A student asked me in the forum to share a little about my background. So, here is a little bit about how I learned the piano, what I’ve learned as a teacher and why I almost quit the piano when I was a kid!
When I was a kid, I didn’t learn piano in the “normal” fashion. Instead of learning to read notes and rhythms, I learned chords and how to figure out songs mostly by ear. It wasn’t until I started band in 6th grade that I actually learned more about reading music. I’ll talk about this more later on, for now, let me tell you about my first teacher.
My first teacher was my dad, Ernie Myette Sr. I remember my dad quizzing me in the car: “Name the notes of a C Major scale.” Or, he’d ask questions like “what is the third of a G minor 7 chord?” I found myself getting pretty good at these questions and I learned a lot about chords, scales and music theory.
My dad used to carry with him note cards filled with all types of music theory, scales, modes and jazz piano ‘tips’. See, in those days, there not many books or videos that presented jazz piano in a clear and easy to understand fashion. The popular books at the time were the Jazz Improvisation series by John Mehegan. These were fantastic books…yet difficult to understand for both me…and my father.
So every day my dad and I would study music theory together, quizzing each other on scales, chords and all things jazz. I would sit at the piano and try to plunk out songs that I heard while trying desperately to find the “right sounding” chords to go with the melody. I would write my own songs and improvise at the piano constantly. But, I wasn’t completely satisfied.
At one point in my irregular lesson schedule with my dad, I told him I wanted to quit taking lessons. I don’t remember the reason I gave him, but I remember why I wanted to quit. I wanted to quit because I wasn’t learning songs! I would find myself in situations where people would learn that I could play piano and they would ask me: “Can you play something for me?” At which point I would play something like a bluesy improvisation or some song that I created and they would ask “Do you know anything I might know?” That’s when it hit me. I wanted to learn songs that other people knew as well!
I realized then, and teach to students now: learning your scales, chords and music theory are extremely important to your development as a pianist. However, if you can’t play something that someone can recognize, it’s kind of like speaking Chinese to someone who can’t speak the language. Yeah, sure, it sounds good, but they have no idea what you’re saying or if you are even saying anything at all!
I still deal with this to this day. I LOVE to play original music. My group, Katahdin’s Edge recorded 2 CDs of original music and toured around the US, but I still have a garage filled with CDs of great sounding original music…anyone interested?
The point is that as pianists, it feels good to play music for our enjoyment and for the enjoyment of others too. I love playing and listening to original music, but give me a good ‘ol standard played by a great pianists and I am equally in heaven. I also love playing music and seeing the enjoyment that the audience gets out of hearing you take a song they know to a different place.
So, back to how I learned to play the piano. As I said earlier, I learned a lot about chords and music theory. In fact, when I entered Berklee, I tested out of the first 2 years of music theory because I had such a solid understanding of it upon entering school. At that time, I was playing a variety of gigs with different bands and many solo piano gigs as well. I was able to open a fakebook and create and arrangement on the spot just by looking at the melody and the chords. This is due to in large part because of the music theory my dad taught me.
Up to this point, I didn’t read many piano arrangements of songs. I created my own arrangements of songs. I found this extremely satisfying because I could do pretty much anything I wanted to the song. I made the decisions about the style, the harmony, the accompaniment, rhythm and the form. However, after leaving school, I wanted to make a living in music. Playing gigs is great, but it is not easy to support yourself just playing gigs alone…especially jazz gigs. And, like many other musicians at that stage in life, I began my professional teaching career.
New to teaching, I studied educational books. I got trained in the Suzuki program, the Alexander Technique along and the Kodály Method. I also remembered back to my days as a beginning pianist and remembered two points:
1) I enjoyed mastering things quickly at the piano, and
2) I liked improvising and playing songs
I realized that I was not alone. My students that I was teaching wanted the same things as I once did as a young player. Now that I knew that my goals and my students goals were aligned, I needed to collect or create material for my students to practice. So I began to do some research and what I found was shocking.
When I started to analyze written piano arrangements, I noticed something very interesting; the written-out arrangement was not that different from what I would come up with on my own just by looking at the chords and melody. I naturally thought that I was missing something by creating my own piano arrangements. So, I was happy to find that what I played and what a written arrangement looked like wasn’t that different.
Unfortunately, many of these arrangements were too difficult for my students to learn, so I began to create my own system and my own arrangements. I figured, since my arrangements were on par with ones I saw written out, all I needed to do was teach my students the process I used for creating an arrangement.
As a teacher, this was a breakthrough for me and I took to this like a fish to water. Breaking down full arrangements into smaller, easy to follow steps was something that came naturally to me. I think this is why I like computer programming. I like seeing a big “process” and breaking it down into smaller sub processes.
Now that I knew how to break down these complicated arrangements into something that students of all levels could tackle, my teaching studio grew in number by word of mouth. In fact, I often got students from other teachers (sorry) because the student wanted to learn jazz piano, learn to improvise or just learn how to create their own arrangements. I think, if you’re like me, coming up with your own piano arrangement is a thousand times more satisfying than just reading it off a page.
So how did I do it? Well, without music theory, I would have never been able to create my own piano arrangements. But, I also knew that working solely on music theory almost made me quit the piano all together. I knew that I needed to mix the right amount of music theory with “quick results” to keep my students interested.
So by breaking down my process of creating piano arrangements for a song, I created a step-by-step approach which added or “stacked” theory components on to each rendition of an arrangement. So this became my process. Students would start with a strip-downed, simple arrangement and then build it up from there adding a little more complexity with each iteration. Simple, challenging and satisfying.
Recently, I coined my process Step-By-Step Standards. These concepts work on all types of songs though, not just standards. The results have been wonderful to watch. I’ve gotten videos and emails from students around the world who are now able to create an arrangement out of nothing more than a set of chords and a melody.
What makes me so happy is that I know that these students are creating these arrangements. There is nothing wrong with reading piano music, but when you know how to create that arrangement on your own, you will have a deeper appreciation and understanding for the music. This is what gets me, pardon the term, “jazzed” about being a teacher. Seeing students gain that deeper understanding of music.
Over this past summer I’ve been busy adding to our collection of easy arrangements using my step-by-step approach. I’m happy to announce that we are releasing these new lessons today.
Many of these lessons are perfect for the beginner and they include:
- Latin version of The Shadow Of Your Smile (challenging for a beginner, but doable!)
- Van Morrison’s Moondance
- The classic, What A Wonderful World
- and a beautiful standard In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning
Since I realize that some students want to work on improvisation and grooves, I also created an important lesson I call 2-5-1 Essentials. If you want to learn your 2-5-1’s, you’ll want to check out this lesson.
For the intermediate and advanced level students, I created two lessons that I’ve been wanting to add to the collection for a while. Essential Scale Tricks is a lesson that shows you techniques that I use in my playing every day to make improvising over chord progressions easier. And, finally, for those players looking for a more modern sound, the Advanced Pentatonics lesson details pentatonic techniques that I have learned over the years.
I’m happy that there are now many more opportunities in our catalog for beginners.
I hope that you enjoyed looking (laughing?) at the old pictures of me and reading a bit about my history as a young player and teacher. I am grateful for all of the students that I have the pleasure of hearing from, interacting with and learning from on a daily basis.
I look forward to hearing from you and as I say in the lesson…”I’ll see you in the next lesson!”