I've been listening to a lot of this guy lately: Cory Henry. As far as I'm concerned, Cory is one of the most interesting players to come along in the last few years. His roots are in gospel piano and organ, at which he excelled at a young enough age to qualify as a prodigy. Since then he has expanded into jazz, rock, and R&B styles among many others. While Cory has chops for days and can burn up the keyboard on command, I think that he is equally notable with regard to his musical conceptions.
Let's take a look at his cover of "What's Going On." This is a song that has been covered countless times using the templates from both Marvin Gaye's original recording and Donny Hathaway's keyboard friendly live arrangement. Cory decided to forgo both of these approaches and adapted the tune to what I would describe as an Afro Jazz style.
Listen to how he states the theme in both hands with nearly no embellishment, in a tight detached style that is antithetical to Marvin's flowing delivery. After the theme has been stated Cory drops Marvin's original harmonies entirely in favor of a I-IV progression straight out of sub-Saharan Africa's traditional pop music. Likewise his solo lines, while florid and up-tempo, are primarily based on the tonic scale rather than the underlying chromatic harmonies of jazz. Cory sets out the concept and sticks with it.
To experiment with this kind of arranging and stylistic fusion, take one of your favorite tunes and arrange it in a style that differs from the original with regard to tempo, rhythms, and harmonic complexity. The goal is to choose a style that puts the song in a completely different light for you and your listener, and to commit to that choice in every aspect of the arrangement. This is one of many concepts where the end result will always be different based on each musician's individual decisions and taste. (See Manfred Mann's "Blinded by the Light" for another example of this process.)
Check out the full performance below.
Greetings True Believers! (Sorry; I'm a big fan of Stan Lee and I've always wanted to do that.)
I know that it's been radio silence for a while here. I've continued to teach during the past few months, but I was regularly hitting my daily limit of repetitive strain from the combination of practicing, performing, teaching, administrative work for the college classes that I teach, and other professionally related computer tasks. Writing regular essays here was the only thing that I could cut out to reduce the workload.
The good news is that, thanks to modified working habits and overall circumstances, I am resuming publication effective today. But that's not the biggest news.
Pop Piano Academy has moved to Austin, Texas! We packed up and moved to the live music capital of the country, where I've already met so many fellow musicians and have heard some very interesting music.
I don't have my own studio space here yet, but I will be offering lessons again in the near future once I have my schedule straightened out. The readers of this space will be the first to know when that happens.
We touched on legendary organist and Stax Records house musician Booker T. Jones in a previous column (http://http://poppianoacademy.weebly.com/blog/its-about-more-than-speed). I recently read a wonderful quote by him that sheds light on the elusive goal of "finding your own voice/sound."
"You need to have this crazy faith in your own voice coming through. When people know it's me when I'm playing the organ, that's a phenomenon, because I'm basically imitating Jimmy Smith, Ray Charles, and Bill Doggett. In my mind, I'm imitating but to others, it sounds like me." - Keyboard Magazine, July 2013.
Many musicians, including myself at one time, worry that imitating other players will result in sounding derivative or like a clone. Here's the reality: the only way that you'll sound like someone other than yourself is if you try to imitate a single player exclusively. Even then, parts of you will still come through, and the imitation will be much less apparent to an average audience compared to what other musicians will be able to hear. Once you introduce a few influences into the mix, they'll express themselves in a way that is unique to your tastes and abilities. It just happens, almost like magic. As Booker T. said, you'll probably still hear the patchwork of influences in your head, but the longer you play and the more players you study, the more it will sound like you.
To get started: pick 5 different solos or keyboard parts from 5 different recordings, each featuring a different player. Learn and memorize each one. The next time you have to play a solo or develop a keyboard part, assemble pieces of what you've studies in any manner that sounds appropriate. Repeat with 5 more recordings.
There was once a boy named David Jones who had a new saxophone. He called the local jazz pro, a renowned baritone sax player named Ronnie Ross, and said, "Hello, my name is David Jones, and my Dad's just helped me buy a new saxophone and I need some lessons." The jazz man did not normally give lessons but, impressed by the boy's enthusiasm, he taught the boy how to play saxophone for three months.
