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8 Things I Love About Playing Keys

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As I stood on the verge of becoming a musician, I argued with myself whether to learn guitar or piano. Guitars were portable, and I was moving around a lot at the time. But keyboards also appealed to me. They seemed so powerful and versatile, and the new electronic keyboards could make so many different sounds.

After seeing a girl in a band playing a tiny Casio keyboard (I didn’t realize how desperate she must have been!), I realized that keyboards can be portable too, and made my choice. Decades later after learning a few other instruments, I’m glad I started learning music on a keyboard.

Here are eight things I love about playing music on a keyboard:

Piano image by benny_lin.

1. Versatile Sounds

My son has this ongoing debate with his teacher about whether a piano is a stringed instrument or a percussion instrument. Apparently it’s a percussion instrument. Yet its keyboard shares exactly the same layout as a harpsichord, which is a stringed instrument, and the organ, which is a wind instrument. Imagine being able to learn just one musical interface that allows you to play percussion, strings and woodwind. And that’s even before we come to electronic instruments.

Even the cheap 1970s organ I started learning on had reasonable variety in its sounds. It had a terrible drum machine that played one rock beat and about eight Latin percussion patterns. Every now and then something electrical went wrong with it, and it sounded like bagpipes droning on. That sound annoyed everyone in the house, and I found it humorous.

But synthesizers are what really interested me. My dream - as I bought my first three synths - was that I would be able to imitate every instrument in existence from just one instrument. I spent hours programming sounds, practicing my bending and modulation techniques, and trying to play realistic melodies as they would sound on the original instrument.

But I also learned to love the sound of real strings. The Yamaha CP70 electric piano I bought was basically a baby grand piano with a pickup on every string. Unfortunately, it lacked power in the bass because of the shorter strings. Although I normally played it plugged in to a keyboard amp, I would often unplug, open up the top, and listen to the sound of real strings. That sound had a beauty and complexity that my synths couldn’t replicate. I learned to love that sound, and it inspired me to play in a whole new way.

2. Music Theory

Another thing I love about the piano keyboard is how it opens up the world of music. Those groups of two black keys, then three, then two again just shouted to me “tone, tone, semitone; tone, tone, tone, semitone” as I learned my first scale - C major.

I recognized how keys that were closely related - say D and A - shared similar black notes. And because of that they felt very similar to play. I noticed how as keys increase in sharpness or flatness, they first grab a black note from the group of three, then the group of two, then back to the group of three. As I thought about it, it all seemed to make sense.

And lastly, the keyboard made reading music easier. Knowing that anything marked with a flat or sharp was a black note helped me to visualize what I was reading.

3. Twiddling Knobs

For some reason knobs really appeal to me. My first and third synths shared two traits: they had lots of knobs to twiddle, and they had no inbuilt memory, which meant you had to twiddle them a lot.

My favorite synth was a Roland’s Juno 6. I read the brochure so much as I was saving my money that I knew exactly what every knob and slider did before I bought it. I would imagine what effect they would have on the sound. But imagining was nothing like the fun I had creating and modifying and recreating new sounds. Modifying the sounds while I was playing was a fun challenge that led to a lot of interesting effects, and the ability to be more expressive as I played.

A few years ago I wanted to regain the fun of twiddling knobs and bought an M-Audio Keystation Pro 88. It is literally covered with knobs and sliders which can be programmed to control MIDI codes, software and equipment. While it still looks like a lot of fun, I haven’t used it as much as I expected. So far I haven’t found the time and motivation to do all that programming!

4. Different Techniques

I’m amazed at how the way I play a keyboard keeps evolving. The first thing I learned to play was “When the Saints Go Marching In” from a fake book which wrote the letter name on every note, and had chords written above the staff. I learned it on dad’s old organ. With your left hand you played three-finger chords from a chart at the back of the book, and with your right hand you played the melody. That summed up my playing for quite a few years, although I learned to play arpeggios with my left hand, and play more than one note at a time with my right.

Some years later when I wanted to play rock-style piano, I struggled to re-learn everything. Instead of playing chords with my left hand, I had to play them with my right. And I had to learn to play bass notes with my left - usually in octaves - but much lower than I was used to playing. It took some practice before I felt comfortable doing that, but practice seems to be the cure to everything in music. Now I love playing that way.

