Today we’re talking with Bill Hilton, author of How to Really Play the Piano and the host of a hugely popular YouTube channel where over 120,000 people tune in to watch his video tutorials.
As always when we have a guest who specialises in teaching a particular instrument, this episode is packed with tips and insights not just for that instrument, but for your musicality in general. In particular, Bill has great wisdom when it comes to the mindset that adult learners need.
In this conversation we talk about:
- The missing pieces that hold pianists back from feeling creative and expressive on piano, and how to really learn to play
- How becoming an amateur singer made him a better piano teacher
- What defines “cocktail piano” and why this style is so popular and useful to learn
- The surprising advantages that can actually make it easier for adults and retirees to learn an instrument than children
Bill’s attitude and his teaching really cut right to the heart of what really matters in making music. We know you’re going to enjoy this conversation.
Listen to the episode:
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Christopher: Welcome to the show, Bill. Thank you for joining us today.
Bill: Thanks for having me, Christopher.
Christopher: I’d love to hear a bit about your musical background. We know that now you’re the host of a very popular YouTube channel, all about how to play the piano, but what did your early music education look like? Was piano your first instrument?
Bill: It was, and my early education was very traditional on the piano. I started piano lessons when I was eight years old. I had already actually learned a little how to read music. Like a lot of kids in the UK, I had learned recorder at primary school, so I went into my piano lessons at age eight knowing, you know, this Every Green Bus Drives Faster stuff, how to read treble clef, and that was it, and I kind of had the journey that kids, and boys especially, typically have when they start learning to play the piano, which was I sort of dived into it and then kind of got bored and after the first year, I was sort of slipping. I was — I had the arguments with my mum and dad about wanting to carry on, or whatever. But then I kind of hit lucky, because when I was twelve, purely by chance, purely on the back of a piece of a piece that I played in school concert, I was invited to join my school jazz band, and that kind of dragged me into the world of jazz piano, of thinking about, you know, chords and chord notation and all that kind of stuff that you don’t learn in classical piano lessons. So it was kind of a journey between two parallel paths, if you like. Does that make sense?
Christopher: Mm-hm. So did you continue with the classical then, once the interest in jazz picked up?
Bill: Yes. Yeah, absolutely. I continued on my classical lessons I think until I was sixteen or seventeen. I had a break. Then I went — when I when to university I did music as a minor subject at the university. My main subject was English Literature, but I carried on music as a minor subject so although — and then actually qualified as an English and music teacher so I’ve done quite a lot of the formal route of music education, if you like, but as I say, at the same time have always had, since I was eleven, twelve, thirteen, had this kind of the informal site going on, the jazz, and then later on the rock and the pop and the blues and so on.
So at a very early stage, for example, I was learning about things like improvisation and also I was getting — I think this is really important — I was getting experience of playing in front of people, you know, playing at gigs, because, you know, our band would go out and play gigs. So yeah, it was quite an unusual journey, one that really has continued throughout my life because I still do classical stuff every now and then. If you like, the two sides kind of — sometimes they fight with each other and sometimes they feed off each other.
Christopher: And through this were your teachers and your parents supportive of you juggling these two? Because I think a lot of the kids, they would switch from one to the other rather than try and maintain the interest in both.
Bill: I was extremely lucky in that my parents who were not musicians themselves have always been very good at saying, “Look, do whatever — as long as you’re working, as long as you’re doing your best we don’t care,” and I was lucky to have an excellent set of music teachers, both my piano teachers, my childhood piano teacher, my university piano teachers, my school music teacher and then the teachers who ran my various bands at school and the older students that, you know, obviously I associated with a lot I learned a lot of stuff from and everyone was very supportive and I didn’t get — I know some people do get this, but I didn’t get, “Oh, no, you shouldn’t be doing that. That’s a waste of time,” from, kind of, either end, if you like. In particular, I was, I could name any number of teachers who’ve been really really influential but in particular my school music teacher who was a guy called David Wright who’s still very much alive. He was also the organist of Boston Stump in Boston, Lincolnshire, where I’m from, and he inculcated in me from a very early age this idea that kind of, you know, all music is equal, you know, obviously some individual pieces are better than other individual pieces, but, you know, you can’t look down your nose at one style and venerate another style. You have to listen to a piece of music and judge it on its own terms and that attitude kind of rubbed off on me quite early because obviously when you’re a kid you develop your own loyalties to, you know, whichever band or whichever style of music you’re interested in, but having that kind of attitude drilled into me, you know, it doesn’t matter who’s done it, judge it as music, kind of smeared across the divide, if you like, between the two traditions that I was working in. So, really I was lucky. I was incredibly lucky in that.
