part 1)
new series to improve your keyboard technique
You're been playing synths for a year or two. You've got a few chords and lines together, but you can't help thinking there must be more to it than C major. This month we start a new One Two Testing series on how to improve your keyboard technique looking at other styles, richer chords and better ways of doing things. As a warm up, Andy Honeybone clears out some of the prejudice over practising, and offers a chord of the month.
MANY BOOKS are available which claim to teach the keyboard. Presentation varies from études interspersed with drawings of traffic police to pages densely crammed with note clusters and not a word of explanation. Some start with a diagram of the hands while another encourages the student to draw around their own on the blank page provided.
Fortunately, few tutors seem to continue the myths of balancing coins on the back of the hands or reading novels while playing scales.
With a few exceptions, most books assume that those who want to know about the keyboard want to become 'musical touch typists'. Without wanting to get involved in value judgements in the first instalment, the assumption for this series has been that this is not the primary interest of our good readers. As a brief statement of policy, this series will aim to encourage you to complement your existing talents by giving examples of style and voicings in a manner which is hoped to be fairly palatable. It won't be a series for the really raw beginner — although they'd do well to look it over — and some notation will be used because it is the most efficient way of communicating ideas.
Only a little knowledge of the dots is needed, to the level of being able to decipher the note names on the stave. Billy Jenkin's 'Beyond E Major' series has neatly covered this topic in recent months, so no repetition is necessary here.
One point on which all the tutors agree is that practice is very important. Good intentions and buying books don't seem much of a substitute (I've tried it). How long and how often you practise are not as important as what you practice. It's very easy to sit and doodle at the keyboard, letting your fingers fit into all the comfortable shapes and runs that you've been playing for years. This is equivalent to someone who is very over-weight exercising their neck because it's easier than doing press-ups. To gain any real benefit you have to aim beyond your present capabilities. Don't aim too high, though, or you'll get despondent. The real secret is to set yourself achievable goals so you can feed off your own progress.
When practice is mentioned it automatically suggests scales and provokes the reaction that you didn't spend all that money on a haircut and a polyphonic to play do-re-mi. Agreed, from the classical viewpoint, the works of Mozart contain a high proportion of scalar passages and hence the usefulness of scale practice is clear. Similarly, the works of Beethoven contain many passages constructed from broken chords and this makes for convenient practice material if you're partial to that kind of bag. From this we can predict that the rock or jazz player should practise material that is the essence of his or her chosen genre.
True, this approach is blinkered but no more so than traditional methods which turn out players who can rattle off Chopin but fumble over a notated blues. If we substitute 'runs' for scales then we are a step closer to something mildly more acceptable. Scales are excruciatingly boring to play and even worse to listen to. Ideally they should be learned at an early age by watching videos of glitter-suited demi-gods posing with a KX5 strap-on keyboard and security men holding back emotional teenies shouting for 'A flat minor (harmonic) contrary motion'. This could give scale practice a little more interest instead of turning so many people off music at an early age — hardly surprising when real-life lessons consist of being closeted with a disinterested teacher obsessed with when and where to cross the thumb.
Out of sheer devotion to the readership of One Two, the 'Manual of Scales, Arpeggios and Broken Chords' of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music was purchased (under plain cover) by yours truly. The tunes are a bit samey (ha-ha-ha) but just by dipping in at random some gaping weaknesses in my fingering became apparent. In particular, starting runs with the next to little finger (4) of the right hand or with the index finger (2) crossed over the thumb were things absent from my technique. Once aware of this deficiency, many runs that had given trouble could now be re-fingered and made easier. So for my money, a dip into a book of scales, however infrequently, is worthwhile because it makes you aware that fingering is not just dogma but is there for your help.
In days of yore, fingering was much more strict and use of the thumb on a black note was a capital offence. The present view is coming round to "that which is comfortable, is right".
Scales, sorry — runs, should be practised starting on any of the included notes. The analogy has been made that to know a scale from its root only is to be like the ballroom dancer who can only start from the wall.
Listening to other players is of vital importance. Problems arise in these hi-tech times because all overt displays of virtuosity are taboo and most backing parts are courtesy of a sequencer. This means that other forms of music have to be investigated and one in particular — jazz — does funny things to people.
Now's not the time for any great pronouncements but the names you want to look out for are Bud Powell, Horace Silver, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock (early) and Thelonious Monk. This is not intended to be a definitive list (we don't want Oscar Peterson throwing a wobbler) but these names cover the styles most useful to synthesiser players.
One of the hardest things to do is to admit your own weaknesses and with self-tuition it's something which you must do frequently. Some very fluid soloists haven't a clue what they should be doing with their left hands and others are hampered by poor harmonic knowledge. This month's practical is this: go away and do a spot of musical self-analysis. Don't take it to heart if a long list results — no one's going to see it.
Feature by Andy Honeybone
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!