|So you want
how to play cocktail piano? As one who has served as a
cocktail pianist for a variety
of venues, including weddings, corporate engagements, private parties, cruise lines, and other interesting
events, I've had a lot fun performing for people. The art of cocktail piano puts you in the "pilot's seat" perhaps
more than any other scenario. I say this primarily because you are assuming a musical capacity that does not
require the interaction of other musicians. Of course, playing with others offers rewards that go beyond the
scope of this article. That said, as a cocktail piano player, it's all up to. Yes, everything.
Does this place a heavier responsibility on the solo pianist playing cocktail music? Yes it does, but along
with that goes a whole lot more freedom. Quite frankly, though it's really up to the preference of the
individual, one might say that because of this freedom, the responsibility is lighter as well in the sense
that there is no need to remain as structured as one would in a band environment. If a tempo change is
desirable, you're free to do it. If you want to change keys, you can do it. If you want to pause in the
middle of a song, you can do that as well. Of course, you can play completely out of time and still have people
marvel at your artistry. Yes, a solo cocktail pianist, sometimes referred to as a lounge pianist, really has
quite a luxury.
When it comes to putting yourself across as a competent cocktail pianist, learning the art can be a whole
lot easier than some beginners perceive. Actually, it can one of the easiest musical performing scenarios
that you can work your way into rather quickly. Let's consider some of the essentials if you aspire to
hone your skills as a cocktail player. Some ingredients you will want to become familiar with are:
1) Familiarity with the melody and chord changes of a song
("Chord changes" is a term that simply refers to the chordal structure of a song. Easier way to think about it:
the chords to the song:))
2) Confidence with all 7th Chords
3) Familiarity with piano chord voicings* for 7th chords, 9th chords, 11th chords, and 13th chords
4) Ability to improvise
5) A playful attitude :)
* Simply put, a "chord voicing" or "voicing" is the chord structure that results by manipulating the chord tones
of a chord by rearranging them, doubling them, eliminating them, etc.
There are two elements of that list above that are flexible: #3 and #4. I say this because, although you will
want to eventually get a handle on some jazz piano chords and voicings as well as improvisation for the purposes
of fills and more, it is certainly not necessary to be familiar with them to any extravagant degree before you
actually enjoy creating your own tasteful piano arrangements and even venturing on to playing for wedding
ceremonies and the like. You see, that's what's so grand about all this. You never learn it all, which is
something to be thankful for because as long as you can present a song in a tasteful fashion, you can fully
appreciate your current level of proficiency while still remaining open to enhancing your cocktail piano style.
Let me provide a case scenario: let's say the song you're playing is Alfie by Burt Bacharach and Hal David (a
song that happens to be a personal favorite). You know the melody... you know how to play the basic 7th chords,
even if you are only familiar with them in root position. In addition, let's say that you have no experience
with improvisation and your familiarity with chord voicings is almost none. Can you still present yourself in
a way that portrays you as a tasteful cocktail player?
The answer is yes. I have to share something at this point: I wish I had a nickel for each and every person
out there who aspires to either perform as a cocktail pianist or simply play at home for enjoyment in a cocktail
piano fashion yet has not yet attempted to nurture his or her ambition primarily because they've underestimated
their capacity to pull it off based on false information they were exposed to or negative ideas of their own
that they subscribed to. At the same time, I also wish I had the opportunity to sit with each of these individuals
for just one hour. At the very least, if you were one of those people, you would leave our session knowing that
your desire is not only possible but more than just probable. You'd be on your way with optimism and enthusiasm.
I really feel that way. I'm so compelled to help in this area, that I made it my mission to accomplish the 2nd
best thing by creating video sessions that continue to instill confidence in people in countries all around the
world. The satisfaction I get from corresponding with these fellow music lovers and learning about their success
in this regard is beyond explanation.