Christopher: I think that’s such a valuable lesson and I have to confess it was probably only in my twenties that I came to that realization myself, you know, that it’s not that some genres are cooler or better than others and I, like yourself, I was lucky to have a bit of classical in my music education growing up so I’d never kind of felt like that was off limits or that that was the only option, but it certainly took me a lot of time and actually a lot of exploring my musicality to realize that there’s value in very genre, you know, and if you’re a good listener you can find value in almost any piece of music.
Bill: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Christopher: So how did you find those two strands developed you as a musician and how you thought about musicianship?
Bill: It was — I think it was quite a long while maturing. The kind of two, you know, mixed together at an early stage but it was quite a long time before they bore fruit in that I was kind of — I kind of had this musical split personality through my teens in that sometimes I would be doing the classical stuff and sometimes I would be doing the jazz stuff and very often never the twain would meet and what particularly, kind of started to bring them together was when I was sixteen or seventeen and I became interested in songwriting and composition because I thought it was cool, you know, it was a good way of, you know, sort of impressing the girls at parties, you know, “Listen to this song I’ve written, blah-blah-blah-blah-blah,” yeah, and so I think it was in the creativity when I was using my sort of harmonic knowledge, my kind of informal harmonic knowledge from jazz band and the pop groups and the rock bands I was in of bringing that to meet my ideas about classical structure and form and phrasing and melody and all of that stuff I was learning in piano and theory lessons. That’s kind of what brought them together, I think. So creativity was the spark, if you like.
Christopher: Hm. And apart from your piano focus, were you up to anything else in music that was helping you to explore that creativity?
Bill: Yeah, one or two things. So in my teens I learned a variety of other instruments and never became that great, so I played, you know, I had guitar lessons. I was okay. I have a funny — if you’ve ever seen me play the piano, you’ll notice it, but I have a funny bone structure in my arm which actually makes it quite difficult to play the guitar, but I did okay and I learned a few brass instruments and yeah, they kind of informed my understanding but it was all about piano. Later on, and actually, towards the end of my time at university and then as an adult, really, I also got into choral singing which has been another big strand of my musical life and which has really had quite a strong influence on me. Not that I’m very good, in fact, I’m a fairly ropey singer, actually, but I always get into choirs because I’m a tenor and tenors, as you may know, are in pretty short supply but that has had, hugely beyond what I would expect, had an influence on my musicianship and has, for example, helped me to improve my sight reading, helped me to improve my piano skills, purely through ear training.
One of the big things I — one of the things I make a big deal about in my tutorials on YouTube is this idea about using your ear, you know, people think there’s a split between playing the piano by ear or playing through music and actually there is not, because your ear informs everything you do. And a classic mistake of piano learners in particular is not to listen to the sound they’re making, which sounds ridiculous, because, you know, how can you not hear what you’re doing, but on the piano, the instrument makes the sound for us, so all you have to do is press the key and out the sound comes so it’s almost easy to focus so hard on what keys you’re pressing and in what order you’re in and whether you’ve got the right finger on them but you lose focus of the overall musical effect and that’s not a problem that affects singers, for example, because they have to listen to themselves, it’s not a problem that affects string players or brass players. Everyone who makes their own note generally isn’t affected by that but pianists in particular can really benefit from singing because it teaches you to kind of listen to music while you make it. Am I making sense there?
Bill: Does that ring bells with you?
Christopher: It does, and I think you’ve described the trap that a lot of pianists fall into, which is, kind of, becoming a piano playing robot, as it were.
Bill: Yes. Absolutely.
Christopher: I think that’s what brings them to Musical U is that they feel like they’ve got very good at the technique and they can play the right notes at the right time but they’re very conscious that something is missing and they don’t quite feel like they are expressing themselves in music.
Bill: Yes. Yeah. And I think an important part of that is that people are very hung up on the idea — and you maybe come across this with people coming to Musical U — people get very hung up on the idea that being a good musician is all about being able to do really flashy stuff on your instrument whereas what it is fundamentally about is having a musical idea or something you want to express and expressing it and you might express that in a really really simple way and you can have brilliantly performed wonderfully musical pieces of music that are dead simple and you can have things that don’t really work that are really complicated, you know, so purely being able to play all the notes really quickly or, you know, lots of complicated chords or, you know, loads of fancy scales, that’s great, but only in — it’s only great insofar as it serves your kind of overall aim, which is to, you know, have a musical impact on somebody, you know, your listener and again, it’s all about getting past the process.
