Updated: Sep 22, 2019
When I was 8 years old, my dad brought home an LP (think big CD) of I Only Have Eyes for You. It was a music-minus-one and I could play along with the record. It was so much jazzier than the Bach and Beethoven I was playing for my grade 4 RCM. I loved it and played along with the band on the record over and over singing at the top of my lungs. There were chord symbols on top of the melody notes (something I had never seen before) and I remember wondering how composers knew what chord went where. It wasn’t a fleeting thought. It consume me for the next few decades. What was the secret? My music lessons didn’t provide me with an answer to that particular question.
Fast forward to age 12. I’m working on grade 8 RCM now. Over the years my father bought me notated music for Alley Cat and Nola plus I found an old Boogie Woogie book in the piano bench with Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy written out. I learned them all and loved them. I even picked off the Hoagy Carmichael ending to Nola by ear from one of my dad’s 45s (a record a little bigger than a CD with a giant hole in the middle). My ear was good but the chord mystery continued and none of the classical theory I was learning answered the questions I had about chord symbols. I must have said something because next thing I new I was signed up for lessons with the local jazz teacher. His name was Ray Petch. I recently Googled him and found out he was a famous local jazz pianist. All I can remember from the lessons was a Roger Williams book with Ebb Tide and Never On A Sunday and all the notes were written out. That wasn’t what I wanted and I didn’t like the sound of the music. I was in love with Paul McCartney from a new group called the Beatles. I wasn’t interested in reading someone else’s notes, I wanted to make up my own! The lesson’s with Ray didn’t last very long. My mystery was going to remain a mystery.
After I graduated I headed off to university to study... music (surprise!). By now I was in love with classical music and especially chamber music. Playing Mozart and Brahms with other musicians was a real high. One of the other performance majors at the university was a jazz pianist so I took a few lessons. I was given lead sheets for the first time and asked to play the music on page. My teacher’s version sounded so much better than mine and I was getting a real buzz from classical music so the lesson’s fizzled. I had become classisized (not in the dictionary yet but it means someone who has become so dependent on written notes that they can’t think any other way). Sigh...
I received my B Mus in performance 4 years later plus my ARCT from University of Toronto and I remember feeling very empty. I was playing at a high level. I had won some competitions but my hand was hurting more often. Jazz was still a mystery and I had small hands so much of the piano literature was out of my reach (figuratively). My passion for music didn’t have anywhere to go... so I tucked it away for awhile.
Fast forward to age 40. I had two teen-age children and a career in business. Piano had taken a back seat. I accompanied some choirs and violinists, taught piano lessons to my kids and that was pretty much it. My LOVE for the piano and my CURIOSITY about chords was still really strong but life had gotten in the way.
Something about turning 40 woke me up. I wasn’t getting any younger (ya think!). I signed up for the Port Townsend Summer Jazz camp. The audition piece looked like this...
I didn’t know where to begin! I’m not making this up. They put me in the beginner class. I was mortified and excited!
I LoVeD JaZZ CaMP! For a whole week I was immersed in chord symbols and jazz theory. Answers and more answers came pouring my way. I had so much to learn and I felt like sponge that had being lying in the Sahara desert. My improvisations were wooden, my chord changes were lame but I was doing it! AND I was getting the tools I had always dreamed about. Every once in awhile I snuck away, found an abandoned piano and ripped through Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu just to play something to satisfy my classical side (darn ego) but jazz was my passion now!
I joined the piano business in my early 40s and there was a music school on the second floor. Many adult customers were asking for lessons that were different than the classical lessons they took as children. Something they could read easily and learn quickly. Classical music is great but the learning curve is steep. 10 years is too long to learn piano when you are 60. A common request was “I want to play something nice (ie, a tune they know) right now”. We had books with lead sheets but nothing that really showed you how to do it. Most of the lead sheet books were jazz classics and not the pop tunes that were being requested. I decided to put a class together and teach it myself (the beauty of innocence!). We had a classroom with 10 keyboards and I gathered together a full class of retired and semi-retired adults that wanted to learn pop music off lead sheets. What fun! (Yikes!)
Adults ask great questions like “What exactly is a key?” (This was before Google existed). Or “What was that diddle you just played? How did you create it?” They also wanted to learn specific pieces that weren’t in the music books we had. I always felt they would be more motivated to learn if they were playing a song they LoVeD so they brought in the CD and I started writing. I understood rudimentary chord voicing from jazz camp and had a good ear and writing skills thanks to my RCM training so, without realizing it, I was getting terrific training in chords. Writing and listening and teaching!
Twenty years have passed and I’ve met and taught over a thousand wonderful adults and teens that are now groovin’ along with their lead sheets. I gathered my teaching material into a course (Play Piano Chords Today) and my happiest achievement is hearing student stories about playing Happy Birthday at friend’s parties, playing Twinkle Twinkle for grandchildren and holding sing-alongs.
I LoVe to play for sing-alongs. Gathering a group to SiNG and BReaTHe while playing chords off lead sheets is so satisfying. We have sing-alongs at my Mum’s care home and when I see tears in the eyes of her fellow residents I know it’s bringing back memories of their youth. Times when they were vibrant and dancing and falling in love. (Either that or my chord voicings need more work!)
Classical music has it’s place but it's not the only way to learn music. Jazz and pop chording has a valid place in the teaching studio and maybe some of you have an 8 year old girl or boy that is just dying to know what those chord symbols on that pop music mean!
Maybe you were that 8 year old?!