When I was 16 years old I was a pretty good piano player as long as there was music in front of me. I assumed that people who could play piano (or any instrument) without music were just lucky. They were born with it and I wasn’t.
And then I found out different.
The summer I turned 16, the woman who played piano for the little kids’ Sunday School in my church needed a break. My mom volunteered me to take her place. I wasn’t particularly interested, but I went along.
The first week I sat and watched what Marlene did. It looked easy enough. She played a little intro, the kids sang a song several times, then moved on to the next. Three, four, five songs, maybe 10 minutes. I could do this no problem.
Except…I’d noticed, disturbingly, that Marlene was not using music. Had she memorized these songs? Had she just played them so many times that she didn’t need music? Was she one of those people who could play by ear? The kids shuffled off to their lesson rooms and Marlene turned to me; “Well, there you go! Thanks.”
I hated having to ask, but I saw no way out: “Where’s the music for these songs?”
What she said next burned in me for days afterward. Actually, it kinda burns right now.
“Oh, ED! You don’t need music for these songs! You play better than me and you can’t play these simple songs?”
She was actually a little put out with me, sort of unbelieving–as if my having better hands on the piano automatically qualified me to play without music. But I couldn’t. I hated it, but I couldn’t. Only those people could, and Marlene was apparently one of them. She dug through the piano bench, yanking out sheets of music and putting them on the piano. The music for ‘Stop And Let Me Tell You’ was shaped like a stop sign. My face burned. Paul McCartney didn’t need music for his songs.
I wanted to do what Paul did, but I couldn’t even do what Marlene did. I had no idea where to start.
The next week I played for the kids, shuffling awkwardly between the song sheets. I sat afterward in the quiet room and thought, “What do I need to do here? What’s the answer?” I played through the songs slowly, quietly, trying to find a shortcut to memorizing them. It just looked like a whole lot of work.
The week after that was the same, and again I sat afterward, trying to figure out how Marlene did it. I was motivated. Something big hung in the balance–my musical future as Paul McCartney.
And then I saw something, and was a little surprised by it. These songs were built around chords. Easy chords. Chords I’d learned a little about in all my piano lessons. The same chords I played on guitar (although I wasn’t very good at it). What if I just played the chords, instead of the written notes? It worked on guitar, didn’t it? It couldn’t be that easy, could it? Is this what Marlene was doing?
So I figured out the chords for Stop And Let Me Tell You. Simple chords–C, F and G. I just looked at the notes, and there they were. And it was just dumb, how easy it looked. The chords were like an outline for the song. A sort of shorthand.
The next week I put my theory into practice. I banged out the chords instead of the written notes. It worked. The kids didn’t need me to play the melody for them. Shoot–they bawled out the songs so loudly they couldn’t hear me once they started anyway. A couple of months later I was playing all the Sunday School songs without the music. And transposing to different keys, just to add excitement. I kept it simple (I had no choice), but I was doing it.
Over the next 10 years or so I asked, and if that didn’t work, I begged every musician I met to show me what the chord symbols meant. And more importantly, how they worked together. I learned, but WAY too slowly. I could never find what I really wanted–a plain explanation of how the chords worked.
In all my years as a musician, I’ve run into lots of players who knew this stuff, but nobody who could put it to me simply. And certainly no one who offered a class on just the stuff I actually needed to know. Every class I could find wanted me to learn to write four-part for hymnals, or how to write for violins, or asked for endless, repetitious exercises. I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to go to college–I just wanted to know what the chord symbols meant, and how those chords worked together. In actual music. I eventually figured it out.
Make no mistake–putting that chord knowledge into practice takes years. But the actual amount of information? I could show you in an evening class.
Check this out, from a former student of mine sitting in a college theory class:
“Hey Ed, I just wanted to thank you for the lesson you gave me on how to change keys quickly. This Monday I was in my Music Theory III class, and the chapter was on modulating/changing keys. My professor was talking about “Neapolitan chords being the flat 2 and augmented 6 chords going to five, so I raise my hand and I say, “soooo basically we are just looking for the five chord in the next key and adding all kinds of fancy names to it?” My professor was kind of taken aback, but responded, “Well…. basically….” In my head I was just going, “I’m paying tuition to learn over a semester what you taught me in less than a half hour at the piano??” Thanks so much!” –Isaac Anderson
So, I’ll throw this out there; if you’d like me to come and teach this class at your church, for your musicians, or a group of musicians from various churches, I’d love to do it. I’ve done it a couple of times, and if was fun watching the light go on in some of the faces in front of me. As many or as few people as you like, and I’ll do it cheap.
I’ll show you what I know, and it will all be practical. Nothing you can’t use, only what you need. Explanations, examples, listening, materials to take home and review, etc. Bring your guitar or a keyboard and headphones, because I want you to get this.
If you’re interested, hit the ‘Contact’ button above, and let’s set something up. I promise you I’ll give you only what you need, and nothing more. No boring homework, just a clear explanation of how the chords are put together and what the symbols mean.
My goal is for you is this: I want you to see what I saw, sitting on the piano bench all those years ago.