And this is something that adult learners in particular do tend to focus on. There’s very much this idea of process and if I do this, this, this, this, and this, I will become a good piano player or a good guitar player or whatever, and, learning a musical instrument, yes, it’s about a process or whatever route you take through the process, but it’s also so much about developing yourself and developing your musicality, your understanding, your feeling for music because if you don’t have that, and you can have the best technique in the world and, kind of nothing will come out, you know. In some ways, that’s why I think it’s one of the reasons, apart from what are sort of, um, neuroscience reasons is one of the reasons why people who start learning as kids do have an advantage in that children, if you’ve ever taught them tend to be very open-minded. They don’t look at the process ahead and say, “What will that do for me?” They just accept it, you know providing you can get them to practice. So I think one of the things that adults can usefully learn, I think one of the essential skills almost is to look at things as if they were a child again and to discover that kind of childhood sense of wonder, that childhood sense of acceptance of things you don’t understand. You know, I have quite a few comments on the YouTube channel from saying, “Oh,” you know, “should you — is that chord G minor or is it a G at It’s like, well…
Christopher: You might have missed the point, there.
Bill: Yeah. You might have missed the point. Does it really matter, you know? Chord notation isn’t designed for that level of granularity. Often chords can be ambiguous. Is it a major seventh? Is it a sixth? And getting obsessed with those kind of details kind of misses the point of the end result. It’s a bit like getting too obsessed with gear. We’ve all come across the phenomenon of, you know, all the gear, no idea. You know, somebody’s got all the plug-ins on all the keyboards and all the kit but…
Christopher: Can’t do anything with it.
Bill: …can’t do anything with it, you know, to be brutal, and it’s the same sort of thing. So as I say, kind of rediscovering that inner child, if you like, I think is particularly — whatever age you are as an adult learner, you know, that kind of acceptance of, you know, this is the process. It kind of works — that sounds like a teacher making an argument for, you know, just listen to me, do what you’re told, and it isn’t. It’s very much about — it’s kind of a bit zen in some ways. Don’t worry about the process. Focus on what’s in front of you. Focus on your end goal and you’ll get there.
Christopher: I love the way you described that. I think a lot of adults have that strict dichotomy in mind where there are musicians who can just play anything by ear and they were born with it, and that’s that and there are musicians who don’t have talent and they have to just learn like a robot and what I love about your channel and the way you approach teaching is you’re filling in that middle ground where you’re showing actually, you know, you can be methodical and follow a thoughtful process but get to that kind of creative freedom in music making and it’s a spectrum. It’s not either/or.
Bill: Yeah. Absolutely. You do — you have to achieve a balance. Yes, a certain music theory of technical knowledge is needed but if you spend all of your time thinking, you know, when you’re playing, just for an example, “Oh, I’m playing this chord, now what scale can I play over it?” then you kind of overload your brain. Everything becomes so mechanical with the music, you know, either your faults are on the keyboard, or musically it doesn’t work whereas if you use your ear, as well, if you’re sort of, you know, aware of what notes are available to you, but then kind of have that internal melody going on, if you’d like, that you can follow and that you can pick out and that kind of sense of musical shaping and musical phrasing and as I keep saying, a musical end result that’s when you’re gonna achieve very very good stuff, even if your technical skills are not that advanced, you know, even — I come back to this again and again and again, but you don’t need to be — it’s kind of a paradox — you don’t need to be a great musician to be a great musician. You don’t need all that technical skill — it’s great if you can get it because that widens the stuff you can do, but you can have really profound, really moving, you know, creative experiences just with a few basic skills.
Christopher: Gotcha. Yeah. We’re working on our improvisation roadmap in Musical U at the moment. We’ve just published the first couple of modules, but it’s very much that spirit because I think improvisation is a great case in point where people either think it’s a gift or you need to be very intellectual and music theory-oriented about it and I love the way you’ve just described that, you know, actually it’s about, you know, using whatever technique you have but starting from your musical idea and can you bring what’s in your head out through the instrument.
Bill: Yeah. Absolutely. It’s just like painting, it’s, you know, if you’re Picasso or whatever, you have a vision and the technical skill, which is important, obviously, involves taking that vision from out of your head and putting it on the canvas but it’s no good having the technical skill without the vision, you know. And in music we do tend to have this — it’s kind of like, you know, the two cultures, in facilitate. It’s almost like science versus art in academia and stuff like that but it’s, you know, there’s classical culture and there’s the pop, jazz, rock, blues, folk culture and people do get stuck in them.
So I have a very good friend who’s head of music in secondary school who is an absolutely first-rate sight reader. You can put anything in front of him and he will sight read it and I will watch him do it and say, you know, “How on earth do you do that?” It seems like magic. I know it’s not magic, but it seems like magic and he will say to me, “Well, how do you do all that improvisation stuff? That seems like magic to me,” but, you know he knows it’s not magic and it’s different views of the instrument, different approaches, but you can kind of marry them together and it’s actually when you marry them that you achieve some of the most interesting stuff.
