7 Things NOT to Do for a Great Sound – You’ll Hear It

On this edition of You’ll Hear It, Peter and Adam take some inspiration from Christian McBride and list 7 mistakes to avoid in order to sound great.

AM: I’m Adam Maness.

PM: And I’m Peter Martin.

AM: You’re listening to the You’ll Hear It Podcast.

PM: Daily jazz advice coming at you.

AM: Coming at you from the pod cave at Open Studio headquarters, because we are brought to you by Open Studio. Go to openstudiojazz.com, check out our brand new platform. You checked it out yet?

PM: I’ve seen it, I’m familiar with it and I’ve checked it out, and I’m loving it. As McDonald’s would say, keep on frying. Um, yeah. No, it’s wonderful.

AM: Did you just tell McDonald’s to keep on frying?

PM: I mean, that’s what they do, right? It’s fried food man, french fries.

AM: Good gravy, good gravy.

PM: We have a little saying in the plant based community. Don’t be a, what do you call it? Junk food vegan. Like you can go to McDonald’s and eat french fries only and be plant based (hashtag plant based) but don’t do that, we don’t recommend.

AM: We have a saying in the keto community which is: two more quarter pounders, no bun.

PM: Two more quarter due massa. Good, so today we’re going negative a little bit but we’re going to flip it into a positive because we’re going to tell you seven things not to do for a good sound.

AM: Yeah, we were inspired by our friend Christian McBride’s video that he made for us called “Your Sound Is Your Signature,” Andrew can you put a link to “Your Sound Is Your Signature” Two Minute Jazz?

PM: That’s our award winning, multiple, hundred thousand, no we might be up to millions of views on Facebook and YouTube, people love it.

AM: It’s got quite a following and it’s really just the coolest thing to see. Chris, first of all he’s playing while he’s talking. He’s walking this killer bass line. And he’s talking about things not to do on the bass to get a good sound. Because the bass, notoriously people try all kinds of things to get his sound specifically.

PM: Exactly, he’s known for this.

AM: Because he has such a beautiful, big sound.

PM: Right and they’re always like, “Oh it must be the bass” but I’ve heard him play on a lot of different basses. I mean just like basses that were, we just did a gig in St. Lucia and they had like a bass from the island there that wasn’t actually horrible but it was like, he still sounded like the same, but the cool thing on that too is he’s talking about things not to do from a bass, for bass players and even when he does them he still kind of sounds good so he kind of contradicts himself a little bit.

AM: Yeah someone in one of the comments was like, step one, have massive hands, like Christian McBride I think that helps, right? But I thought, you know maybe this could be relevant to piano players as well. I mean I know it is because I see, and I don’t know about you, but sometimes I’ll see sort of intermediate level pianists who are doing things and I’m like, “Oh bro if you could just fix that, tweak that one thing, you would have so much more either control or just a better, rounder sound.”

PM: Yeah, I love that. I’m so glad that you came up with this topic today because I love the premise of it. The premise is needed and look, we’re talking about mostly pianists, a few of these things will apply to everybody though.

AM: Yeah, we are pianists.

PM: We are pianists, let’s be honest. But, pianists do not think about, we don’t think about, practice, concentrate, talk about our sound nearly enough. Like bass players are always talking about, “man did you hear this sound?”

AM: Totally.

PM: Like we’re always like, “man did you hear that voicing? Man did you hear that Herbie line, dude?” You know.

AM: You’re right. It’s underappreciated.

PM: Underappreciated.

AM: In the community.

PM: So I think that just thinking about what not to do is important because, and then we need to get on to some of the what to do but like a lot of these sort of technical challenges that have a direct contribution and corollary to our musicianship. Learning what not to do can really open up doors. That’s what I really learned from Christian and that video ’cause it’s like – no, tell me what to do. As soon as you stop doing some of those things, it’s like wow you actually have a good sound there. You’re doing things that are keeping your sound from coming out. And as pianists because it’s such an easy instrument to like physically just sit down and play a note or even play a triad. I mean think about it, you could teach anybody with hands to play a C triad in about 10 seconds. What other, how long would that take on a bass, to be able to play a C triad even? First of all you can’t really do it, well I mean you can but it’s very advanced, so there’s always this assumption that it’s easy to get a good sound. So let’s kick it off with number one. Can I take this one?

