Since you want to learn to play cocktail piano, it seems that it would be appropriate to acknowledge what it is. I say this because if your idea of what cocktail piano and my idea of what it is are different, then we need to discuss how are perspectives differ in relation to what you specifically want to learn. I share my perspective of what cocktail piano is here.
If, after reading that short article, you find that we are in agreement as to what cocktail piano is, then we can explore the many cocktail piano techniques that will be conducive to your realizing your potential in this incredibly interesting art form.
So, as we begin to learn to play cocktail piano in a tasteful fashion, where do we start? How about approaching this in a bit of a step-by-step fashion to see where it takes us? If you're game, great. First, let's do this:
1) Pick a favorite song that you want to develop some real confidence with. It can either be a song that you aspire to learn and have never played before OR it can be a song that you have played and would like to take your confidence with that song to higher levels. If you take the latter choice because you are familiar with a song that you would like to improve upon, that just may be your ticket to gaining maximum benefit from your initial experience here, as you will be learning to play cocktail piano from newer perspectives.
2) Now, let's place a strong focus on the melody of the song of your choice. Remember, we're approaching this in steps so please bear with me as we journey through this together. For now, the attention will be on that MELODY. Play it. Yes, just the melody. Play it. If you have the opportunity to record yourself in the process, even better. Either way, play the melody, listen and observe. As you learn to play cocktail piano and take it to more mature levels, the melody will always be of prime importance. How you present it means everything.
3) Once you've done this, be completely honest with yourself when answering this question: "Did that melody sing when I played it?" Really, did it? Compare how you played that melody to what it would sound like if it was actually being sung by a professional vocalist. I'm placing an emphasis on this because this is where so many aspiring musicians miss the mark. This is of prime importance. Consider this: What part of a tune is heard the most prominently when performed by either a soloist or a group? Right... the melody. As you learn to play cocktail piano in a fashion that puts you above the crowd of other players, remember that this is to be a primary focus.
When you played that melody, did it sound like it was being projected by you like you know it like you know it like you know it? How's the phrasing of it? Does it seem to pause at the right time as vocalist taking a breath? Do the dynamics vary (are some parts softer than others)? Was that melody played with genuine feeling? Or, instead, did it sound like someone struggling through a melody as if it was just being learned? If so, that's fine. Your noticing that leaves you open to improvement. You want to have command of your melody as if your fingers on those keys were a vocalist's lips near a microphone. By the way, approaching the melody this way will have a huge impact on the quality of your piano improvisations.
Give yourself several opportunities to play that melody while you continue to listen and observe. If there are lots of "stumbles" as you play through it, slow it down and concentrate more on the musicality of what you're playing rather than the speed of it. Increasing your tempo is always easier to do with a segment of music that you have absolute command of.
As you learn to play cocktail piano in the fashion of a pro, continue the process until you feel like you are in total command of the melody of that song. You're in such command that you could present it in different ways to the listener, modifying dynamics and even note values, while still maintaining rhythm, however slow that might be. When you are at a point of playing that melody with a high level of confidence, we will explore how to enhance it with some harmonic techniques and even walking bass lines when appropriate to give it more interesting support.
Yes, you and I are off to a great start on this journey. You are learning how to play cocktail piano in a manner that will have you knowing what "confidence at the piano" can really feel like. This is where the lights go down, the candles get lit, the drinks get poured, and the crowd is looking your way with genuine appreciation : ) Let's continue...
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