My New Project – Louie Harrison

Why I have more than one project

I’ve released classical-based solo piano music as Phil Best and I also have a jazz-based solo piano album released under the name PJ Best, called Freshly Squeezed: I’ll be releasing more music as PJ with a very acoustic production style, featuring vocals, sometimes with percussion beats on cajon as well as piano.

Who is Louie Harrison?

As Louie Harrison, I create jazzy RnB/soul songs and instrumental tracks that make use of electric pianos and electronic keyboard sounds. My original influence is Stevie Wonder. I love the sweet, melodic vibe of a lot of  RnB/soul music especially when it has influences from jazz and jazz funk, making use of rich harmonies and intricate rhythms.

I chose the name Louie Harrison, as it is the masculine form of Louise Harrison who was my Grandma. She was the only adult in my life when I was little, who encouraged me to think of music as pure self-expression and play. She would encourage me to ignore my parents’ when they told me to practise my scales and pieces and to stop improvising and making up catchy tunes. My parents were strictly classical music lovers and were very intolerant of pop music. But as a little kid in the seventies, I’d hear the music and vocal prowess of Stevie, Aretha, Marvin Gaye, Dionne Warwick and so many other artists that I adored and would secretly assimilate their musical language into my own vocabulary.

A fascination with the style of jazzy soul, jazz funk and RnB

As a fluent musician, I love to improvise. I also love catchy melodies. I can still recall the first time I heard the main subject of the first movement of Mozart’s G minor Symphony and I decided that the art of creating a memorable tune that you can hum is definitely one I wanted to learn. Stevie Wonder’s melodies, like Mozart’s, are bold and the feelings that his music conveys are direct, clear , intelligible yet complex and rich. The jazzy harmonies and syncopations were irresistible to me.

I can honestly say that the musical language of jazzy soul was the most fascinating and elusive for me as I worked to expand my musical vocabulary to include all the styles of music I loved. More erudite, abstract-sounding jazz and rich romantic chromaticism in classical music were far easier to work out, as was avant-garde atonality. But the more hidden complexity in jazz funk and jazzy RnB soul is tightly-woven and it’s coherent, effortless, catchiness, some would call cheesy, was much trickier to unpick.

As well as the greats of 70’s soul, I also loved the band Incognito, headed by the brilliant guitarist, songwriter and producer, Bluey Maunick. Incognito’s very lyrical jazz funk style is a wonderful example of this effortless musicianship that shines like the sun and eases the mind like a summer breeze.

Finding my singing confidence

But I also love RnB/soul for its vocals. Sadly, as a child, I was discouraged from singing by my parents. This was because I didn’t even attempt to sound like a classical boy soprano. I loved opening my throat wide and feeling my little unbroken voice soar soulfully. One day, my mother told me that it sounded like disgusting screaming. Although I knew that she considered most pop vocalists to be just “…wailing, screaming and shouting, not singing” as she put it, unfortunately I actually believed that my voice was no good. I did eventually learn to sing in the classical style but my heart was never really in it and it just pulled my vocal technique further away from the soulful style I loved. I’ve been singing my soulful songs for years – I so wanted to be an artist not just a songwriter or producer. But singing well enough to be confident in my work has only come recently as my confidence was so dented by earlier vocal experience. Now I can’t stop singing…

So finally, with a new identity (well… a new name, anyway) I’m releasing my first EP called “The day will come”. It features six tracks – 4 songs, an instrumental and a short piano interlude. The electric pianos are amazing physical models created by Modartt’s Pianoteq software. They sound so authentic and feel amazing to play. These old electric pianos made by Rhodes, Wurlitzer and Hohner help the music have that hallmark 70’s jazzy soul sound: when we hear rich, chromatic jazz harmonies on these sounds, their subtle distortions and harmonics blend to  generate a distinctive timbre that is as delicious as cheesecake. Singing with my recently acquired vocal confidence as I accompany myself on these great vintage pianos has been a total joy. I hope you enjoy listening to the sound of Louie Harrison as much as I have enjoyed creating it…

You can use any fingers…

Playing by pinning fingers to set keys destroys natural musical fluency – you can use any fingers.

If we can only play music using the same fingers every time, it means that muscle memory has such a critical role in how we play the piano that our musicianship is stunted. On the other hand. If we can play the same passage using different fingering each time, this means that we know how patterns of the music are formed within the structure of the keyboard.