So you know, some of the great jazz pianists, Soska Peterson is a fine example, was J.S. Bach obsessive, you know, Peterson would play, you know, things like Bach’s French Suites and the big old baroque variations and stuff and there were interviews out there with Peterson talking about his relationship with J.S. Bach, who he saw as a sort of kindred spirit, a fellow improviser, just in a slightly different mold and that’s true, because in his day, that’s what Bach was best known for, for being an improviser but because he’s old and he’s dead and he wore a wig and he’s in a musical textbooks it’s like, you know, enormous formality, enormous respect, you know, because Peterson was kind of hanging out in jazz clubs and stuff. It’s almost like a different, you know, culturally we view those two people differently whereas in terms of the musical things they were doing, they were very much the same, yeah? So again, it’s kind of about bridging that divide, not just in the world of music but kind of in our own heads, especially if we are people who have had both the classical education and the, you know, the kind of, the experience in the world of pop and jazz and so on.
Christopher: So it sounds like from your background this combination of the classical, formal piano technique and the more free pop or jazz-inspired playing has really been a big influence on the pianist and the teacher you’ve become and it sounds like — I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it sounds like you weren’t, you know, the born gifted musician who came out of the womb playing Bach chorales in perfect…
Christopher: …perfect time.
Christopher: Do you think that’s influenced who you’ve become as a teacher, now?
Bill: Yes, totally. I am a reasonable piano player. Being — you’re probably, this’ll probably strike a chord with you, but being a musician is a bit like climbing a slope that slopes away from you, okay? So can stand at the bottom of the slope and see the guy above you who looks he’s at the top, but he can see the rest of the slope and he can see how far it is in front of him. So, you know, people who don’t play or are trying to play listen to me and say, “Oh, that’s amazing.” Now, I know it’s not amazing, because I can see the difference between me and the all those guys who are so much further on.
So, but as you say, it’s had a certain influence on my teaching and in some ways because what I do is educate, it’s been an advantage because I know what it’s like to struggle. I know what it’s like to find things difficult. This is, again, one of the reasons I like chorale singing because I’m not very good at it the kind of concept of pressure is that you know what it’s like to be a beginner. You know what it’s like to, you know, not quite have the music shaking your hands but, “Oh my word,” you know, “I’m two bars away from my entry. I don’t even know the note.” So you kind of get a sense, and when you can do that it’s so much easier, I think, to express to a learner how to view the problem.
Whereas, I think, I know, a lot of very, very naturally brilliant musicians — and they do exist — struggle to teach, and, you know, to go out and take a sporting matter for what, you know, John McEnroe doesn’t coach tennis and wouldn’t coach tennis. He has a tennis coach and his tennis coach himself is not a world-class piano player, you know — piano player? (Laughs) He’s not a world-class tennis player, but rather he’s someone who can look at a tennis player and say, “This is what you need to do,” and that’s kind of the difference, if you like. Often people who are really brilliant can’t imagine what it’s like to be in the situation of the learner and as a good teacher, you’ve got to put yourself in your student’s position and try to — I know it’s very difficult sometimes, but you’ve got to see, try to see the world from their point of view.
Christopher: That’s so important and I love that for you chorale singing was a way to kind of revisit that beginner’s mind and put yourself in that position, because I think it comes back a little bit to what you were talking about before where adult learners in particular can get very process-focused and very intellectual about it and I think that comes a bit from a defense mechanism that if I just follow the rules I won’t have to be exposed as incompetent, you know, because we don’t like to do things we’re not good at, you know, we’re comfortable in the stuff we know we can do and it takes guts to put yourself back in that position of, okay, I don’t know what I’m doing; it’s gonna take me some mistakes to figure out my way there.
Bill: Yeah. Defense mechanism is exactly the word I was gonna use, actually, exactly the expression I was gonna use. I think another way that kind of defense mechanism manifests itself is when adults start, you know, are confronted with the prospect of learning to read sheet music and you come across a lot of people who are learning pop or jazz or blues or whatever who are dismissive about sheet music and say, “You know, great musicians don’t, didn’t, you know, there are people out there, wonderfully talented musicians, who never read music,” and the example of Paul McCartney always comes up for some reason and I think probably he can read at least some, but that’s by the by, but what — you see, you only have to scratch the surface a little bit to see that what’s actually going on is really they’re a little bit nervous of it, yeah, and because it’s new and it’s like learning to read all over again, they think, you know, “I don’t want to put myself in the position of a five-year-old having to learn to read so therefore I will dismiss this skill as irrelevant,” whereas, you know, I think it’s an immensely important skill. It’s the most efficient way there is, you know, I mean, you know, if you’ve got that paper in front of you just jotting something down far more efficient. Then people talk about capturing metadata and recording ideas and stuff but believe me, you know, the manuscript, paper and a pencil and you can write things down much more easily.