AM: You got it.

PM: Okay. Number one is don’t listen. Okay? Now this is a little confusing, so let me rephrase the topic here ’cause we’re going double negative. Seven things not to do for a good sound. So don’t don’t listen, so basically listen, number one.

AM: Yeah, listen, if you’re not listening to your sound especially as you practice, it’s not going to be good.

PM: I know and this seems easy and simple and funny but it’s true. I mean you have to listen and I like “practice,” what you said. We listen all the time but if you only wait until you’re performing on the greatest piano at Carnegie Hall to start listening, you’re not going to be able to get a good sound. So you better start listening at your crappy little Chickering at home.

AM: Yeah. And one thing we’ve been doing more of here at Open Studio, (openstudiojazz.com) is these guided practice routines. And in them we kind of set them up by saying, this is your opportunity to listen for your sound. And really that’s all you should be listening for when you’re doing the technical exercises.

PM: That’s right, simplify and isolate, definitely applies here.

AM: If you’re running scales, after three or four times you probably know all the notes and you probably are close to having the fingering pretty much by rote after three or four sessions, let’s say.

PM: You have it by rote because when you first started learning it you wrote it down, right?

AM: Okay.

PM: Okay.

AM: But if you’re an experienced (especially if you’re an experienced player who maybe knows already how to play scales) when you practice scales, the real purpose of that practice is to pay attention to your sound – you have to listen to how everything sounds. How even you are, how in control of the dynamics you are, how light is it, how heavy is it, how staccato, how legato, like you have to make these decisions and that is the time to work on it.

PM: And when you talk about practicing skills you want to make sure you are not, you want to be doing enough so that you do not feel like you’re a fish out of water when you’re practicing scales. Fish-out-of, bada-bing, I got jet lag, sorry.

AM: Oh my gosh, oh wow.

PM: It will get better, it will get better. I’m trying to get Andrew – nope, he’s not laughing, not laughing. Okay, so that was number one, what’s–

AM: He’s actively frowning, actually.

PM: He’s just totally distraught and bored. Okay, number two.

AM: Okay number two of things not to do for a good sound and that is use a ton of sustain.

PM: Can I clap for this?

AM: Yes.

PM: No, I’m not clapping for using a ton, I’m clapping for not using.

AM: Not using. Yeah if you don’t want to sound good, use a ton of sustain. I get this a lot anytime I take on any live student (which actually isn’t that much anymore) but whenever I do, it’s usually the first thing I have to say is like, why is your foot on the sustain pedal Why are you playing so much sustain on everything? Why does every phrase sound like it’s underwater, you know what I mean? The sustain pedal is used as an accentuation and–

PM: A crutch.

AM: It can be a crutch. No, but I mean if you want to get a really great sound, you need to develop a legit legato, and to develop a legit legato you have to learn how to keep your one finger down while moving to another
finger, and to do that you have to tie your foot to the piano bench. If that’s what you have to do, do it because I promise you you will get a better sound in just a couple of weeks if you practice without the sustain pedal.

PM: Things we have never said: “Wow, you have such a great sound and your overuse of the sustain pedal really contributed nicely to it.”

AM: It’s so true, if you are using the sustain pedal pretty much at all while you’re practicing, it’s not good.

PM: Things that I’ve never said also was like, “wow I listened back to that recording of myself. I wish I had used more sustain pedal.”

AM: Never.

PM: Never.

AM: Never

PM: All right.

AM: All right number three, this is number three of our list of things not to do for a good sound, and that is to get real excited and tighten up.

PM: So yeah when we get excited or nervous or anything that would cause tension, fearful but I think you’re talking about even in a positive way.