This is fluency – the ability to effortlessly understand how patterns of tonality and rhythm are formed. It is the ability to intend every sound as we make it, to know where it lives in the tonal structure of the keyboard. True improvising – or composing in real time – becomes impossible if we rely on executing muscle-memorised finger patterns. We need to see that we can learn to improvise music as naturally as we speak, then we will play with ease and flow. Playing by pinning fingers to set keys destroys this natural musical fluency.

How to make a great sound on the piano

What makes a good piano sound?

A good piano sound comes from a combination of factors. We must have a decent instrument with a good range of volume and timbre. It must have a reliable action with a wide range of velocity available so that you can control the sound. Acoustic pianos must be new or well maintained, whilst all the major makes of digital pianos, Yamaha, Kawai, Roland and Casio make pianos with excellent actions.

I prefer the sounds generated either by good acoustic pianos or by physical modelling technology not sampling. This is because physical modelling can offer the same kind of detailed expressive control that you get from acoustic pianos. I use Pianoteq for my piano sounds and it is amazingly expressive and responsive and sounds great. It’s so important to remember that expressive control plays a much bigger part in generating a great piano sound than you might think… So, for a great sound to come out of any piano, you need great technical control and musical imagination to make it really speak or sing.
Expressive control plays a much bigger part in generating a great piano sound than you might think. For a great sound to come out of any #piano, you need great technical control and musical imagination to make it really speak or sing. Click To Tweet

So let’s think about how we control piano sound in more detail.

Dynamics
Velocity controls volume and timbre and different velocities combine to shape melody and balance harmonies. In this way we can create many different colours

Articulation
Playing notes legato, or staccato, and everything in between in various combinations creates different qualities of sound.

Timing
Precise timing of musical events occur within the rhythmic groove really affects how we hear the sound. Listen to these expressive delays and how they make the sound feel thicker and warmer.

So as the music unfolds rhythmically we vary the sound dynamically in these ways. As a general rule, we make a stronger sound by playing LOUDER, LONGER or LATER and we make a weaker sound by playing SOFTER, SHORTER or SOONER. But this simple rule belies the ambiguity, subtlety and seemingly infinite complexity that arise when we play.

Pedal
You’ll notice, I’m also using the sustain pedal. Because it releases all the dampers, it doesn’t just sustain notes but also adds layers of resonance to the sound as all the strings vibrate sympathetically. Half-pedalling in particular creates many different subtleties of colour.

Reverb and FX
Room acoustics affect the way a piano sounds profoundly. Where a piano is placed within a room with ambient reflections is a very important consideration and will affect the way we play. When recording, using effects like compression and chorus can also affect the sound.

A pianist must combine all these controlling factors intentionally as the music unfolds. It’s a complex process: we must do it naturally and intuitively. So the most important controller is YOU.

Technique
We must use the muscles in our hands and arms to coordinate all the movements in an economic and relaxed way. The hand works like a claw, and the fingers must feel like they are walking rhythmically on the keys. The weight of your arms must be supported by the trapezius – never twist your hands to sit on the keys with your elbows dropped or tucked in. This arm position means we can make use of gravity and never push or force, even for the loudest sounds. We must only play the keys from a touching position – touch the key surface before dropping down to the key bed. Never slap down through the keys from above as this is uncontrolled and can cause injury. The finger drops down to the key bed hitting it at the precise moment we intend rhythmically and makes a soft landing with the characteristic upward feeling at the moment of impact that we all feel in our legs when we walk, run or jump.

A good technique feels natural but precise as it must respond perfectly to our musical intention. Stick to these basic principles of technique. Don’t over-analyse or practise technique outside of playing music expressively. Obsessively developing strength or independence of the fingers is usually counterproductive and can be really damaging. Just let your fingers walk over the keys rhythmically and then they can play with natural and effortless expression.

Your creative musical mind
Your moment-by-moment expressive choices or intentions to tell your musical story meaningfully and authentically determine what dynamics, articulation, timing and pedalling you will use to make a truly great sound. These choices are all governed by our musicianship, specifically our ability to understand how rhythmic and tonal patterns make sense. This is an intuitive skill, but we can develop conscious fluency just as we all have using language. To do this, we need to develop a clear grasp rhythmic and tonal vocabulary and structure. Theoretical elements like notes, chords, intervals, keys and note values don’t generate fluency as they require too much cognitive decoding to grasp quickly enough to be fluent. My PlayPianoFluently course teaches the real vocabulary of music that we can effortlessly hear and understand naturally in real time as the music unfolds.

