I studied classical piano from ages 6 to 13 and I got pretty good at piano during that time. I’m grateful my parents pushed me to take lessons because much of what I learned then still serves me today. Being a teenager at that time I wanted to play Van Halen and Rush, as well as jazz like Dave Brubeck and Ellis Marsalis. This culminated in a battle of wills between me, my teacher, and my mom, resulting in me essentially giving up piano and taking up rock guitar. So while I gained expertise at another instrument, my piano playing and sight reading skills went by the wayside.
As an adult I’ve taken drum lessons and voice lessons, but I’d always wanted to get back to my first instrument, the piano. Finally in June of 2012 I set out on that goal and began studying with the exceptional Buzz Amato. I’ve been fortunate to study with a musician and teacher who has a vast knowledge of theory, live performance, composition, arrangement, as well as insights into pop and jazz music. My playing and songwriting has grown immensely as a result of my studies.
When I told Buzz I was writing 10 things I learned from him he joked, “Oh, you could come up with 10?” That’s Buzz’s humor, a joke with multiple levels, self-deprecating while indirectly challenging me as well.
Let’s get to it, here are 10 lessons, among many, that I’ve learned from Buzz:
1. Be Gentle With Yourself
Perfectionism, excellence, and being exceptional at whatever I’ve set out to do, has plagued me my whole life. I say plague because perfectionism allows excuses, self-doubt, and procrastination to insidiously work its way into eventual inaction and frustration. Buzz saw this in me right from the beginning and would often repeat, “Be gentle with yourself.” All of this ridicule and pressure I put on myself was unnecessary. After all, I wasn’t preparing for a command performance at Lincoln Center in front of the president. Maybe that’ll happen someday but that’s not the current reality. I’ve learned that grace, patience, and love opens a better path to real learning and growth. No one is perfect, because…
2. Every Musician Makes Mistakes
I revere players like Chilly Gonzales, Herbie Hancock, Glenn Gould, and Prince. They’re virtuosos and while they seem to never make a mistake, they’re human and they do. The difference is, they’re able to disguise their mistakes, even using the mistake to find something new.
Miles Davis famously said, “Do not fear mistakes – there are none.” It took me a while to get over my fear of making mistakes, especially playing live. When I had gigs where I fell on my face, I left the stage crestfallen and embarrassed. Buzz got me past all that. Buzz says everyone makes mistakes and really the difference between me and Chilly, or Herbie, is how they use the mistake. Buzz says, “If you play it twice, it’s not a mistake.” So mistakes are okay, after all…
3. It’s Just Music
Buzz reminds me that we “play” music. There aren’t many other aspects of life where we are playing, other than sports, recreation, or acting. Music is powerful. It heals and brings unity to humanity. It offers joy and catharsis. It gives us deeper understanding of ourselves and others through artistic expression. However music is not brain surgery, aeronautical engineering, or law enforcement. I’m not saying music isn’t important, but playing music doesn’t have the same stakes as surgery.
4. Set A Goal or Intention When Practicing
I’ve noticed when I set a goal or intention for my practice time, I practice with more focus and tend to accomplish more. These are simple and specific goals such as, learn the next measure of this piece, or work out fingering for this passage, or….
5. Record Yourself
We’re fortunate to have easy access to recording with computers, phones, and cameras. When I record myself and play it back, I’m able to analyze my playing from a different perspective. I can objectively critique and notice what needs to be practiced, what’s working and what’s not, if my tempo wavers, or if the piece is ready for performance. Recording also applies what is known as the “red light syndrome” to my practicing. This pressure helps relax me when I am finally playing in front of an audience, since I’ve worked out those jitters by recording.
6. Play Relaxed
I know I should play relaxed, but it takes a lot of control, practice, and skill to get there. When I am learning certain passages in a piece they can torment me! Buzz teaches that it’s best to slow the tempo down until I can play the music relaxed. Playing with too much tension in the forearms, hands and fingers leads to more mistakes and fumbles but ultimately, it just sounds bad.
7. Know Your Limitations
While I don’t see a lot of limitations in Buzz’s playing, he references them a lot. He’ll say, “I will substitute in a passage so I’m not using my 4th and 5th fingers, because they are weak.” He then proceeds to run and up and down the keyboard with ease. For me, I know that singing in the key of Eb is not good a key for me.
8. Know Your Strengths
Buzz knows he’s great with arrangement and harmony. He’s got lots of stories where folks complimented him on his use of harmony. I know I can write music quickly when there’s a deadline. For the past 3 years, I’ve completed the February Album Writing Month challenge, writing 14 songs in 28 days. I also know I’m good with Logic and making interesting guitar tones with effects.
9. Unlearn What You Have Learned
We talked about this one yesterday. Buzz tells the story of talking to guitarist Pat Martino who remarked the point of learning music is to learn all the rules, then forget them. The idea is to free the mind from the mechanics, theory, technique, and thinking, and simply play the music. When I allow music to flow from me without filters, rules, or thought, I’m able to truly express the purest form of the music.
10. Mix At Lower Volumes
For many years, I loved listening to music and mixing music at loud volumes. Fortunately a recent hearing test revealed my hearing is normal and I haven’t suffered any noticeable loss. Buzz showed me mixing at lower volumes allows me to hear more details and nuances. Sure, it’s fine to crank up a mix for a minute to gauge where it sits. However, every mixing engineer will tell you, mixing at lower volumes causes less ear fatigue and ultimately gives you a better mix.
If you’re interested in contacting Buzz about piano or music production lessons you can hit him up through his site at buzzamato.com.