So it’s about — if you can, overcoming the — again, it comes back to thinking like a child, not having the prejudices, not having the fears, not having the worries about, you know, what will people think of me, how I will I perform? Obviously, kids do have those, but when kids are in the moment, especially those nine-year-old beginners, they do just take things on trust. I haven’t talked — it’s been years and years and years, probably 20 years since I’ve taught a nine-year-old, but they’re much more open to experience and that is the sort of mindset you need to try and cultivate if you can, if you’re an adult beginner and even if you’re like, in your eighties, and, you know, I have people on the YouTube channel that watch my video who will say to me, you know, “Thanks so much for these, Bill. I’m just starting out to learn now when I’m 86,” and you think, “Good on, you,” because, you know, what you can learn. You might not, you know, maybe get the twenty-odd years of becoming a brilliant technician on the piano keyboard, but you can certainly learn enough to have meaningful musical experiences that deliver a meaningful musical performance.
So yeah, it’s all about for those guys in particular but for adults of all ages having that childlike attitude but also having the faith in yourself to carry on. You know, pretty regular problem, in fact, among older listeners, in particular. Older viewers are much more likely to say, “You know, I find it slower. It’s much harder work, blah-blah-blah. It’s gonna take me this long. How fast should I be going?” and they’re all legitimate worries because, as you may know, as an adult you learn more slowly than if you’re a child and to use a technical term, your brain is less plastic you have less neural plasticity, but people forget the second half of that which is yes, your brain is less plastic than a child’s but you can learn just as effectively as a child can. It just takes longer, yeah?
So the advantage you have as an adult is that, yes, things take you longer to learn but you should also be able to apply greater diligence to your learning process because you have more experience, more life experience of, you know, being rewarded as a result of being diligent in a task, if you can see what I mean. You have trained yourself to be diligent far more than an eight-year-old has, you know, eight-year-olds need more, kind of, external motivators. They need their mum to shout at them to do their piano practice or whatever.
So older learners should not underrate themselves, you know. I don’t think it, and so many do, you know, so many learners, adult learners, have this terrible inferiority complex about music and really, you know, they should — hats off to them even for trying to learn, really, you know, even thinking the decision to do it is a praiseworthy act, I think. So, you know, nobody should feel holed up about trying to learn a musical instrument.
Christopher: I 100% agree. Yeah. I think we’ve seen the same at Musical U. It’s predominantly attitude that matters, you know, they come in worrying, “Oh I don’t have a gift for music,” or “Oh, I’m — it’s too late. I can’t learn the physical skills,” or “My brain isn’t as quick as it was,” but the bottom line is you’ll go so much further faster with that, those drawbacks and the right attitude than a twenty-year-old who’s just kind of dilettanting their way through it and, you know, has the physical advantages of being young but actually doesn’t have the drive or the desire or the dedication to actually succeed in their music.
Bill: And those are the people who don’t succeed, typically and people who come in with that kind of dilettantish attitude of — yeah, and they don’t get fast progress or what they think is fast progress so they give up and I know those people exist because I’m one of them in kind of all of those spheres. (Laughs) You know what I mean.
So yeah, trying to learn about — I’ve been doing a lot of recording and stuff, like, and trying to improve my sound engineering skills and yeah, it’s — this is kind of fun. I like playing around with Logic and GarageBand and stuff and then actually, this is quite hard work — I’ll send it off to a sound engineer, you know, because I’m not getting the quick results and I know that if I stuck with it I would get quick results but there’s a kind of “Oh, you know, I haven’t got the time,” or “I’ve got to cook the dinner, got to do this, that, and the other.” The secret to success as an adult learner is just to make time every day to put your head down to be committed to that goal and it’s not — it’s not easy, because humans are not well-adapted, we’re not evolved to commit to really long-term goals so, you know, you have to keep — that’s why you have to enjoy what you’re doing, enjoy the journey, you know, don’t see it as a journey with a fixed goal because I’m sure you would agree when we hear as a musician or as a musical learner, “I’m still a learner, I’m still on a journey,” okay, the journey never ends basically. There’s always a way of learning something new or getting better so while you’re on that journey you might as well jolly well enjoy it and don’t worry if the milestones you’re expecting to reach don’t come when you think they will, because another thing that you see in all learners is that progress typically isn’t steady, yeah, it’s not linear. It comes in fits and starts and you can plug and plug and plug away at some of it for what feels like weeks or months and make no progress and then suddenly one day it will be, bang! There it is. And that’s how the human brain works. Eventually the circuit is built that you need and it goes into action, but, you know, so all practice will be rewarded if it is sufficiently rigorous, because that’s another, something else we can talk about, another failing. People don’t practice properly. If it’s sufficiently rigorous, it won’t just necessarily be rewarded in a gradual way.
Christopher: I think there were several important points that I would love to dig into and unpack and we might have to do a part two interview in the future to touch on some of these topics, but I think that message of daily practice is so important and I think that’s another secret superpower that the older learners have and, you know, I was surprised, at first, how many retirees were joining us at Musical U and coming to music for the first time in retirement and what I gradually realized was they have a huge advantage because they have the freedom of time and energy to do that daily practice and they’re not in a rush. They’re not, you know, cramming it in fifteen minutes after dropping the kids to school. They can, you know, really relax into it and enjoy the journey, like you said.