So to get a great sound out of a piano, we must use skill and imagination to INTEND that sound expressively. Of course, people have different tastes and music comes in different styles so it’s great that we have pianos with different sounds. We can argue about the relative merits of different pianos for as long as we like. But as long as a piano is well made and working properly, we can approach playing it by considering what particular things it can do well. What kind of sounds can it make to bring the music to life? How can I use my skills to do this?
To get a great sound out of a piano, we must use skill and imagination to INTEND that sound expressively. Click To Tweet

Pianoteq presets
People often think that I manage to get a good sound on my recordings because I’m clever at tweaking the parameters in Pianoteq to make my own presets. I’m not all that clever or experienced at doing this. I do have a go at it sometimes but the default presets are actually really great as long as you use your technique and imagination to get great sounds out of them.

Non-perishable skills of fluent musicianship are like riding a bicycle

Non-perishable skills, like language, walking, riding a bike are valuable. So many people learn set pieces and scales but without constant practice, their memory begins to fade. Aural and muscle memory do not survive the brain drain which afflicts us all. But playing the piano fluently relies on non perishable skills.

Finding a new way of learning

My ideas about musical fluency have existed for quite a while in various forms and I have shared materials via www.playpianofluently.com. I now have a solid scheme of work and am developing coherent materials that effectively create a complete course. I’m very excited to share my approach to learning piano in a way that has real clarity and structure.

I am very proud of the course and incredibly grateful to all my students, especially Dave, Paul, Thomas, Jemima and Steve for their extraordinary patience. It is really down to them that the materials exist in their current form. They demanded clear explanation and illustration of the ideas and have experimented tirelessly in their tireless quest for musical fluency on the piano.The principles behind PlayPianoFluently are simple. But to describe something which seems quite obvious to me, in a structured course, using words and pictures has been a big task.

The courage to let go – focus on the matrix and keyboard map

I love the “learning to ride a bike” analogy. Non perishable skills are a foundation for lifelong learning. Most people, when they learn to play the keys, focus on the notes – decoding the dots on the music seen as a list of pitch and time data. Alternatively they focus on the musical result and play in a “karaoke” way, relying on muscle and aural memory. Decoding is rather like examining the components of the bicycle as you ride it: the gears, the pedals, the brakes etc. Karaoke playing is like looking around you at the scenery passing by. Clearly, neither of these is the right focus to use when cycling. And they are dangerous too!

The right focus is, of course, the road. Just keep pedalling, keep your hands on the handlebars and brakes and look at the road! All the various things you do – steer, brake, pedal at different rates etc. – happen as a natural response from the body that comes with practice. All you need to do is know where you are as you focus on the path ahead. And this conscious focus on the road – although effortless to do after practice – must always be maintained.

The symmetrical structure of the matrix and the keyboard map are what forms the road in this analogy. You must focus entirely on their deep structures. This is the focus that you need, not thinking about notes. And mindless repetition or rehearsal of the exact same movements is equally corrosive to those all important non perishable skills. Too much repetitious practice can cause awful problems in even the most amazing musicians.

Explore the musical landscape

The truth is, making this shift of focus is not so difficult really. The blockages to acquiring these non perishable skills are entirely the result of the persistent mental distraction of decoding the notes and doing karaoke (the mechanics of the bike and the beautiful scenery!) If you want to analyse the score as data, then go ahead and study musical theory and analysis! If you want to passively watch the musical scenery without having to actually ride a path safely through it, then just go to a concert or put a record on! Playing fluently needs different attention.

You need to see the wholeness and symmetry that underpins the musical landscape as a constant, unchanging, familiar, beautiful and crystal clear underlying framework. Then you will be able to navigate any path you like through it, effortlessly and coherently. And because your skills are non perishable, you will enjoy exploring music for your whole life.

So when people ask “Does the PlayPianoFluently course really work?”, I give answers like, “It does if you actually do it!” or “It works for me!” I used to say that the last thing the world needed was another piano method! I felt that musical fluency as I experience it is built on a model or solid principles and that the course a student takes should be their own journey of discovery.

A tool box

It is the understanding and application of those principles with clear focus and consistent practice that is the key to success. But I realise that a well designed course is a vital tool for the student. However, It is only a tool box: or maybe a toy box. It is up to you to grasp the model, focus on it and practise maintaining that focus as you play with the materials. What you play is less important; it is what you focus on as you play that really matters. So go exploring!