The biggest mistake you can make as a performing pianist

When I look back over the time I have been a piano player, I can easily see how my thinking has changed over time. I started playing when I was eight and within a few years, was playing in church. Somewhere along the way, I started playing offertory arrangements.

Back in those days, options were much more limited than they are today. I would go to the Christian bookstore and scan through the meager collection of arrangement books looking for one thing in particular: flashy runs.

My approach to performance was to find the flashiest and loudest song I could and basically try to break pianos. You can’t imagine how hard I pounded pianos. I wanted such a loud sound that I actually developed a bad habit of not clearing the sustain pedal completely because that would make the music louder. (By the way, here is a fun fact: the sustain pedal is sometimes called the “loud” pedal and was used for that purpose.)

Eventually, I got to college and a few teachers began to break me of my habits in various ways. One just referred to something he had heard me play in church and said it was horrible. His people skills were not great but I will tell you that he woke me up. Another teacher took a different approach: he spent countless hours working with me on getting a less percussive sound. He made a huge difference as well.

Nevertheless, after college, I still had a long way to go. I still hammered out arrangements and I wanted them as flashy as possible. That went on for a decade until I recorded Timeless Reflections which as many of you know, was my first album and not very flashy or loud at all. By that time, I was starting to learn something important.

That brings me to the point of this post. Over the course of that twenty years, I had to gradually learn to avoid the biggest mistake that I hear performing pianists make. Here it is:

The biggest mistake performing pianists make is playing for the best musicians in the crowd rather than the crowd itself.

Many of you know that what I just said applies to you. I have been there and I know. It is easy to focus on the people in the crowd that know music the most or will be able to judge your technique the best. We feel the need to impress those people. In my case, I wanted to impress them with flashy runs and technique and how much sound I could get out of the piano.

This is not just about church music of course. You guys know I like jazz. Some of you are jazz musicians so please don’t get offended at what I am about to say. But here is the prevailing reason why jazz is a great genre of music that is nevertheless horribly unpopular: many jazz musicians play concerts apparently for the sole purpose of impressing other jazz musicians (sometimes with the intellectual side of music and sometimes with technique). From my perspective, it gets flat out absurd and the average person trying to make sense of the music is just overwhelmed.

I am reminded of something a Nashville studio player told me once: it is better to play three chords in front of a thousand people than a thousand chords in front of three people. When I go to a jazz concert and see fabulous musicians playing in front of 25 people, my mind always goes back to that conversation.

Now on the other hand, I have not looked in a while but last time I checked, guess who was #1 on the classical charts?

The answer may surprise you: The Piano Guys.

Never mind that The Piano Guys are not really playing classical music. That is not the point. The point is that The Piano Guys are not playing music to impress other musicians. There is nothing very technical about the music they do. Most of it is simple and many of you could easily play it (the piano part at least). Expert classical musicians are not going to watch The Piano Guys and be impressed by the technique. I have not checked but I would bet my house that there are lots of musicians online that mock them but I would also bet The Piano Guys are not too worried about it. They are simply playing music that average people like and laughing all the way to the bank.

There is a lot to learn from what The Piano Guys have done. Don’t kid yourselves. Playing to impress the musicians in the room is a trap. First of all, you likely won’t impress them. We musicians are a picky bunch and many of us have a defense mechanism that causes us to instinctively pick apart other musicians to try to feel better about ourselves. (Ouch! That got the attention of some of you because you know it is true. I will readily admit I have struggled with that too.)

When you play, forget about impressing musicians. Rather, just focus on playing music that hits average people in the gut. You don’t need to do anything flashy to accomplish that.

I have mentioned that I am working on a new project at the moment and it involves some very big music. As I am writing the piano for it, I have one big restriction I have put on myself: every note needs to have a purpose and needs to contribute to the overall beauty of the song. There is a place for the big flashy stuff and I have some but it is always defensible.

On the other hand, I played one of the songs the other day for a few friends in my studio and one of their comments was that they loved the fact that piano part was so simple. Except for maybe 10 seconds, it is at the late intermediate level. In my opinion, that is a healthy thing. It represents growth on my part. I can’t wait for you to hear it.