I always wanted to learn to play piano. I saw Barry Manilow playing and singing on TV when I was kid and I was sold. I couldn’t imagine anything cooler than playing the piano and singing at the same time. It took me a few years, but I eventually reached the point where people would pay me to play the piano at their functions and have played for hundreds of people. My secret is that I still can’t read piano sheet music well or play by ear. Instead I found a way to use what I already knew to fake piano well enough that I have a leg up over even real piano players because I can pick up any song and play it instantly without sheet music.
My First Instrument
I got a guitar when I was eight and really started learning how to play it when I was 10 or 11. I was self-taught from an old Mel Bay book, before the Internet made so much learning material available. I taught myself to read music and learned most of the basic chords in the first position. I was no prodigy and remain a decent player at best.
When I was 15 I decided that I wanted to learn to play piano. Lessons were out of the question, so I had to figure out how to play piano without lessons. I was familiar with the treble clef from my guitar book. My time playing trombone had taught me bass clef. In terms of reading music, I knew everything I need to know to learn to play piano.
Our church piano player was kind enough to show me where middle C was on the keyboard. I already had a frame of reference for notes on the staff with the guitar and so I was off to the races. I am a terrible sight reader. Even though I can read sheet music for piano, I am incredibly slow at it. I read the music just long enough to memorize the piece and then just play it from memory.
I would come into church early with my dad a few hours before the service and practice on the piano for until it was time for the service. When our main piano player for the men’s group was unavailable I stepped in and tried to play the hymns. These attempts were mostly disastrous and led to me sitting behind the piano after hopelessly flubbing the hymn with everyone finishing acapella because there was no hope for me to pick up in the middle when I had memorized the piece start to finish.
I’m too lazy to actually practice and put in the time necessary. Jack of all trades master of none is not a cliché to me, it is a mantra. I needed a new way to play that didn’t require all the learning and practice necessary.
Stick with What You Know
It would take me years to learn to play piano well enough to play like I wanted to, but I’ve never been a patient person. I’d been playing guitar for several years at this point, though I mostly just relied on chords and a picking technique known as Travis Picking. Travis picking basically alternating on bass notes in a chord with your thumb while filling in with your fingers. It is super useful for making you sound like a much better guitar player than you actually are. I can accompany myself on nearly any song you can name with a chord sheet and Travis picking.
I realized that I wasn’t actually playing guitar music, I was using the chords to just make something up that fit. Why couldn’t I do the same thing with piano?
I started out by playing guitar chords on piano. I would play a five or six finger chords using the exact note per string form the guitar and just moving it to the piano. This led to some pretty clunky accompaniments but they were recognizable and if someone was singing it would fit perfectly without being intrusive.
I eventually realized that these guitar chords I was using were basically three notes: a base note, a third of some variety, and a fifth. Obviously, there are more complicated chords but I realized you can ignore 90 percent of the markings beyond basic major and minor chords and basically play the song without ever having seen it previously. I realized that if I played the bass note of the chord across two octaves with my left hand and hit the 1/3/5 of the chord with my right hand, I could accompany myself or others singing without anyone realizing that I had no idea how to actually play piano.
Doe a Deer
If you’ve ever seen The Sound of Music, you can use this method even without any deeper understanding of chords. The song Do, Re, Mi follows a basic major scale. A major chord is based on Do, Mi, So. If you play around on the keyboard from any base note you can find the notes of the major scale. I plan to upload a more in-depth picture tutorial of this method at some point. If you’re interested let me know in the comments. If I saw C as a chord above the sheet music I would play C/C across two octaves with my left hand and use the right to play C/E/G. G chord? G/G in the left, and G/B/D in the right. A little clunky but totally passable for accompanying singers.
Minor chords just move the middle note, the Re, down half a step on the keyboard. C stays C/C in the left and becomes C/E-flat/G in the right. With just major and minor chords, I could play 80% of sheet music without reading a note. Most popular sheet music has the guitar chords, piano music, and vocal lead line. Ignoring the piano music, I could accompany any singer and soon became popular in the girls’ choir class to accompany never-ending renditions of Mariah Carey’s Hero.
When I deployed to Iraq and Kuwait, this skill came in incredibly useful at a variety of church services. I am not big on religion, but most churches have a piano so I can be flexible in order to enjoy something that I truly love (playing music). I started going to choir rehearsals with my guitar but there were usually two or three guitar players already. In every case there was a piano on the side of the stage that sat empty. Of course there was no sheet music for the piano. Many church services use sheet music that only has the lyrics and guitar chords; my method allowed me to accompany church choirs with no idea what the song actually sounded like. Whereas many piano players would be lost with a piece of paper that only had guitar chords and words on them, I was perfectly at home. My method allowed me to join any group of instrumentalist and singers and jump right in playing something they could sing or play along with.
The trick for me with many things I wanted to learn was figuring out what I already knew that I could tweak a little to get to the new skill. With piano, I was able to take my understanding of guitar chords and totally play piano well enough to fool piano players. I have played at multiple weddings, hundreds of church services, and a random Italian castle with pianos sitting on the street for my children’s entertainment (and my wife’s embarrassment!).
I have used this same hack over and over again with things I wanted to learn. I ask myself what do I know with similar skills and figure out how to apply what I know towards reproducing what it is I want to do. I play piano like it is a guitar using the root notes and playing around with the steps involved with any given chords. This way I can play any song with just a chord sheet.
With any new skill that you want to learn just look at what you already know. Be creative. Maybe your practice at painting can be used to design cakes. Maybe your fiction writing experience can be turned into a profitable non-fiction writing project. Like to draw? Maybe you can design and sell logos with a little practice on a graphic design software. Whatever it is that you see that you’d like to do, look at what you know and figure out how to apply it!