I have been playing piano for my entire life. My dad started me out at age 3 and he taught me everything he knew about chords and melodies. As he often used to say, I passed him up by age 4. His method was the only way I knew how to approach the piano. I would figure out a melody in my right hand, then work on fighting the correct chord in my left hand. I didn’t even consider trying to learn how to read music. That didn’t come until later.
When I was in 3rd Grade, my parents discovered that my teacher, Mrs. Tracy, used to be a silent film accompanist back in the 1920s. I soon began studying with her and she insisted that I learn how to read music and study classical literature. I resisted and often just listened to how she played a piece of music, then copied that sound the best I could.
At this point in my life I didn’t dream of becoming a professional pianist. In fact, Mrs. Tracy herself told me that only a small percentage of piano students ever become good enough to make a living at it. That’s all the motivation I needed to try and prove her wrong. In the end, I did.
Throughout my teenage years, I played for various churches whose music centered on Gospel style. This experience really helped me improvise on the spot and it also provided me with the opportunity to learn how to accompany singers. At the same time, I knew that my music reading skills were lacking. So I decided to do something about it. I set a goal for myself that I would put a new piece of music in front of me every day and force myself to play through it the best I could. The effort paid off. My sightreading skills improved greatly. Soon I had a double skill set: I could play by ear and read anything that was put in front of me. These two skills paid off in a big way years later.
Even in college, Mrs. Tracy’s thoughts about me not making it as a professional pianist continued to shape my choices. I majored in Aeronautical Engineering in the hopes of becoming an airline pilot. This was a dream of mine ever since I flew solo in a small airplane at age 15 (before I knew how to drive!).
Even though I wasn't planning on playing for a living, I still had a full roster of piano students wanting to study with me because I played very well and I was able to begin teaching others the same chordal progressions my dad taught me.
After a year in college, I reviewed my grades in Chemistry and other subjects required for an Engineering degree, and made the decision to change my major to music. My GPA immediately went up several points. I began studying with the college piano instructor and really honed my craft. I soon began earning money as a music student by accompanying other students (voice, flute, trumpet, etc) for their end-of-year instrument exams.
Even though I was about to receive my BA in Piano, I still had no idea what I would do for a living. I used to joke to friends that I was planning on framing my diploma and get a job in a bank.
Then something happened which changed the direction of my career. One of my professors, who happened to also be involved in the drama department next door, approached me and asked if I would be the accompanist for the new MFA program. He told me it was a Graduate Assistantship Program and the university would pay for my Masters Degree. Up to that point in my college path, I had not dreamed of staying on past my Bachelors Degree. But I accepted and went on to receive my MM in Instrumental Conducting. My years in the Drama Department trained me for an eventual successful career in theater. Soon I was being hired as a pianist and music director in local musical theater companies.
I continued to add to my skill set and soon learned computer software so I could create custom soundtracks and provide music preparation services for clients.
Back to my early teaching days: I had a problem. When I looked for piano methods to use with my students, all I found was books with simple to complex piano pieces, with an occasional page written about scales, intervals, or musical terms and symbols. But none of the methods taught the student how to play like I could play. So I created my own method and taught that to my students. They did very well and were soon playing better than the students who were taking lessons from teachers using those traditional method books. And none of those students was prepared for an actual career as a professional pianist. They simply lacked the knowledge of chords and voicing necessary to create a beautiful sound, often on the spot.
After many years of successfully teaching this method, I set aside a HUGE chunk of time and wrote down my method and called it A Step by Step Guide to Playing Piano by Ear.
Check it out. I think you'll like it. I have confidence that if you follow the lessons in you will gain the necessary skills to become the pianist you’ve always wanted to be.
Justin Gray is a San Diego-based musician with 40 years of professional playing experience. He teaches, publishes method books, and provides music direction and music publishing services.
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