No sheet music? No problem!
I’ve recently been asked whether I can play songs without full sheet music. The answer is an emphatic YES! Infact, I prefer it that way….
My client thought that I needed to read the complete piano score for every song I play. The reality is that I’ve spent my whole professional life mainly using leadsheets or playing by ear.
Piano sheet music typically has every single nuance written down for the performer. As my repertoire consists mainly of pop, rock, jazz, chart hits and love ballads, there’s no need for me to have that amount of detail infront of me. I want to bring my own playing style and personality to each piece. I guess I’ve just never been a fan of playing something exactly as it’s written – having fun and improvising makes me happy.
This is a video of the classic Judy Garland song ‘Over The Rainbow’ – later covered by many, many artists including Eva Cassidy, Ariana Grande and (perhaps slightly less well-known), me! 🙂
An engaged couple found me by searching for a Cambridge pianist and it’s taken at a Madingley Hall wedding I played at a few years ago in Cambridge. I’m using the leadsheet to guide me, which means I have the melody and chords and nothing else, allowing me to improvise:
Here’s another one, taken at The Ritz, where I’m just using a leadsheet. Despite what I call my ‘concentration face’, you can tell by the way I’m playing that I’m enjoying myself! Like most of the songs in my set, I never play a song the same way twice:
When not following leadsheets, I’m usually playing by ear. This is my favourite way of learning songs: listening with a piano by my side, working out the chords and melody, playing the same phrases over and over again until I’ve committed them to memory.
Before I played the piano professionally, I used to learn songs by ear for my own enjoyment. I’ve lost count of the numbers of times my mind wanders back to an obsessive afternoon/evening in the 90s, This Charming Man by The Smiths on cassette, guitar in hand, constantly hitting rewind and play until I’d mastered the guitar riff. No sheet music needed then. Same philosophy now.
Here’s one of many songs I’ve learnt by ear. This one’s taken at entrepreneur Jenny Campbell’s private residence and shows what some improvisation can add to a piece. Although the whole piece is improvised, the main improv solo starts at 2:22:
And here’s a cover of Muse’s ‘New Born’. Loved learning this one for a bride and groom! Again, all by ear:
There are rare occasions where, as a pianist, I’m asked to learn a song which proves too difficult to learn by ear or with a leadsheet. If that happens, I will gladly find the sheet music and learn the song. I have a Grade 7 Piano certificate lurking somewhere in my attic. Which basically means that I can read music well. Just don’t ask me to play any Rachmaninov and I’m sure we’ll get along fine!
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