AM: No I think like a lot of people try to put energy in by tightening up or get eugh, you know stank face or whatever.

PM: “Stank face.”

AM: You know what I’m saying?

PM: Well stank face leads to good sound occasionally.

AM: I don’t know (mimicking)

PM: Yeah yeah

AM: You know what I mean?

PM: Yeah, exactly, so we want to really, and I think this is about you know, I mean look, when you get in to the flow of a gig and stuff, who knows what’s going to happen? But especially for when you’re practicing,
it’s a really good time to make sure that our physical skills are developed and those good habits are in place so that we’re putting ourselves in the best position to make a great sound because it’s a technical challenge. Like once you really start listening and stop using the pedal, I mean if you do number one and two, number three you’re going to have to do because when you listen and let go of that pedal, then you’re going to start to be exposed. You’re going to be like, ‘Woah,” and so if you tighten up and stuff that’s going to come out even more like, with the sustain pedal a lot of this can be covered up and you can be stank face and then tighten up and it’s going to sound —

AM: Well you’re not going to sound great though.

PM: No, you’re not going to sound great.

AM: And you know what? If you’re out there and you’re saying, “Well what about Keith Jarrett? What about Oscar
Peterson?” They are relaxed from about the shoulder down and you know how I can tell? Because they sound great.

PM: Exactly.

AM: Like if Oscar Peterson is doing his like, “ugh ugh ugh” thing that he kind of gets in to, whatever, I guarantee you that his hands and his wrists and his elbows and his shoulders are relaxed. He wouldn’t be able to do it without it, there’s no way. He would sound, he would tighten up.

PM: I wonder if we should change this to “Seven Things Not to Do for a Great Sound?”

AM: Oh, I don’t know.

PM: No no, I’m not trying to —

AM: No I’m doing it, right now.

PM: Well the other thing about that —

AM: I’m capitalizing every letter.

PM: Keith Jarrett and Oscar Peterson, the other thing is like, if you think that they’re tightened up and stuff when they’re playing and you want to do that, that’s fine. As soon as you sound as good as them in your own way then you can tighten up, no problem.

AM: Item number four is don’t use voicing. Not voicings, you want to use voicings.

PM: Yeah and again, we’re double negativing here so I’m confusing myself here —

AM: Don’t don’t use voicings.

PM: Yeah yeah. “The Seven Things Not to Do for a Great Sound.” Yeah, so by this we mean like, and I think that there’s a lot of different things – there’s voicings, there’s the voicing, voice leading and all this stuff, but in terms of voicing is like playing several notes at the same time and playing them all the same would be not using voicings, we want to voice out the certain melodies. And really next level on this is to be able to play each of the different notes with the different fingers in a different way. Different volume, different kind of sound, that’s what gives the piano just a beautiful complex sound. And we typically look at classical pianists and Horowitz, Vladimir, I be referring to, the Russian brother, you know, he, I think one of his great abilities, and look they’re playing classical music that’s written so they can kind of plan this out and practice it. But his ability to voice out with all of his different fingers, these beautiful lines all at the same time, it’s basically sounded like however many melodies and chords were going on, separate people were playing it in their own way but beautifully each one of them.

AM: Absolutely.

PM: That’s next level.

AM: Absolutely, and the easy way to practice this is let’s say you’re playing some kind of solo piano arrangement of whatever standard you want, just make the melody note that’s on top of your chords louder than what’s underneath them, that’s like level one, and then you can try to make that the loudest thing and maybe the bassline, the lowest note, the root, second loudest and then the chord in the middle third loudest. Then we’re getting in to more things, but man I’ll tell you what, if I’m on a really nice piano and I’m playing a D minor 11 chord and it’s kind of clustered in the middle, I’m bringing out that G all day long.