These days I enjoy mixing it up, and try to combine different feels and techniques to produce interesting and unique sounds. The variety of techniques is something I really love about keyboards, and will probably experiment with for the rest of my life.

5. Each Key Feels Different to Play

I’m talking about key signatures here, not piano keys. If you’re a guitarist, you probably have no idea of how different it feels to play the same song in two different keys.

On a guitar, to change the key from C to C# you just have to move everything up one fret. That won’t work with open chords, but in terms of playing barre chords and melody, that is the only difference. All of the patterns and finger placements are identical, but one fret up.

On the piano it’s a whole different story, and it’s the black keys that make the difference. In the key of C you just play the white notes. By changing to C#, you suddenly have to play every black note - many pianists’ nightmare! Playing in those two different keys are a totally different experience. Going up another semitone to D, we’re down to playing only two black notes.

I have to say that exploring the different keys and how they involve different black keys has been one of my most enjoyable accomplishments. As I talk to other pianists, some love the flat keys, and others the sharp keys. Most prefer it not getting too sharp or too flat!

The different feel of each key leads to playing a different way. The placement of the different black keys in a scale or chord places your hands in different positions and shapes. Some chord shapes feel very comfortable in one key, and uncomfortable in another. Some keys I have found a real challenge, but once I’ve become familiar with them, my playing has found a new level.

6. Rich Chords

Chords are the best way to add flavor to your playing on a piano. You have a lot less options of adding expression than you would on a saxophone or violin. But you can hit more notes at the same time than just about any other instrument out there. That means you can play the richest chords.

When I started learning chords, I was just trying to remember the fingering patterns, and the rules that named the chords. I learned major and minor triads (and hardly ever used augmented and diminished chords), and learned to add an extra note to make sixths, sevenths and major sevenths. I wasn’t familiar enough with the chords to know what they tasted like, or how they would influence the sound of the music.

I remember when I was fairly new to recording that I was playing a D major chord, but hit the wrong note. When I listened back to the recording, I liked the sound of that chord. I realized that I’d missed the F# and hit the E, and was unexpectedly introduced to D2 - a suspended second chord. After that I started to pay a lot more attention to the sound of a chord, and what made it sound that way. Adding new chords to your musical vocabulary is a powerful thing.

7. Looking for the Perfect Piano

I sold my Yamaha CP70 a long time ago. I have too many kids to be able to fit a real piano anywhere, let alone a baby grand. But I’ve had a lot of trouble finding an electronic piano sound that I really like. The sounds keep improving, but they’re not perfect yet.

I tend to like the sound of Roland gear, but I remember my frustration in the 90s of getting hold of a new RD-500 which has hundreds of piano sounds, and struggling to find one I really liked. A few years later I bought a Yamaha MU-128 sound module, and found the piano sounds even worse.

I’m pretty happy with the piano sound I’m using at the moment. Yamaha sell a series of “plug-in boards” - basically little circuit boards that plug into the Yamaha gear you have already. I bought their PLG150-AP board, which has sounds based on a Yamaha CFIIIS Concert Grand Piano, and I have to say it’s the most realistic electronic piano sound I’ve played yet. Other piano-playing friends agree with me.

Soon I’ll start exploring the wide range of piano soundfonts on my computer. I’ve heard they can be several gigabytes in size, and take minutes to load, but sound amazing. Sometimes the journey is more important than the destination. I don’t think I’ll ever stop looking for a better sound.

8. Over-the-Shoulder Keyboards

I started playing music in the 80s, so I suppose I have to love over-the-shoulder keyboards - the ones you strap on like a guitar. I still own two of them, and love to play them. They are hopeless for playing piano, but wonderful for lead and melody work.

The first one I bought is a Yamaha CS01. It’s only monophonic, so that kind of forces you to play melody, and it has lots of knobs to twiddle, which keeps me very happy. What I really love with this keyboard is its breath controller. I can use it to control either volume or tone (or both), and it adds a lot of expression to my playing - something that is really missing from normal piano playing.

My second over-the-shoulder keyboard is the Yamaha K5. It’s just a controller keyboard, and doesn’t have any sounds of its own. What I love most about this keyboard is its ribbon interface. Instead of using a normal bender, you rub your fingers up and down the ribbon on the keyboard’s neck. That allows you to control how far and fast to bend, and also allows me to play hammer ons and trills.

So that’s eight things I love about playing keyboards. Why do you love playing them?

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