thoughts on solo piano
Updated: Oct 1
I have been doing a lot of solo playing lately, and the reason I’ve been doing this is that it gives a pianist an “unbeatable challenge” in their practice. A pianist has immediate access to a great amount of musical language that comes harder to many other instruments. One of the effects of practicing solo piano is to open pandora’s box in a way. When faced with the challenge of having an expansive albeit almost crippling number of options and having to make something of it, one puts themself in a position to know what they are "made of" musically. When that happens, playing in a group setting is put in a much more manageable context. But easier said than done...
The main challenge of solo paying is really knowing how much to plan and how much to leave to interpretation. When challenged to play solo while leading a group, it’s not so hard, but when challenged to prepare an entire album of solo works, it’s a whole different thing entirely. All of your coxswain-like energy from riding on the efforts of your bandmates has dissipated into the abysmal “river of ideas" like the hudson on a sub 10ºF February day, and you’re forced to grapple with your own problematic existence. Your confidence in what you know how to do often gets shattered. But when you do come up with something, it is very rewarding, and you really feel like you know your craft. I would personally attend any musician’s solo gig for this reason. You can take me up on that if you read this post; tell me about your gig and I’ll come by!
From attempting to play a full album of solo works these last 2 years and some change, I can tell you that it’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do musically. When you’re in front of god, the devil, cthulhu, whatever you want to call him/it and the camera is rolling, you’ve got a lot less to say for yourself without a wingman. The more I've attempted it, the more it has turned into a long-winded process of intricate fine-tuning, one that never seems to end.
This first tune I created my "solo symphony" on was “Moonlight in Vermont”. The beauty of the tune is an effect of stillness and solitude and there’s a restfulness of being immersed in nature written within the lyrics. Growing up in California, I had a chance to be in nature on many occasions, and just like the lyrics suggest I am a fan of skiing; it’s probably one of the most exhilarating things to do. Also, what I love about being in nature, whenever I’m there, is the ability to tap into the inner “wild man” within us. To really let my self-awareness come to light. There is a sense of peace that comes with being in nature, one that I gained during high school while going on intense 1 or 2 week backpacking trips during the summer. And there is also a “wildness” that we tap into, that sort of lets us express ourselves in a completely new fashion. We have to account for much more of our everyday experience when we’re in the wild and it’s just like that when playing solo piano on a tune. If you aren’t keenly in tune with every beat of every measure while also handling the melody and harmony, your performance of the song will "die".
I encourage anyone that plays any instrument to give solo playing in public a try if they haven’t already. Putting one's sense of security and band performing in jeopardy allows us to tap into the “wild side” of ourselves. One can discover a new challenge in music and tap into a completely different freedom that may never before have been comprehended.