Years later, the saxophone player was hired to play on a rock session for Lou Reed during the early seventies. After Ronnie finished recording the solo on "Walk on the Wild Side", the producer, a tall, very thin young man wearing makeup and a fiery red wig, came over to talk to him. The young man asked the jazz man how he was doing, and then asked, "Do you remember me?" The saxophone player was sure that he didn't ("Uh, you're that Ziggy Stardust aren't ya?"), until the young man replied, "See if you remember this: 'Hello, my name is David Jones, and my Dad's just helped me buy a new saxophone....'"
The jazz man was astonished (exclaiming "My God!" upon the initial revelation) and delighted to recognize his old pupil and to see how far he had come, later telling him, "You should've kept at [the saxophone]; you would have been alright."
As a freshman in high school, there was a period where I listened to David Bowie's "Space Oddity" every day before gym class. (There was some spare time between classes after we changed clothing.) I think it had a lot to do with how I couldn't believe how the song could be so sad and so beautiful at the same time, or how someone could capture the *feeling* of drifting through space in a pop song and feeling so small next to the Earth. It's astounding to look back at the musicians who all contributed to that track: Bowie, Paul Buckmaster, Rick Wakeman, Tony Visconti, and Gus Dudgeon! Elton John loved the sound of the record so much that he enlisted Buckmaster and Dudgeon to arrange and produce his best albums of the 1970s.
When I heard "Starman" for the first time (as part of my introduction to the Ziggy Stardust album), I listened to it so many times in 24 hours that I couldn't listen to it for a couple of months afterward. There was something so close to pure joy in the line "There's a Starman waiting in the sky; he'd like to come and meet us, but he thinks he'd blow our minds." One of the first things that I taught myself to play on the piano (as opposed to by reading sheet music or with a teacher) was Bowie's solo piano version of "Lady Stardust" from the same album.
With every phase of my life, I've grown more astounded at how endlessly creative Bowie was. At first, I couldn't understand why he diverged from his early Glam Rock formula and Ziggy Stardust persona, or why he claimed that he was "done" with his hits after the Sound and Vision tour. (He said soon afterward: "I'm not rational...I could change my mind tomorrow.") Atonal piano solos? German Electronica? Tape loops? Jungle? 1999-era acoustic pop? Noise-rock? Likewise, I couldn't understand how he could just walk away from performing 12 years ago.
It wasn't until I got older that I realized how he could never stand to do the same thing from year to year, much less throughout his entire career. Like Miles Davis, he was always avoiding repetition and searching for a new sound, past acclaim, critics, peers, and even fans be damned. Bowie always managed to sound uniquely like David Bowie, with the caveat that "David Bowie" was an ever-changing idea in itself. I think that even being "David Bowie" grew tiresome in its own way when compared to the adventure of spending time with his wife and children away from the stage.
Bowie worked with three* keyboard players during the 1970s, and all of them added their own flavor to his compositions.
Rick Wakeman played Mellatron (an early, tape-based ancestor of the synthesizer) on "Space Oddity" and piano on several tracks of the Hunky Dory album. Wakeman was never a member of Bowie's band, but he played on Bowie's recordings as a session pianist. His work on "Changes" and "Life On Mars?" is one of the defining elements of the early "Bowie" sound, combining sensitive, dynamic accompaniment with gorgeous, classically trained runs and arpeggios. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v--IqqusnNQ) Wakeman made one more appearance after Hunky Dory, playing harpsichord on the relatively obscure "It Ain't Easy" from Ziggy Stardust. By then, Bowie was using members of his own band on piano and Wakeman was cutting back on his session work to join the classic-era lineup of Yes.
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars is a unique album for many reasons. In addition to its artistic and musical accomplishments, it is the one Bowie album to feature Spiders guitarist Mick Ronson in a dual role as the band's pianist. Ronson was not as technically gifted as Wakeman, but his playing had a great "feel" that was perfectly suited to each individual track. He played rock and roll rave-up on "Suffragette City" and "Star," stately, Billy Preston-esque chords on "Five Years," and he saved his best, most delicate work for the lovely "Lady Stardust." Ronson was later praised as a "great" pianist by his band mate and successor Mike Garson - no small compliment given Garson's own considerable talents at the keyboard.