Bill: Absolutely, and they’ve learned how to be diligent over their lives. They’ve learned to endure frustration, if you like. Because, I mean, just building on what I was saying about practice, an important thing I often say in my YouTube tutorials, about practice is that it should be kind of frustrating. You know, if you just sat there playing through a piece and, you know, it’s all jolly good fun, then you’re not practicing. You’re performing, yeah? Practice is at its best when you’re really kind of all “All right, you know, this is difficult. Does this finger go there?” and, you know, if it really hurts it’s like lifting weights, or whatever. If it really really hurts, but if it’s painful, if it’s a struggle, that’s when your brain is being forced to adapt. If you find it easy your brain is just taking on autopilot, yeah?
So again, older learners, I think, have a greater capacity for mental suffering, if you like. You know.
Christopher: Mental effort, we could say.
Bill: Yeah. Mental effort, yeah. This is what puts off so many kids in particular, but they — it’s very hard work to start with, especially on the piano and stringed instrument, orchestral stringed instrument, and you seem not to get very many rewards quickly. Personally, I would — and, you know, I have many very good friends who are music teachers and I love them all to bits, but personally I would kind of redesign the whole childhood music education syllabus to accommodate some of the more rewarding stuff. Now, that’s not to say that I would make, I would put, sort of rock and roll on the ABRSM piano grade syllabus but I would encourage kids to learn more about improvisation and composition.
I think, you know, the day you learn being a, start being a musician is the day you start learning being a composer, or you should. Anyone can compose. And all of those things should be part of your musical education. One of the difficulties I have at the the minute is, kind of, breaking the cycle of education, if you like, because most of our music teachers are qualified in not a narrow, that’s unfair, but in one particular way of teaching music, yeah, that read the score, do the exams, do the aural tests and all the rest of it. But it would be good to educate kids, you know, to give them the kind of education that I got by accident, really, across a number of skills and genres that would enable them to — this sounds really kind of hippie-ish, and it’s not — enable them to kind of express their musicality at a much earlier age. Yes, the discipline is good, yes, the hard work is necessary, but you need, as a child, as an adult, to be able to be creative as well as doing the, the learning of scales and all the rest of it because it, you know, if you’re not being creative then what’s the point? You know?
Christopher: Yeah. I couldn’t agree more. I think an eight-year-old is gonna have a lot more fun doing a simple improvisation than perfectly playing the G major scale over two octaves for the umpteenth time.
Bill: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. There is benefit in learning to play the G major scale really smoothly and evenly and, you know, that child will reap those benefits further on but it’s not satisfying right there and then. It’s not gonna get them addicted to playing a musical instrument. So, you know, we kind of have to sugar the pill a little bit more, especially with kids, but as I say, with adults as well.
Christopher: Mm-hm. So on that note, then, you know, I think at this point in the conversation our listeners are gonna be clear that you come from a slightly different perspective on teaching music and you have a lot of insights and wisdom on how to do it differently and in a more enjoyable and rewarding way. You’ve written a how to learn piano book and I think in the beginning of this interview people might have wondered whether the world really needs another how to learn piano book but I think maybe the title of the book captures it well, which is How to Really Play the Piano. Can you tell us about that book, where it came from and what makes it different from your standard beginner piano book?
Bill: Sure, and I mean, the first thing to say is it’s not a book for absolute beginners. It — you need to read the arbitrary right-hand and left hand treble and bass clef to use it, but, you know, someone who’s done, you know, formal lessons, someone who’s done grade 2 or something will be fine. Or I’ve recently done a series of beginner’s videos on — it’s going on my YouTube channel to get people to the standard where they can use the book, but where it came from, I had the idea years and years and years and years ago, probably — hold on, what am I now? I’m 43. I probably had the idea when I was university 20 years ago but back in 2009 I was working in the advertising business and most of my — I was a freelancer — most of my clients were banks, financial institutions, and, of course, we had the banking crash and lots and lots of my work disappeared overnight.
So I had a bit of free time on my hands where I kind of rebuilt that business and thought, “You know, why don’t I try writing that book that I’ve been meaning to write for ages?” almost just to kind of get it off my chest and, you know, I self-published it and all that, as I do to this day. And what I wanted to do — it was kind of an itch that I had to scratch — was to — the subtitle of the book is The Stuff Your Teacher Never Taught You — is to pass on the stuff that I was lucky to learn in my break times and lunch times and whatever at school at jazz practice to those people initially who had had formal lessons and they were my target audience, all the people had never had a piano lesson in their life, buy it and enjoy it, but those are the people I’m thinking of and I was kind of annoyed at that stage that, you know, people were going through piano lessons and, yes, learning brilliant stuff but not learning some, you know, just basic things about chords and improvisation, how to read the lead sheet, how to read chord symbols, all of that sort of thing.
