Make Everyone Else Sound Good and You'll Sound Better 

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When my grandmother sent me to take the Dale Carnegie training, I didn’t have high expectations.  She did it because she wanted me to be better at business.  I couldn’t imagine what I had to learn.


But I did learn!  Lots of things:  How to talk to strangers;  How to remember names.  And the most important thing of all.


“If you just let someone tell you all about themselves, they’ll think you’re the smartest person in the world.”


In other words, people respond well to being listened to.  So well, in fact, that they’ll think highly of you even if you never open your own mouth.


You can apply this to piano playing.


Table of Contents

The Paradox of the Jazz Solo


Chamber Music

Solo Playing


The Paradox of the Jazz Solo


It took me thirty years before I realized that I was working too hard as a jazz musician,


I wanted so badly to be heard, liked, respected.  I killed myself to get good at soloing, and I beat myself up each time I missed a note.  I never felt like anyone really thought I was any good, least of all, me.


My friend Rick Saylor was a bass player and former road manager to the likes of Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter.  He was also the host of a jazz jam in my neighborhood and for ten years I was his first choice for piano.  Going to his house on a regular basis, I got the chance to try different ways of playing in a jazz ensemble.


I tried the “play really crazy” way.  That didn’t turn anyone’s head.  I tried the “be really modest” way.  People wondered why I didn’t play more.  I tried “being myself.”  I stayed the same as I always was.


Change didn’t come until I started looking at the bass player’s fingers.


When I did that, I got the idea of playing in a way that would make the bass player sound good. Rick was immensely knowledgable, but he was insecure as a player, and I thought if my playing could make space for his talents, he’d appreciate it.  That became my top priority.


What a difference that made!


Rick noticed.  He felt the groove between us, and he remarked on it.  Better yet, he responded, locking in and playing better.


And who got the compliment for improving?  I did.


In retrospect it seems obvious that if you play in a way that makes one or more of the other players sound good, you will sound good, but we’re not taught to think that way.  We generally believe we have to impress people with our knowledge, dexterity, or showmanship.  In reality, all that does is rob everyone else of the opportunity to sound good.


If you’re the best player in the room and you show off, yes, everyone will notice.  They may even talk about what an amazing talent you are.  But after a while they’ll get tired of it, because they’ll either feel inferior all the time, or they’ll feel pushed out.  


Even worse, they may feel ignored.  And well they should.  Have you ever been around an extremely clever or intelligent person who likes to talk but doesn’t really listen to you?


If you want people to think of you as the best player in the room, do whatever it takes to raise everyone else’s level.  When a soloist is playing, think about how you can complement their efforts.  How can a melodic phrase highlight their last solo line, and is an answer from you necessary at all, or should you just establish a kicking groove for them?


The better they think they sound, the more they’ll like you and your playing.  And you’ll never have to show off or be a monster to get that respect.  You’ll be prioritizing the right thing.



Brown Trout on Fly - Transcendent Trout ...

Many pianists don’t want to be accompanists but are forced to do it through degree requirements or financial pressures.  They’d prefer to impress everyone with the Liszt B-minor Sonata rather than play figures from the accompaniment to Schubert’s “The Trout.”  If they have to work hard, they want something back, dang it!


And so often they’ll treat accompaniments like solo opportunities, playing with every bit of virtuosity and showmanship.  “It’s the singer’s job to keep up, right?  I’m doing MY job.”


Well, getting a complement for your brilliant accompanying may be very satisfying, but if you’ve overshadowed the singer, or failed to follow their tempo or phrasing, you may not get hired again.  Even if you are hired because you’re such a “hot player,” you won’t enjoy it.  Making the piano part of “The Trout” into a showcase for your talent is a little like making a feast out of a bag of M&M’s.


Yes, the accompaniment to “The Trout” is a wonderfully written piano part, and there’s a lot you can do with it.  And you should exercise your artistry there.  But it must be in the service of supporting the singer.


If you can’t handle that, then think of it this way:  What can you do to make the two of you sound great together?  Because if you’re not doing that, then you’re doing exactly the opposite:  Making one of you sound bad.


Chamber Music

Piano quintet - Wikipedia

Chamber music pianists aren’t exactly accompanists.  But they aren’t exactly soloists either.  They’re more like a jazz pianist, except that everything is written out.


They’re playing in a coordinated dance with other solo instruments.  Any chamber pianist worth their salt knows they have to get all their notes right, get their rhythms right, play the phrasings and markings in the score.  They also usually know they have to think about the tempo of the group and not insist on their own tempo.


But too often a chamber musician might consider that the score is the be-all and end-all.  As long as you’re following that score, you’re “safe.”  You can’t be blamed for anything.


In fact, the score is a composer’s attempt to convey music, not instructions.  If you listen to a computer rendition of a chamber piece, it’s unlikely you’ll walk away thinking we no longer need live players.  On the contrary, you’ll remark upon the perfect, yet sterile performance.


The rule applies here:  Make the other musicians sound good.  Whatever suggestion you are given in the score, modify it in real time to the sounds you are hearing, and to the sounds you believe you are likely to hear based on your rehearsals.


The better you make the other musicians sound, the better you will sound.  Period.  How can it be otherwise?


If the music you’re playing along to sounds good, you’ll sound good.


And so often this may mean deciding whether to push the tempo so the musicians can follow you, or whether to lag just a microsecond behind to add a nice tension to the mix.  Or perhaps you’ll decide there’s a time and place to absolutely nail the tempo so everyone sounds like a single player.  There are subtleties in playing with other people that have to be experienced to be understood, and these are things composers absolutely cannot notate, at least not with any precision.


Solo Playing

Forget the Beatles – Liszt was music's ...

You could be forgiven for thinking that solo playing is the one place where you can show off.  It seems like soloists, piano recitalists, concerto players, are meant to show off.  And while that’s true, there is a place for the supportive-type thinking we’ve espoused in the previous sections.


Nic Peterson says this about sales:  “The customer wants to know they’re understood, and they want to feel smart.”  In other words, if you’re selling something to someone, first convince them that you understand their most pressing problem.  Then make them feel smart for buying what you’re selling by educating them on the benefits.


We are salespeople of a sort, although music isn’t really a product per se.  Nevertheless, we want our audience to “take” the music from us, not just sit there while it hits them.  What do the best players do that set them apart from the garden-variety show-off?


In brief, they listen to their audience and make them feel intelligent.


Listening to your audience means taking them into account on some level when you play, incorporating their silence or lack of silence into your game plan.  Are they engaged when you’re playing?  If not, what do they need?  More rubato?  A quicker tempo?  More movement in your body and face?


Remember, you’re not doing them a favor just by being on stage.  They need something from you and you’ve pledged to give it to them.  Who wants to be the salesperson who says “Well, I’ve offered them an encyclopedia and that’s what they’re getting, even though they’re starving for food.”


If you play in a way that brings them to some understanding, even if it’s a fleeting, emotional understanding, something that makes them believe they’ve shared in an experience, not just as a passive observer, but as a participant, if you bring them into the music so that they think, “I can see myself playing this music,” then you will have rabid fans.

Some pianists don’t want to give up the idea of creating a sense of awe in their viewers…awe of themselves.  But ultimately people don’t return to see things that impress them unless those things also engage them.  We go to see the Empire State Building and the Eiffel Tower because we can climb to the top!


The thing you want, to be loved, respected, will come out of your ability to forge a connection between you and other people.  When the other people are musicians, make them sound good.  When it’s the audience, make them feel good.