Bowie's band did not employ a dedicated pianist for live performances during the Hunky Dory-era, instead using Ronson (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B6pqktwv8-s) or Bowie himself to play piano where necessary and dropping the keyboard parts altogether for most songs. By the time the band prepared to perform in support of Ziggy Stardust, Bowie's Glam Rock sound had progressed sufficiently that he needed an additional keyboard player (presumably enabling Ronson to play electric guitar full time). Enter: Mike Garson. Garson was established jazz pianist who was versed in some of the most modern and avant-garde jazz trends (specifically Free Jazz) of the era. He met Bowie while accompanying experimental singer Annette Peacock and joined the Spiders from Mars soon afterward. Garson was ideal for Bowie in that he had the technical ability to play both Wakeman and Garson's piano parts, but he also contributed jazz influences and improvisational chops that kept performances fresh on a nightly basis.
Garson's best known work emerged during his first album with the band, Aladdin Sane, where Bowie encouraged him to employ free jazz and atonal techniques despite Garson's fears that doing so would cost Bowie fans in the process. His extended solo on the title track, "Aladdin Sane," is probably the first atonal solo to appear on any mainstream Rock or Pop recording, and it's still impressive today. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q2y9inP4CqE) Garson worked with Bowie for 19 albums over 30 years, and he remained an indispensable member of Bowie's live band right up to Bowie's final public performance in 2006. His virtuoso, solo piano accompaniment to "Life on Mars?" was a staple and highlight of Bowie's final years of touring (preserved on VH1's Storytellers and the live recording of Bowie's Reality tour, as well as a televised, one-off recording during New York's Fashion Week in 2005.)
*Bowie was the fourth pianist during the early era, playing piano occasionally on a handful of tracks and live performances, most notably on "Oh, You Pretty Things!" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pBQ-S6njQQw) The demos of songs he composed on piano, such as "Changes" and "Lady Stardust," also served as the basis for the more well-known piano arrangements on his studio recordings.
"If you're sad today, just remember the world is over 4 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie." - @jesuisdean
You're jamming on a tune with some other people. You might be in the studio, or at a jam session, or just playing around with some friends. Suddenly, the leader points to you. It's time for you to improvise a solo, and you have no idea what to do.
Does this seem familiar?
Learning to improvise fluently (knowing exactly what you want to play and being able to play it in the same instant) is a life long study. There are no shortcuts to becoming a great improviser. However, there are some basic tips that will give you *something* to play in the mean time should the need arise.
There are three scales you need to know that will get you through most basic pop, rock, blues, and country situations. These are the Major Pentatonic, Minor Pentatonic, and Blues scales. Start by figuring out what key you're playing in, then proceed as follows:
Major Pentatonic - notes 1-2-3-5-6 of the major scale. (In C Major, C-D-E-G-A.) This will work over major key pop, rock and country tunes, as well as bluegrass and folk music.
Minor Pentatonic - notes 1-3-4-5-7 of the minor scale. (In A minor, A-C-D-E-G.) This will work over minor key pop, country (usually dark ballads) and rock tunes, as well as hard rock, punk, and metal. In a style that uses lots of power chords (punk, metal) and doesn't seem to fall squarely into major or minor, the Minor Pentatonic scale is usually a good bet.
Blues Scale - notes 1-b3-4-b5-5-7 of the major scale (In C Major, C-Eb-F-Gb-G-Bb.) This will work over the Blues, blues-rock tunes, and even some jazz tunes. It also works as an alternative to the relative major scale in some rock and pop situations. (For example: C blues scale over an Eb Major tune.)
Once you know what scale to play, start choosing some notes and see where things go. If you need some direction, I recommend the following. Play a note. (The tonic, 3rd, and 5th notes of the scale are always reliable choices.) Listen to how it sounds against whatever background is playing. Ask yourself: does this note seem to want to go up or down? By a short step or large leap? Pick another note from the scale that fits those instincts. Try it, then listen again, and so on.