AM: That’s right, well plus when we want to voice, talking about voicing out the melody which is often at the top, sometimes in the middle, sometimes at the bottom, but if it’s at the top and you’re getting like a big thick D minor 11 or whatever is happening, if you’re not voicing out that melody and sublimating those other with a different kind of sound then that melody’s not going to be able to be heard and voiced out, especially if you start you know clobbering the poor old sustain pedal.

AM: Totally, you know what sound we’re talking about. It just sounds like there’s so many notes happening

PM: Sounds like hot doo-doo on a hot summer St. Louis sidewalk.

AM: But when you hear a great pianist who’s experienced at doing this it sounds like ice cream cone, that hot doo-doo has been turned in to a beautiful Ted Drewes frozen custard.

PM: Ooh I like it, we call it Doo-Doo Custard.

AM: No we don’t.

AM: Okay okay number five.

PM: But yet we digress.

AM: Number five, if you want to sound like total doo-doo, then you should be moving your wrists/elbows/shoulders a whole bunch.

PM: Right, right, right, lots of random and you know, the corollary for this with Christian Mcbride was, what did he call it, the —

AM: The chicken wing.

PM: The chicken wing. He’s like, “Don’t be doing the chicken wing when you’re all in and out, you know.” But it’s like economy of motion, not tight, but economy of motion so that all of the energy can be put in to the instrument to produce the great sound that we’re trying to do.

AM: Go look up, who am I thinking of? Oh, Peter Martin. Go look up YouTube videos of Peter Martin playing some fast eighth note passages and you’ll see just this beautiful, very still, hand wrist combination, really you’re not pronating, you’re not uh, what’s the other one?

PM: Prenating.

AM: Prenating.

PM: There’s a lot of prenatal care in my playing I can tell you.

AM: No but it’s all very even, all very relaxed and that is, I think that will tell you all you need to know. That you can get this big snap of a sound without having to really like lean in or roll or whatever kind of B-S that you might be doing.

PM: So if you want to think about like, a chicken running across, like a chicken, with the wings running across randomly, we don’t want that, but maybe a kitty cat, you know they have those great cat YouTube videos, just prancing elegantly. No? Okay, we don’t want that
either, okay let’s move on.

AM: Okay, number six.

PM: Number six. Um, okay, don’t do this if you want to have a great sound: practice at the same dynamic level all the time. Don’t do it, play, we need to —

AM: Nah man, I just like to stay at a nice mezzo forte.

PM: Oh god, mezzo forte, you’re killing me. So yeah, just because you can play with a great sound at mezzo forte, what happens when you need to like, you know, play with some phrasing, and bring out a line, go up and down, play quietly —

AM: Sounds like doo-doo on the ground.

PM: That’s right, and the technique that is required to play with a great sound at different volume levels at the piano is not just as easy as pushing harder, that’s like basic level, so they have to all be practiced, they have to be controlled, and it’s just as important as, think about trumpet players, think about saxophone players, or vocalists, how much time they spend at different volume levels trying to develop their sound and how different their technique is. It’s the same thing with the piano, different technique, but it’s actually just as challenging you know.

AM: And just as important. And again I think because there’s this myth that playing the piano is just like button pushing, you know, that we think we can get away with this, that if we know enough —

PM: I am a computer.

AM: Right, that if we gather enough information we’ll be good but that’s not how it works, at all, like you have to work on —

PM: Info in, equals sound out.

AM: And we get a lot of emails just like that, about like if I just acquire enough information, how I play it isn’t as important but it’s actually way more important than you’re giving credit for.

PM: Hells yeah.

AM: Learn how to play with dynamics and practice them, when you’re practicing scales, practice your scales at pianissimo, practice them as softly as you can get them, practice them as loudly as you can make them.

PM: That’s right.

AM: All that’s important.

PM: All right why don’t you give us number seven and then we actually do, I think we do have a bonus for the end of the episode but go ahead.

