Practise That Keyboard
Keyboard Practising Hints
Practice round-up with keyboardists from Madness, Steel Pulse, Feargal Sharkey, Prefab Sprout and Tangerine Dream
Synth players... how much do you rehearse? How many exercises do you do before breakfast? Is this enough? Each month Making Music will be taking just such a subject of musicianly importance to experienced personages who should know the answers. For today, five top keyboardists discuss the pros and perils of practising.
Too much piano practice makes you fat, did you know that? At least it does if you adopt the same method a certain Making Music writer once invented.
Having decided his left hand needed strengthening, he would come home from work every day, brew himself a scalding cup of hot chocolate, and keep the mug in his right hand while knocking off scales at the piano with his left. He had to persevere because the chocolate was too hot to drink for ages, and if he put the mug down it would produce circles of charred piano wood.
His left hand grew prodigiously in strength, but his waistline widened faster: the only keyboard player with an Ovaltine gut?
Fortunately there are less calorifically suicidal methods of improving your playing technique, as we found, nattering to various professional keyboardists. But if you don't practice at all, you're in good company.
"I never set aside time to do it," confessed Seamus Behan, a Madness person. "I might sit down to work out a new song, or run through one of me favourites when I'm relaxing, but otherwise, no. Sorry."
We didn't delve into Seamus' aversion to boring old scales, but reckoned it dated back to what we call a-nasty-experience-at-school experience. "I played piano at school, but not for very long. The teachers always wanted you to do "Ugly Duckling" over and over again... it drove me up the wall.
What I really wanted was someone just to tell me why some notes sounded better together than others did... Rock 'n' Roll theory, if there is such a thing."
How about all rock 'n' roll stars die young but have an incredibly good time getting old quickly?? Good theory, terrible melody.
Selwyn Brown of Steel Pulse still hangs on to part of that early discipline: "Basic scales, even the simple ones, they're always good to do, no matter how good a player you are. And arpeggios too." Any way of making them more interesting? "Sometimes even if you're just playing a major or minor scale in C, you play it, say, from E to E, or F to F. Don't start on the root note all the time."
Scales, dull that they are, also find favour with Bob Noble, currently keyboarding for Feargal Sharkey but with a background of cracking knuckles for Dexy's and Jimmy Nail. "I suppose they are the best thing for loosening up, but I also do an exercise where I rest my hand on the keyboard, then lift each finger individually without moving any of the others." Yes, all those things matter - coordination, hand and mind control and flicking. "I flick my fingers around a lot, not necessarily near a keyboard. It helps loosen them up."
Back to Selwyn who likewise has things to do away from the keyboard. Well away. He plays bass and drums.
"You get a more open feel by playing other instruments, something rubs off, you're better when you go back to the keyboard. The bass makes your left hand stronger and more nimble, and playing drums makes you think more about the percussive side of your keyboard playing." Dead right, that. How many synth players can you name that are all notes and noises without any thought of rhythm or feel?
So, a rhythmic tip, Selwyn? "There's a thing in reggae called Shuffle where you play a chord with the left hand in syncopation with a chord in your right hand. Time to time you drop in small bits of the bass line in between, and then come back into the shuffle again."
The ears also need to be run through their paces. Several of the keyboard players questioned recommended listening to records as closely as possible. Don't stop at appreciating the surface elements, but pull the song apart in your mind, and imagine what it would take to play every instrument's part on the keyboard, even the drums.
If you are Chris Franke of Tangerine Dream, you might have an assistant to help you. Perhaps you may have been discouraged by your first involvement with synthesisers. "I got my first synthesiser in Putney from EMS. There was no manual so I had to look up the words on the front panel in a dictionary. It said that 'Envelope' was something you put a letter in and 'Attack' was hitting somebody. It was not a lot of help."
Chris is another exponent of less practice, "It does not matter, sometimes you play for three days and nothing happens, then in two hours a whole piece is finalised" and more listening, "some Mozart... some Gregorian stuff and some nice Japanese records that I have; very refreshing, a lot of new sounds."
But he also agrees on involvement with other instruments to broaden your approach. He still plays guitar and drums and has two octaves of Simmons pads to use alternatively as a drum kit or xylophone. In programming he advocates "random access to all parameters" which is why he's looking forward to contacting the German company making an analogue controller for the DX7 with 256 knobs on it.
If you're a session player, it's not always possible to practice since you don't know what you'll be doing until you turn up. But you can at least prepare your thought processes, like Prefab Sprout tour synthist, Michael Graves.
"I've got a 4-track recorder, and just to amuse myself, I try putting down ideas - not so much to play to people but more to see how many 1986 cliches I can string together into a song! Production ideas, really. That helps when it comes to playing sessions, and people want you to have ideas. When you've tried them at home to yourself, it's easier when you get to the studio and have to recognise what people actually want. So that is a form of practice, if you like, and I find it important."
But if all these keyboard players met in one rehearsal studio is there a rule of thumb (and Four Fingers) they'd agree on? Extracting their thoughts and feelings, we'd say it was this. The simple scales and arpeggios will always help to limber you up, but worry less about being a brilliant, classically tutored technician and more about being a complete keyboard player - hands, ears and sounds.
Practice your programming. Between 70 and 80 per cent of synths returned to manufacturers are still found to have their factory programs intact. That means less than 30 per cent of the synth-owning public is inventing and storing new patches. There's a better chance than you think of sounding different from the next Casio/Roland/Yamaha.
As for how you program, Seamus of Madness. "You can spend a day playing around with the DX7. Before you know it, it's 7.00, you haven't been for a pee for two hours and you still haven't done anything constructive. It's much better to go in with a sound in mind and work towards it, you'll learn more.
"The manuals are not much help. It's better if you can find someone who knows something about the synth and spend a day with him. Still, I know people who can explain the insides of a DX7 to you, but they wouldn't be able to get a decent sound out of it."