New Year’s resolution on playing the piano

When I returned to playing the piano a couple of years ago, my vague idea was to broaden my repertoire of classical pieces. I’ve done that at this point. I’ve gotten reasonably up to speed on maybe three dozen pieces by Brahms, Schubert, Chopin, Bach, and Debussy. I haven’t tackled anything extremely difficult, and I don’t bother memorizing anything — it doesn’t seem to be worth the effort, even though that’s what you need to do to really master a piece.

This yearI want to be able to sight-read chord notation, something I didn’t learn at all when I was studying the piano as a kid. I’m reasonably good at sight-reading standard musical notation, but show me F-7 and I have to pause to work out the four-note chord this represents (F-A-flat-C-E-flat). Learning this isn’t hard; you just have to stuff it into your brain and fingers.

The way I’m doing it is by using a web site,, which shows you all the chords laid out on the keyboard, and The Real Book, a book that contains hundreds of songs with the melody shown in standard notation and the accompaniment shown in chord notation (these are apparently known in the music biz as lead sheets). If I can’t work out a chord, I go to the web site (which is displayed on my iPad Mini next to the sheet music). After a few weeks, I’m going to the web site less and less. Now I just have to get to the point where I don’t have to work them out — I can just look at them and play the notes. I’m there with most of the common chords — C7, Cmaj7,G7… Eventually I’ll get there with the rest of them.

Theoretically, the eventual goal of being able to sight-read lead sheets is so I can improvise a left-hand accompaniment to a melody, based on the chord structure. There are books you can read that will teach you how to improvise. And then I can join a cover band, or get gits playing solo in bars where Ican take requests from the inebriated customers: “Hey Rich, play ‘Misty’ for me.” Not sure I’m gonna get there. But I can dream, I guess. “Misty” isn’t actually that hard.

12 thoughts on “New Year’s resolution on playing the piano

  1. When I signed up with the jazz piano teacher at Turtle Bay Music School a bunch of years ago, he told me to bring three things to the first lesson: a pencil, a notebook of blank manuscript paper and Dick Hyman’s Professional Chord Changes and Substitutions for 100 Tunes Every Musician Should Know. Hyman’s book is similar in function to your Real Book but my teacher thought it was far superior. It is now out of print but you can find reasonably priced used editions on Amazon.

    I suppose it is possible to learn improvisation from a book but I can tell you it is really hard even with a first class teacher. By the way, you should know that, at least in the early stages, you’re not improvising in your left hand. You’re playing chords in left and improvising in right.


  2. OK, I bought the Hyman book — thanks for the tip. The Real Book has lead sheets for hundreds of songs but I’m only interested in a few dozen of them. Many of them I’ve never heard of, and I’m sure the drunk customers at the bar won’t have heard of them either.


  3. Okay, I thank the day that Mom signed me up for lessons with the old German guy in West Roxbury who taught me how to play chords and do arranging from fake books.. I now have collections of fake books on Kindle including Broadway, Movies, Hymns, Country, Beatles, etc.

    One of the members of our Sr, Bible study group asked me what a Fake Hymn Book was? I told her Hymn Fake Book. Had to explain what a “Fake Book” is.

    Get Noteworthy App for iPhone. Also, I use ForScore app on my iPad. Also, get account on

    You know you have arrived when you can play a F#dim7 chord without having to think about it.


  4. The root-chord-fifth-chord thing is otherwise known as stride and is a useful way of playing tunes off of charts. I’m not sure I’d call it improvising though.

    The basic improvising exercise that I started with involved playing C major I, IV, V chords in sequence in the left hand, and random notes of the C major blues scale in the right hand. Likewise easier to explain in person.


      • I don’t think you’d find many jazz pianists who would agree that playing a stride bass line is improvising. In fact the chord IS written on the chart (or fake sheet as you call it) as F7 or whatever. You can play the chord straight, or you can do the stride variant or you can do a walking bass. But you’re still playing the chord which is indicated.

        By the way, I just noticed an error in Rich’s original post. F7 is F-A-C-Eb. Ab would make it minor and would be indicated Fm7.


  5. By “F-7” I meant Fm7. F-7 is the way The Real Book notates it, although I’ve seen Fm7 elsewhere. Anyway, I think I’d want to end up playing something beyond variations of the chord in the accompaniment. But playing the chord is a start.


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