Congratulations: you've just taken a solo.
One of the first lessons that students of any instrument (even voice) need to learn is when *not* to practice or perform something as fast as they can.
This might describe you or someone else that you've heard: you play through a piece that you've spent at least some time practicing. Unfortunately, you have to keep stopping and starting, at times saying "Wait" or "Hold on...." And there's that one section that you botch every time that you play it.
You're probably playing too fast, or at least faster than you're currently able to play this piece. At the right speed, you should be able to play through a piece without missing more than an occasional note. (Be assured: a piece played slowly, well, and expressively will sound much better than the same piece played too fast.) If that still sounds too slow for performance, or you're still stopping and starting, it probably means that you've been practicing it too fast.
You can't play something well quickly until you can play it well slowly, and you can't play something well with hands together until you can play it perfectly with hands separated. The more that you practice a piece with unintended stops and mistakes, the more habitual it becomes to perform it that way. Your starting practice tempo should be so slow that you feel completely relaxed and have no fear of making mistakes while playing with one hand alone.
At first, you'll probably still settle on something too fast. I was once told that 60 bpm is a good lower limit, and I think that's generally good advice. I will usually go one step further with material that I'm not used to and practice slowly *without* a metronome for the first day or two until the fingerings and hand motions feel natural.
When practicing new material slowly, make sure that you play with relaxation and the minimum amount of motion necessary. When you eventually go to speed things up, any tension or extraneous motion will hold you back and potentially lead to injury if you try to "push" through it. (This is a topic for a post all its own.)
If you practice this way consistently, you should find that your hands get a little bit faster and more coordinated every day. When each hand is playing its part perfectly at or above the final tempo, slow things back down and starting practicing with hands together until you've reached something close to final tempo. By that point, you should have no trouble playing the piece in public without stops or mistakes.
Slow and steady. It works.
"Sight-reading" used to fill me with dread (doubly so as a player who spent many years playing almost exclusively by ear). Actually, it still does make me nervous sometimes, but not as badly as it used to. Here are a couple of things (distilled from the advice of sight-reading guru Howard Richman) that you can do during your practice time that will help your sight reading immensely:
1. Learn to play with your eyes closed. The most immediate requirement of sight reading is to read the music continuously while playing at the same time. Subsequently, you can't read the music and look down at your hands at the same time. You need to "feel" the layout of the keyboard without having to look at it (similar to how blind pianists play). If you're lucky, you had a teacher who taught you to do this when you were younger and don't even have to think about it. If not (this includes me), you'll have to start learning now.
Play scales and pieces you already know with your eyes closed. Learn what each interval (3rd, 4th, etc) and chord shape feels like. For arpeggios and pieces with wider hand movement, learn to feel for the groups of 2 and 3 black keys so that you can tell where you are at any given time. Learn what longer distances feel like by "jumping" a note or chord up or down by an octave or two (initially sliding your hand across the keyboard and using the black keys to judge the distance) until you have the distances stored in muscle memory.
Finally, when you practice new music, force yourself to look up at the page and let your sense of touch guide your hands.
2. Learn to recognize patterns and read ahead. The next step is to read "fluently", which is a technique in itself, especially if you play primarily by ear. Choose some music that is at or below your playing level for playing hands separate. If you've been playing for a couple years, the four part Bach Chorales and/or SATB Hymnals are excellent material because they have 2 notes max per clef. Start going through them using the following method.
- Play through a chorale/hymn with each hand separately (left and right for bass and treble clefs respectively), only playing the downbeats and ignoring any notes that fall off of the beat. Play as slowly as you need to in order to find each next grouping without looking. In the chorales, you may have two notes that are two far apart for the left hand to play. In this situation, I play the lower note. Don't go back a repeat any pieces until you've gone through the entire book. (This goes for all steps.)