AM: Number seven is to comp for yourself without dynamics, so still in the same dynamic kick, kind of in the same realm as you were talking about voicing, but when you are comping for yourself, when you’re soloing or maybe even playing a melody and you’re comping for yourself at, I hear this all the time at a very loud level, you know what I mean? Learn how to comp at a different dynamic than what your melodic content is, if you are comping for someone, hopefully you’re not just throwing your hands at the keyboard as hard as you can like a brick and playing as loudly as you can. You have to learn how to control your left hand and make it a different dynamic level than what you’re trying to bring out, which is the melody. And it doesn’t always have to be like that, if you’re wanting to bring it out but make sure that’s your decision, that you have control over that and you’re not just doing it because you’re excited, or you know, and especially like if you’re building tension or building dynamically with your right hand, it doesn’t mean that your left hand has to go with you in that regard.

PM: No, absolutely not. Um, great, well we hope you enjoyed that, that was our Seven Things Not to Do for a Great Sound, so don’t get it twisted and do these seven things, do not do these things, am I getting that correctly?

AM: You are totally correct in that, sir.

PM: Okay, am I not not correct?

AM: You are, yes you are not incorrect.

PM: Good, got it, got it. All right, well what do we have to talk about today? Oh you know what I was thinking during this, actually would be nice, our sponsor, our official sponsor’s Open Studio and we have a new course actually for beginning, we say novice pianists but it’s really just for all, what we would say is kind of like an ultra beginner beginner beginner, to jazz —

AM: An ultra beginner beginner beginner?

PM: Yeah yeah maybe you, you know, have some good, great classical chops but you’re interested in jazz – we want to invite you over because this month we just launched it and we’ve had so many great folks from around the world, hundreds have signed up already and are enjoying Jump-Start Jazz which is kind of your, well our baby, but you —

AM: No it’s definitely, yeah.

PM: You know and the guided practice which could work out very nicely as you alluded to for working on your sound as well.

AM: Yeah, we do the guided practice, we talk a lot about working on your sound in the guided practice and those are practice routines, video practice routines where you’re practicing with me four times a week for seven weeks, and it sounds awful but it’s going to get you playing great, and we go over scales and tunes and voicings and all sorts of things in those practice routines. Then you have no excuse as to, “I don’t know what to practice” because I’m telling you, literally, “play this,” —

PM: Well they could have some excuses, let’s not be so dogmatic.

AM: I mean, we’re trying to take all the excuses away, but check it out, it’s been really popular man, we’ve sold a lot of these things, should have made it better.


AM: No I’m just kidding. No it’s great, and the cool thing about the Jazz Piano Jump-Start too is that we made it kind of You’ll Hear It style, like we’re just kind of uh, doing it like this, but at the piano and with a little more intent behind it and a workbook and transcriptions and practice routines and quizzes and a whole bunch of other features. Go to Jazz Piano Jump-Start, wait, go to —

PM: Open Studio Jazz —

AM: Wait, go to Amazon.com, no…

PM: They’re going to, um —

AM: openstudiojazz.com

PM: Yep, openstudiojazz.com Just go there and go to piano courses, you’ll see it, Jump-Start, Jazz Piano Jump-Start. Until tomorrow…

AM: Wait, we have our bonus.

PM: Oh we got to give our bonus, that’s right, what do we got?

AM: So the bonus is, this is something to do, if you want a great sound, something that you can do today to work on that is to, whenever you’re practicing, whether that’s scales or tunes, or anything, practice getting an even sound across all your fingers on both of your hands. I don’t want to hear your thumb is way heavier, I don’t want to hear your fourth finger in your left hand is way weaker —

PM: We will take a ruler to that hand if we hear that.

AM: The way to do this is simple: listen. Play a C major scale, and then listen to where the notes are weaker than the others and where they might be stronger than the others and then adjust, and be honest with yourself.

PM: Evenness is so important to a great sound

AM: Evenness is the most important. The control of the evenness is important. Play the C major scale, see what you can hear then play the B major scale, see what you can hear.

PM: Right, play the C major scale, see what you can hear, play the B major scale, be what you can hear, how about that?

AM: And until tomorrow…

PM: You’ll hear it.

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