How I Learned To Be My Own Musician

Posted By Derek Nance on Jan 23, 2014 | 2 comments


I woke up this morning with “25 or 6 to 4” by Chicago stuck in my head.  I never listen to the piece and Chicago is no where on my list of favorite bands, yet this song stays in my head.  My only connection to the piece is a performance of it back in my middle school jazz band.  When I was in 8th grade I played jazz piano along with my friend Samantha in our school’s jazz band.  That year in jazz band was my first introduction to improvising off the printed score, and not in the way that is traditionally associated with jazz improv.
My middle school had one jazz band, comprised solely of 8th graders (middle schools in Las Vegas go from grades 6 to 8).  It was a big deal to make it into the jazz band, and our band director picked both Samantha and me to play piano that year.  He had a regular piano and a Fender Rhodes for us to use, so we each played one.  The Fender Rhodes had certainly seen better days.  It must have been an original because all the plastic parts were falling apart, but it sounded spectacular.

About a month into jazz band that year, I managed to break to cable that runs from the keyboard to the amplifier.  The cable was a unique, proprietary shape, so my director was unable to  find a replacement.  Which meant that Samantha and I were left to share the piano.  We started out switching back and forth between songs, but eventually we got bored sitting out half the time.  So we started playing duet style.

This of course lead to much mischief.  We would rearrange music so that we each would have parts to play, or double the melody in four octaves for fun.  When we got to the solo sections I could comp while Samantha soloed away (for the record, I can not improvise to save my life).  There would be times where we would switch places or have dance moves choreographed into some pieces.  At festival that year we both got up and switched places half way through one piece, which made out director shoot us an evil glare.  We had done the same thing at every rehearsal that year, so we saw nothing wrong with it.  When the judges came up after our performance they complimented Samantha and me on our choreography.

That year I learned that it’s ok to not necessarily follow exactly what the composer wrote.  You can make the piece your own by stretching or changing notes and the music police won’t come knocking down your door.  My home bell group Tintab is known for adding dynamics, tempos, and notes to make the piece our own.  We will add a dramatic subito piano in the middle of a loud section to move the audience to the edge of their seat or put a classical turn in a melody line to keep it from getting stagnant.  There are many times during rehearsals where I’ll notice that a piece isn’t clicking with me the way I feel like it should, and then we come up with something to add to give it the emotional grab we want.

My philosophy on this is simple: the composer’s job is to write a story, and the musician’s job is to tell the story.  As the story teller, you have to introduce the audience to the characters and give the audience a beginning, middle, and end to the story.  There are certain emotions the writer wants portrayed and feelings the writer wants the audience to leave with.  But how you tell that story is entirely up to you.

Just please don’t add funny hats.

Do you play what’s on the page, or do you take liberties with your music?  Let us know in the comments below!

Cover Photo: “Piano!” by Francis Bourgouin on Flickr.  Used under the Creative Common’s License.