- Once you can feel your way around a simplified chorale or hymn, continue playing through them and add a metronome at slow tempo. Gradually increase the tempo once a week or when things become too easy. (I added 2 bpm per week, but that's pretty conservative.) If you're missing too many notes, you need to slow down. However, if you do make a mistake, it's more important to keep your place and keep going. The steady tempo forces you to look ahead to keep up. You should eventually acquire the skill of looking at the next note as you move to play the current one. You'll also get an idea of how often and quickly you can "sneak" a glance down at your hands if you see a particularly confusing leap coming up.
- Keep going with the above, and also start going through some of the chorales very slowly, still hands separate, but this time playing all the notes and not just the downbeats.
- When the above becomes easy at faster tempo, start going through pieces without the metronome, very slowly hands together, only the downbeats again. Go so slowly that it's impossible for you to make a mistake, and make sure that you're feeling for the next notes with both hands at the same time rather than one before the other.
- Use the same process to build up hands together: adding metronome, then adding all of the notes once downbeats-only become simple, and gradually speeding up again.
- You're done when you can sight-read through chorales at moderate to fast tempo with all notes included.
Keep in mind that it's best to sight-read things that are at or below your current level of technique. If you're trying to sight read your way through a Beethoven Sonata or one of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies and it's going badly, it might not have anything to do with your sight reading ability. The piece just might be beyond your current level for one or both hands. Keep logging those practice hours and come back to it another time. In a public situation, do not be afraid to say that a piece is just too advanced or complex for you to sight read. (Unless you have a forgiving audience, it's better than trying to slog through something that's clearly beyond your current capabilities.)
Some things to remember: the number of situations where you will be legitimately reading a piece at sight for the first time with no preparation and no room for mistakes are probably too few to count, unless you work as an accompanist and/or session player (and therefore are probably not the type of player who needs these tips in the first place). You will usually have an opportunity to look a piece over and determine any difficult spots in advance, and decide whether you should attempt to play them as is or substitute something easier. If you make a minor mistake here and there, the world keeps turning and your audience, if there is one, probably won't notice anyway.
After working on these things, I'm happy to say that I was able to play in a written-music based ensemble and play through things I'd never seen before without messing up too badly or having a complete breakdown.
For a more detailed breakdown of these techniques, I highly recommend Howard Richman's Super Sight-Reading Secrets. It's the best book on the subject that I've ever read. http://www.soundfeelings.com/products/music_instruction/sight-reading.htm
"These bits of advice are policies and guidelines that formed through the years. I’ve found them to be comfortable, useful attitudes and rules. Use them if they work for you – discard them if they don’t”. - Chick Corea
1. Play only what you hear.
2. If you don’t hear something, don’t play anything.
3. Don’t let your fingers and limbs just wander – place them intentionally.
4. Don’t improvise on endlessly – play something with intention, develop it or not, but then end off-take a break.
5. Create space – then place something in it.
6. Leave space – create space – intentionally create places where you don’t play
7. Make your sound blend, listen to your sound and adjust it to the rest of the band and the room.
8. If you play more than one instrument at a time – like a drum kit or multiple keyboards – make sure they balance with one another. (edit: As a guitarist I relate this to different guitars, amp settings and effects patches)
9. Don’t make any of your music mechanically or just through patterns of habit, create each sound, phrase, and piece with choice-deliberately.
10. Guide your choice of what to play by what you like – not by what someone else will think.
11. Use contrast and balance the elements: High – Low, Fast – Slow, Loud – Soft, Tense – Relaxed, Dense – Sparse
12. Play to make the other musicians sound good. Play things that will make the overall music sound good.
13. Play with a relaxed body. Always release whatever tension you create.
14. Create space – begin, develop and end phrases with intention.
15. Never beat or pound your instrument – play it easily and gracefully.
16. When improvising use mimicry sparsely – mostly create phrases that contrast with and develop the phrases of the other players.
This is a classic slice of advice by Chick Corea. If you're playing in group, especially in a jazz or other improvised setting, this is all great advice. I want to tackle a couple of Chick's points that tend to bewilder beginning improvisers: only play what you "hear," and don't play anything if you aren't hearing anything.
