Playing Piano vs. Playing Keyboards

22 Feb Playing Piano vs. Playing Keyboards

This post is written by Saturday Night Superstars’ keyboard player Beau Humphreys.

Like many Canadians, I studied piano via the Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM).  I started when I was 5 and by the age of 18 I had completed my Grade 10 RCM piano certificate and I was all set.

To do what exactly?  What was the goal of my 13 years of classical piano training?  I wasn’t going to school to study classical music, and my musical tastes, though they include classical music, are quite diverse. So why did I study only classical piano?

I personally got to grade 10, but most teenagers stop at grade 8 or before because they lose interest and don’t want to sit around playing Mozart and Debussy for their friends (and their friends don’t care to listen).

What do young piano players want to do?  They want to play and sing the songs they like on the radio, and maybe jam with their friends.  13 years of classical training gave me the base knowledge of how to play piano but it didn’t teach me a thing about how to play along with popular music.

Here is what I’ve learned since, and some tips that I’ll pass along to :

  1. RCM training is taught only on a piano:  Now a lot of music has straight-up piano, but most of the time that piano has some effects on it, or it is a different piano sound.  The rest of the time when you hear keys in a song, it’s a synth part, or strings, or horns, or just some background pad to fill in.  Even if you have the knowledge and can figure out how to play what you hear, the only thing that sounds good on a piano, is a piano part.  If you try to play a brass part on the piano, it will always sound like a piano.  Meanwhile, on my Roland JUNO keyboard, I can play the harmonica, and with the rest of the band playing, it doesn’t sound half bad.  Or I can switch on the clavinet sound and play some Stevie Wonder.  There are so many possibilities when playing keys if you have the ability to play other sounds.
  1. The Sustain Pedal:  In classical music, the sustain pedal is looked upon with disdain, as a crutch to use if you don’t know to play with enough legato. Or, depending on the songs you choose to learn, you may never encounter the sustain pedal, as these songs were written for the harpsichord, like many of Bach’s works.  Here’s the thing:  The sustain pedal is awesome.  Without the sustain pedal, everything you play on the piano sounds choppy and broken.  Consider All of Me, by John Legend.  Listen to the piano intro to that song.  If those chords weren’t sustained and joined together, the intro would sound like something you might hear in a scene in a suspense movie.
  1. Chord improvisation:  Sure I learned all the scales and how to play them in a certain way, really fast, for my grade 10 exam.  But I didn’t learn what to do when all I see on the page is this:

C         G               F     C
Sing us a song, you’re the piano man

F         C     D7   G
Sing us a song tonight

           C         G         F   C
Well, we’re all in the mood for a melody

   F                 G         C     G
And you’ve got us all feeling alright

…ok, what do I do with that? Do I just play the C triad and hold it on “Sing” and then switch to the G triad on “song” and so forth? What notes do I play in between?  I only knew how to read musical notes on a page, not chords.  Chords are the first thing that you learn when you buy a guitar, so why can’t you do the same when you buy a piano?  Guitarists can strum chords on the first day, but it takes years on a piano to play more than Mary Had a Little Lamb with your right hand.

  1. Playing by ear:  Surprise!  The newest song on the radio probably doesn’t have sheet music out for it yet.  And the chords, if you even figured out how to read them, are probably transcribed improperly online by someone who is cutting corners (or is a guitarist!).  But most of all, the sheet music and the chords often don’t tell you exactly how to play the part you are hearing.  The chords are definitely simplified and the sheet music might be for someone who just wants to play a simple piano version of the song, but not the real keyboard part.  How do you learn the new song on the radio that everyone wants to hear you play?  You listen to it and try stuff on the piano until you get it.  This is a skill that every piano/keyboard player needs. The more you do this, the better you become at figuring parts.


So playing piano is a great skill to have, and I’m not knocking the 13 years of classical training (or my excellent teacher – thanks Ron!) but I think that learning to perform popular music and playing in a band requires a whole new set of skills on top of the RCM method.  If you have RCM training but you are tired of playing that one Beethoven song you know over and over, drop me a line and I’ll work with you until you can play the solo from Van Halen’s Jump, or the synth part in Shut Up and Dance, or even just accompany yourself on the piano while singing your favourite song…with the sustain pedal please!