If you play the piano, you probably took lessons, and if you took lessons, you developed a sense of ‘doing it right’. In piano lessons, there’s a right way and a wrong way. You play it as it’s written. In a stage band setting, the other players have an advantage over you in this regard. The guitars and drums learned by watching and trying, more than anything else. They’re not asking themselves if it’s right or wrong. They’re more likely asking themselves whether or not what they’re playing is working.
So you’ll likely have to work on listening to how you’re fitting in, asking yourself what’s needed and how it’s actually sounding right now. Here’s my rule: If it fits in, if it moves the song down the road, if it sounds good, then I’m doing it right.
Things to consider:
- Pull back on your left hand. The bass player is already covering those notes, so if you don’t play exactly what the bass player is playing, you’ll instead be fighting for the low sounds. You don’t have to drop your left hand out altogether (which would just be weird), but you do have to scale it back. For me, it works to leave my left hand pinky out of the mix, because that’s the finger I typically use to play bass notes.
- Keep in mind you’re playing a percussion instrument. You strike the keys, which puts you in the same category as the drums, bass and guitars. Think rhythmically.
- Don’t overplay! You’re probably used to being the whole deal, the band, all by yourself. And when you accompany by yourself, that’s completely true. But in the context of a band, you need to pull back and consider how your part fits in. Less is more in this context.
- Make use of arpeggios. Instead of a playing all the notes at once in a chord, try splitting up the notes into a simple arpeggio. Don’t overthink this! Listen to what’s going on right in the moment, and play the notes one at a time.
- Wide and close voicings. When the song is moving along at a good clip, keep your chords tightly voiced—say, within the octave. But if the song is very slow, try spreading out the notes for a more spacious sound. For instance, play a C chord by playing a G below middle C with your left hand, then E with your right hand thumb and C with your right hand pinky.
- Use the electric piano. If you’re playing an electronic keyboard, you’ll likely have access to an ‘electric piano’ sound. Switch between the ‘regular’ piano and the electric piano sounds, and add a little variety. Be careful with electric piano sound—it’s much more dense sounding, and you’ll need to play even less notes.
- Remember that certain beats need emphasizing. Almost universally, the second and fourth beats of a measure are being emphasized by the drummer. Watch the drummer’s left hand as he hits the snare drum, and emphasize those beats with your right hand. This can be as simple as just keeping the drummer’s right hand in your peripheral vision. I do this all the time.
- The lower you go on the keyboard, the farther apart you keep the voicings. This is just a general rule: The higher you go on the keyboard, the closer together you can play the notes. The lower you go, the farther apart they should be so they don’t sound muddy.
- Get more comfortable in sharp keys—E, A, D, G—because they’re here to stay! The guitar players love these keys, so you’re bound to be in them much of the time.
- Simplify your playing so that you can listen and engage with the rest of the band. Lighten up a little with your approach, and spend part of your energy concentrating on how everything is working together.