Let's first break down what Chick is saying. As a keyboardist, you will be expected to craft or improvise your own part in any situation where you don't have predetmined material to play (i.e. in situations other than a written arrangement or a well-known cover). There are a couple of basic ways to approach this. One is to look at the style and harmony of the piece and play some appropriate, familiar patterns (Rhythmic chords? Check!), repeating as necessary without much conscious thought or adjustment for what other musicians are playing. While this will fill some musical gaps, it probably won't sound very distinctive or appropriate to what is happening in the moment.
The second way is to listen to what others are playing, and then listen to what you hear inside your head in response. This is a skill that takes practice. It takes great concentration to analyze what one or more other people are playing, "hear" a distinct musical answer to the situation, and then play it before the moment has passed, all while repeating the cycle over again. The benefit is that "playing what you hear" rather than a generic pattern is likely to yield something at only your taste and abilities could come up with, if not from moment to moment then cetainly when you consider your performance as a whole. In a non-improvised context, you can still apply this by listening to what other instruments are already playing in a developing arrangement (start with drums, bass, and vocals, then guitars or other chordal instruments if present), and determine what you can add without stepping on the other instruments or being redundant. Is the guitar already playing chords in the middle register? Maybe some single-note fills in the upper register can add some color.
Here's the problem: what if you don't hear anything? What if you drop your auto-pilot patterns, and can't hear anything to replace them? In the short term, Chick's second point ("If you don't hear anything, don't play anything") reminds you that you might not always have something to play in a gvien moment, and that silence (and letting others fill the space with their ideas) can be just as powerful. But what if long stretches of time go by and you can't hear anything fresh? Or you're playing in an unfamiliar style and nothing seems to fit? Or you've just started trying to "hear" before you play and all you hear is silence?
There is a solution: you need to expand your ears. There's an old saying that musicians and artists never really improvise or compose anything new; they only reassemble things that they've heard before. (Chuck Berry, among others, has been quoted as saying that, "There really is nothing new under the sun.") If you haven't spent much time listening to and absorbing what other people play - as peridoxical as it may sound - you'll have a hard time coming up with new things to play for yourself. The first step to remedying this is to spend more time actively listening to music, recorded and live. Don't just let it drift over you in the backround. Listen to what the individual musicians (not just keyboard players) are doing at any given moment and why it seems to work.
Transcribing speeds this process up immensely. By transcribing, I refer to the jazz usage of the term where a player learns and memorizes by ear a musical passage or solo from a recording. This does not necessarily mean that you should write it down, but my personal experience is that writing it down as you go *without* memorizing it first will greatly diminish any impact it has on your musical ear. I have a number of solos that I wrote down in college that did not remain in my memory for very long or find a place in my musical vocabulary. However, most of the passages that I've learned by ear without writing anything down are still kicking around my head. Learning new material by ear not only gives you raw ingredients to play with; it forces your brain to absorb new music more quickly and at a deeper level than just listening alone. Choose something interesting that you want to learn (a solo, a background part), and loop a section of it using software. Transcribe! is my favorite for PC, and Practice Makes Perfect is my favorite for Android. Listen to that section until you can hear it and sing it from memory without the recording. Then move onto the next section until you have learned the desired material.
The final step is to practice what you have learned. Having the most extensive musical arsenal in your head doesn't do much good if you don't have it ready to go under your fingers as well. Practice playing what you've memorized until you can play it without thinking. Then practice playing it in other keys. Then practice adpating and working it into other material (such as a tune that you know you'll be playing with a group or that might come up at a jam session). If you can do all that (or even just the first step), you can be confident that you've added to what you can "hear."
Do this for a while. Resist the urge to play those old patterns and see if you hear new things in the silence. Repeat for the rest of your life, and you'll never stop growing as a musician.
The late keyboardist/singer/composer George Duke gave a workshop on improvisation sometime during the late 1980s that was later released on video. (I will see if I can embed a clip from this in the future as I don't think that one is currently available.) One of the concepts that he introduced within the first 5 minutes was something that I call the "Rule of Three."