Okay, you've decided that learning how to play cocktail piano is a goal of yours. For starters, pick a favorite
song of yours. one whose chords you are familiar with. Choose a ballad since you'll want something slow. Here's
why: playing within a slow tempo is conducive to allowing yourself enough time to consider how to handle the next
situation. Also, you can usually play a ballad without keeping time (in rubato fashion) while still putting the
tune across in a professional manner. Either way, you have the luxury of "practicing" while still reaping the
benefit of sounding good to yourself, which is certainly an incentive for continuing on your journey with
enthusiasm. Pick a song that you can visualize yourself performing in an actual environment. Let's say you've
been hired as a wedding pianist and you're right there at the reception behind the piano at that baby grand
in the corner as people are enjoying the dancing, chit-chat, and rituals. I think you get the idea... put yourself
in the picture!
Play the melody and accompany that melody with right hand chords as you already feel comfortable playing them.
When you at this point, then consider what can be done to make for a more tasteful piano arrangement. Now,
this is important: Thank does not mean you necessarily have to play more. Often times, it means playing less.
An example of this? If you've taken advantage of ProProach or any of my Sneak Peeks sessions, you realize that
taking a couple of chord tones away from that Cmaj7 chord can actually make that melody mean more rather than
A Cmaj7 chord consists of:
C E G B
Simply choosing the play a shell will create a thinner texture while giving respect to that melody, which is of
utmost importance. The shell being referred to is:
That's right. Instead of playing the 1, 3, 5, and 7 of the chord, playing only the 1 and 7 works quite nicely.
Given this, we now have a very simple cocktail piano chord strategy that you can put to use right away and here
it is: play through the entire song, melody with right hand and shells with the left hand. Yes, play that
"1-7 shell" over each and every chord of the song. Don't fall into the trap of judging the results here. You are
really accomplishing two things:
1) You are playing a "thin" sound texture with the left hand that never overpowers the melody
2) You are setting yourself up for transforming some of those shells into some really great sounding piano chord
voicings. Simply taking advantage of ProProach Lesson #1 will begin to make this obvious : )
Play those left hand shells delicately. It makes all the difference. Also, there will be times when that melody
is low enough in the register so as not to allow that 7 of the shell being played. You can simply play the root
if playing that shell an octave lower is too "muddy" or you can play the entire melody an octave higher and this
will provide a wide open area for that left hand to do its thing freely.
By the way, even if you are not familiar with all the chords of a song, making it a point to learn to play these
shells over those chords can be an eye opener for you.
I have created several piano tutorial programs to help you in this regard and, if you've taken advantage of any
already, it's likely you've sensed that I've had a ball creating them. I would consider it a pleasure and a privilege
if you would consider joining me at those keys for some educational fun.
As a cocktail pianist, your opportunities are rather open: corporate parties, private parties, weddings, showers,
birthdays... you name it. I haven't seen a cocktail piano player in the middle of the ring on WWE Monday Night Raw
yet, but who knows? Whether your goal is to provide wedding reception music for a cocktail hour, a lounge pianist in
a fine restaurant, cocktail jazz piano for a night club, or simply to enjoy a sense of professionalism in your playing
under your own roof, please understand that it's not only possible but highly likely if you will take it upon yourself
to keep things fun and expose yourself to some techniques and concepts via some cocktail piano lessons and tutorials
that will help you along with your achievement.
You will want to establish a repertoire of songs for variety, whether playing professional or for your own enjoyment,
of course. Although you will want more, make a list of perhaps 10 songs that you will look forward to including in
your repertoire. Keep it interesting by mixing it up, most of them being ballads for now for reasons mentioned earlier.
How about taking things a little further with that left hand. This will be easy since you will simply alternate
between playing those shells and the full chord. For example, play the shell for measure #1 and #2 and then play
the full chord for measure #3. Experiment with different combinations and allow your ears to be receptive as they
enjoy making distinctions, which leads you to making preferences. Even with this much, you will amaze yourself
with how musical you can be. You can add even more interest by playing the chord tones separately. So, if you are
using the shell, play the 1 on beat one and hold it through beat two. Then play the 7 on beat 3. Also do this when
using the entire chord, perhaps the 1, 3, 5, and 7 on beats one, two, three, and four, respectively. Taking advantage
of the sustain pedal while having fun with this will add a whole dimension to your piano playing!