So I think what I say in the introduction is, you know, one of the things that would have helped me when I was a kid set in school jazz practices trying to work out chords and things would have been, you know, kind of a simple book of wisdom, if you like, just kind of told me, had written down all of the things that I needed to learn. So that was the book that I tried to write with How to Really Play the Piano and I never expected it to do very well and the YouTube channel came off the back of it, actually because I was, you know, I thought “Oh, yeah, I’ll put it on Amazon and a few people might buy it.” It was more about getting the thing off my chest and when I was writing it, especially some of the more technical stuff, some of the ideas about intervals, for example I thought, actually, you know, “Blimey, this sounds complicated, doesn’t it?” because that’s a feature of music theory. When you read it it sounds like absolutely insane rocket science, but when you actually put it to work on the keyboard it’s actually quite simple, you know, when you let your ears do the thinking.
So I thought, “Oh, I know, this YouTube thing has just come along. I think I’ve got an account. I’ll make a couple of videos. I can suspend my phone above the piano somehow just to explain it and then I can put the links in the book to the videos,” and that was that.
And what happened is the — and I — it was pure luck that this happened — I thought that people would buy the book and then go to the videos, but it was happening the other way around. People were finding the videos on YouTube and saying, “This book sounds cool. Where can I buy it?” So I thought, “Cool, make more videos strictly related to the book, promote the book a bit more,” but then the YouTube channel became the main event, as it were.
So the book sells very well. It’s the big income earner from the channel. It gets very good reviews, I’m pleased to say but it’s kind of an adjunct to the YouTube channel, which is the main thing. And yeah, so it keeps going.
I’m actually gradually working on a second edition because I — the first edition I wrote not exactly in a hurry but not expecting it to be quite as successful as it was and things were, kind of, life was a little bit stressful at the time as obviously the business had collapsed, and, you know, I was living in a small rainy house in the middle of Wales and stuff like that so I wrote quite a lot of it in the dark, actually because there was an electric problem in the house. I could plug my laptop in but I would have no light. Anyway, that’s another story.
And so there are not major mistakes in it but just things that, you know, little errors I want to correct and one or two other things I want to drop in, one or two examples I want to change a little bit so there’s gonna be a second edition coming out, I hope, in 2018. That might slip, so if you’re thinking about buying it don’t hold on for the second edition because I’ve got to get it done yet, but there will be a second edition at some point.
Christopher: And before that second edition can you give us some examples of what’s in that first edition? What can people learn in this book that they maybe would be missing out on in their lessons with a teacher?
Bill: So it’s — the very first thing it tries to inculcate, actually, throughout the whole book is a set of attitudes, you know, obviously there’s all this technical stuff in there, but the attitude, experiment, play around, don’t judge yourself, you know, there are no wrong notes, there are just some notes that sound better than others in certain contexts.
So it’s understanding those attitudes then straight on to begin with understands the — it explains the concept of chords and harmony as they apply in particular to jazz, pop, blues, all those kind of pop genres, which, as you all know, the technical reasons we won’t go into are harmonically slightly different from classical music, you know, it’s the difference between, you know, harmophony and polyphony and so on to stuff like that. So it explains the concept of chords, how chords work in a song, goes through all of the most important chords, the kind of chord workup charts and stuff. And then it kind of expands into learning improvisation and the root that the book takes into improvisation is teaching people twelve bar blues, yeah, because even if you don’t like twelve bar, it’s, I think, the easiest format to learn to get over the initial kind of mental barriers, if you like, because those are what they are. They’re mental barriers to start with.
So it takes you through learning improvisation through twelve bar blues and then there’s quite a lot of stuff about using lead sheets because a very common problem pianists in particular have — you go to a music shop and you buy a book of, like, pop songs or Broadway show tunes or whatever and what you get is a vocal line of chords over the top and a piano arrangement underneath which is almost always useless because it’s simplified, it’s not usually well written. Some are, but most aren’t and it just carries the tune rather than being an accompaniment. Yeah, so it’s for people who don’t want to sing, they just want to play the tune. So generally what professionals do and what capable amateurs do who understand it is get this kind of material and ignore the piano part and improvise their own from the lead sheet over the top of what is in effect the lead sheet, the melody and the chords. So again, it’s getting people to read piano vocal scores and learn how to read them as lead sheets, if you like.
Then there are kind of a lot of resources and stuff. So what you need updating now, what, again, one of the reasons for the second edition coming out hopefully this next year, but loads and loads of different things and to kind of — not necessarily to tell people everything that they need to know, because that would need a book about a thousand pages long, but more to kind of point them in the right direction, give them a little shove, if you see what I mean.