The Rule of Three works like this: when you improvise, it's best to repeat ideas (segments of melody) in a deliberate way in order to create interest and tension. Constantly playing new ideas (or just running up and down scales) often sounds like aimless wandering. The exact number of repetitions isn't important, but between 2 and 7 is a good rule of thumb. Three is a good default number because it allows the audience to hear the idea enough times to make an impact but doesn't let ideas overstay their welcome. Once the idea (it can be one or two notes, a pre-composed lick, or a newly improvised melody) has been played a couple times, use the last repetition to link to a new idea. This can be a variation on the last idea, or a completely new one.
This isn't an unbreakable rule. Rigidly repeating everything 3 times would be be boring. The key is to alternate longer, non-repeated ideas for balance. The mix of tightly controlled repetition and more free-form ideas creates a cycle of interest. If you need more options, the use of space (i.e., gaps where you don't play) is always a good idea. George Duke also talked about having a set of pre-prepared "exciting" licks or tricks to get the audience on their feet, build up to a grand finale, or to resuscitate a flagging solo. (Hopefully you won't need the latter.)
1. Play a musical idea.
2. Repeat it a couple times.
3. Add to the first idea, or use it to transition to a new one.
4. Repeat steps 1-3.
5. Use space/silence, non-repeated ideas, and "exciting" licks to break things up.
The Late Show with David Letterman is no longer on the air. While Dave is a national treasure who is rightly missed, the end of his show also means that the American public has been deprived of the chance to hear a top-flight keyboardist play five nights a week. Of course, I'm talking about the great Paul Shaffer.
Paul Shaffer is an exquisitely adaptable keyboard player. On the Letterman shows he was expected to play virtually any style of music as needed for the content and guests of a given show, similar to his previous job as the unofficial bandleader during the first 5 years of Saturday Night Live. In many cases, he was also called upon to improvise or play an unprepared piece on the spot in reaction to an ad lib or guest's comment. This required an encyclopedic knowledge of popular song melodies and chord changes as well as the basics patterns that define any given style (ex: chords in the left hand for jazz vs. an eighth-note bass line for boogie).
In addition to his duties leading the Late Show Band (The World's Most Dangerous Band), Shaffer played with most of the musical acts that appeared on the show. (In the early years of the Late Show, the musical guests were actually required to perform with members of Shaffer's band). In these situations he often performed with minimal rehearsal and was required to craft his own parts from scratch. Check out his performance with the Red Hot Chili Peppers on "Higher Ground" to see how he blended into an arrangement that did not use keyboards on the original recording.
As an ensemble musician, he played on virtually every piece of music performed by the house band during a given Late Show but never jumped out in a way that drew attention away from a soloist or the tune itself. For keyboard players, this usually means: playing lots of chords, using dynamics, registers (usually middle but sometimes high), and tones (a mellow organ rather than a distorted synth lead) that don't conflict directly with the other instruments in the ensemble.
Shaffer doesn't always stick to the background. When he does take a solo, it's usually flashy. One of his first major solos appears on the soundtrack for the 1973 film version of Godspell (a show for which he was also the original musical director). He plays a ragtime influenced tack-piano solo on "All for the Best." 20+ years later, he played a rare bluegrass piano solo (most Bluegrass ensembles perform without any keyboards) during an all-star performance of Earl Scruggs's "Foggy Mountain Breakdown."
Takeways: if you want to play like Paul Shaffer, make a point of playing in as many popular styles as possible, Spend some time learning how piano and keyboards are used in jazz, pop, blues, country, bluegrass...and so on. This doesn't have to happen all at once; it's a lifelong pursuit. Listen to lots of recordings and talk to live players and/or watch tutorials whenever possible. Force yourself into situations where you have to adapt to new music within a group (jam sessions that aren't specific to any style are great for this). Lastly, while chops aren't the be-all-end-all of making music, you still need to make sure that your technical foundation is solid. Speed and versatility like Paul Shaffer's are the result of years of careful practice (10-12 years of lessons by the time he was an adult and countless hours of practice and gigs since then). No matter where you are in your development, take the time to make sure that your playing is free of tension and wasted motion.
And have fun, no matter what you're playing. I'm pretty sure that Paul Shaffer does, and that's a good a lesson as any.