Your cocktail piano style will mature over time this is a great way to launch things. Applying the simple strategies
above, combined with playing even less at times (including playing no chord sometimes to highlight that melody), will
lead to confidence. What is significant is:
1) You're making music that sounds good now
2) You're laying the foundation for so many great discoveries to follow
As a next step that will serve as a significant one when it comes to making those cocktail piano standards more
interesting is to become acquainted with playing the guide tones of each of those seventh chords with the right hand
while playing the root with the left. The guide tones are the 3 and 7 of each chord. For example:
Cmaj7 will be played like this:
Left hand: C in bass area
Right hand: E and B
Playing the 3 below the 7 creates a fifth interval while playing the 7 below the 3 creates a fourth interval. Both are
equally acceptable and the context of the music and your personal preferences will come into play as to which one
to play. You will serve yourself well by familiarizing yourself with both combinations as you play those 7 chords.
Let's once again refer to that first measure of Alfie in which the chord is Cmaj7 and the first melody note is a G,
which is the fifth of the chord. Playing the G at the top of the chord voicing structure keeps it in the spotlight
and it becomes easy to see that the choice to use here of the two would be:
This simple voicing strategy explained above is one to be investigated and implemented, as it will set the stage for
more great cocktail piano sounds to follow. Consider using this chord voicing approach along with those mentioned
earlier to lay a nice foundation for yourself. Applying everything that has been mentioned up to this point to a
favorite ballad of yours is a great beginning. Do the same for other songs. Your confidence will absolutely soar
as you do this since you'll be familiarizing yourself with applying the concepts through various chord changes to
the point where the piano chord techniques you are using will refined to such a point of your natural way of
approaching a ballad. Your development doesn't stop here, of course. It's just a beginning... and a very strong
This concept of learning one chord voicing at a time and applying it over and over is irreplaceable when it comes to
gaining confidence and mastery in the area of piano styling. Students of my piano chord voicing program ProProach
quickly see the value of this as they apply each weekly lesson to a favorite song of theirs and start realizing
their own piano playing maturity before their very own eyes. Once going through the 24 week process, returning to
the beginning and taking another journey through the program amplifies the benefits like one cannot imagine. The
lessons are viewed from a more mature perspective each time. Remember, it's not like competing in the home run
derby to see how many points you can score or like you have the pressure of appearing on the courts at Wimbledon...
it's about allowing your maturity and artistry to gradually unfold.
As you increase your repertoire, you'll be playing those same tunes over and over with added perspective gained
from your further investigation of rudiments like piano chords, voicings* (see below), improvisation, and fills. Thus, your
very own personal cocktail piano style will inevitably develop in a very natural way. Whether you find yourself
serving in the capacity of wedding pianist, playing background jazz for a corporate affair, or you're under the
chandelier of your very own living room filling your home with music, your enjoyment and appreciation of your
continous progress will serve as incentive for wanting to become more and more absorbed in this wonderful art
of playing cocktail piano.
PLAY WITH PASSION!
* A special note regarding voicings. When it comes to cocktail piano playing, perhaps there is nothing more powerful than learning how to play piano chords in a creative fashion and incorporating them into your playing. Let's say that you have what you consider to be a rather limited technical ability to play complex improvisation lines, etc. Well, if you have a few nice chord voicings in your piano playing "toolbox," you still have a terrific chance of presenting yourself in a professional manner. Even to the listener who is not "chord knowledgeable," when he or she hears a performance that consists of a nice mixture of quality chord voicings, this individual is easily persuaded. It's not mysterious, really. You see, even if a listener is not able to discern exactly what is being played, the musical texture of what is being played is inevitably perceived. In short, a mastery of piano chord voicings (to any extent) is conducive to your playing having a more sophisticated presence. In short, learn to love the art of learning and playing piano chord voicings. It's such a passion of mine that I created a 24-lesson program devoted to helping players like yourself to to enhance their passion in this area as well. I would consider it a personal privilege if you decided to get involved with it. You can learn about ProProach here...
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