Christopher: I do, and, you know, I mentioned before my early music education was very much on the classical side. I was lucky enough to at least do jazz piano for a couple of years, which opened my mind a little bit but you’ve mentioned a few really meaty subjects there that I wish I had learned earlier in piano, particularly the idea of thinking in chords or looking at sheet music and realizing you can just pick out the important parts and ditch the rest, you know, and you can learn to have the musical understanding to do that in a sensible way. It’s not a superpower, it’s not a cheat, it’s not a cop-out it’s what real musicians do and it’s easy or not easy but it’s methodical and possible for you to learn.
Bill: I mean, if people were taught to play the piano as I think it should be played, there wouldn’t be a market for popular song sheet music, because no one would need it. Everyone would just work out the tune and work out the chords and apply it themselves according to, you know, fairly straightforward structures, you know, and that’s something about really playing — having played piano, really, after reading it maybe after watching some of my YouTube tutorials, but you shouldn’t really need to go out and buy sheet music. You know, if you want to play Beethoven, yeah, you need the sheet music, okay, but if you want to play, like, you know, Brittney Spears or whatever or quite a lot of the jazz tunes, then it will put you on the path to figuring out the melody, figuring out the chords, putting them together and seeing things as a musical whole with, kind of, again, with musical goals in mind rather than just which key to press when. Process-driven stuff.
Christopher: So you mentioned jazz there and one of your other books is Cocktail Piano, particularly, which I think is a style that listeners might have heard of by that name but they’ve certainly heard and I loved this book because you take what can seem like a very fuzzy and ill-defined kind of genre or style of playing and you break it down in a very clear way. How can you actually, you know, pick up a piece of sheet music or hear a melody and recreate that yourself and build a cocktail piano style arrangement of it? Can you tell us more about that, how it works?
Bill: Yeah so, I was quite, kind of, amazed actually. So just to define terms, I’ve got the piano here, I’ll play it, but cocktail piano is that very, kind of — Oh, and I might need to turn my volume up (plays) — there we go — cocktail is that very kind of chilled out, mellow kind of lounge music kind of style that you might have heard in pubs or at parties or at, kind of, weddings, things like that, lots of very, kind of jazzy chords, lots of major seventh and major ninth type of sounds, those kind of jazzy sounds but also very free and easy.
There isn’t usually a very strict tempo to cocktail and for many years when I was working, doing a lot of work as a piano player I would play this stuff at weddings, basically, and cocktail is great for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s very easy to listen to. That doesn’t mean it’s musicality unsophisticated because it is musically sophisticated, typically, but from performing pianist’s point of view you can string it out, yeah?
It’s very forgiving. You’re not gonna make many mistakes once you’ve got the hang of it and you can take a song and make it last for seven or eight minutes if you want to. So really the style has evolved as a way of, you know, this poor piano player sat in the corner of the cocktail party with a sore backside desperately thinking of what to play next, yeah? It sort of takes some of the language of jazz and strings it out and also does some really interesting stuff to fit in its environment.
So a lot of cocktail uses the high notes of the piano because they will cut through, cut background conversation much more effectively. So anyway I was kind of interested in cocktail and a lot of people think it’s Muzak or elevator music or whatever and it’s not really because some of it’s really lovely and so I did some YouTube videos on it. I’ve just done one fairly recently, actually, because it’s perennially popular and loads of people were into it. I, you know, I was amazed. I thought people would laugh me off of YouTube, you know, “What is this horrible cheesy rubbish you’re playing, Bill?” People absolutely love it, as I do. And so I thought, “I know. I’ll write a book,” and at the moment it’s only an ebook, An Introduction to Cocktail Piano. It’s just a PDF download, although I’m gonna adapt it to be a print book, as well. Slightly less easy because I did it in — well, for various reasons. I did it in landscape format and stuff like that but it is just an ebook at the moment and it goes through, as you say, the various techniques that you use to learn songs in the cocktail style and kind of adapt them and play them on the piano. And it’s kind of — I think the cocktail is kind of cool because as well as being fun in itself it’s a good way of developing your understanding of harmony and improvisation and stuff because it’s a very, very forgiving style to play because it’s so, kind of, you know, (plays) relaxed and chilled out and you can just kind of noodle around, yeah? If you make a mistake you can just stop and then, “Oh yeah, now what am I going to do? Oh yeah, I’ll do this.” Yeah? Because it’s so forgiving it can sound quite impressive quite quickly, you know, you can do lots of cool arpeggios and stuff. Look difficult, aren’t difficult once you, you know, kind of understood how they work and so you can use it as, kind of, you can use cocktail as a kind of sandbox, if you like, for learning about harmony, about improvisation but without the pressure of this (snaps) metronome beat going on behind you, you know and people really like it. It’s been a very popular book.
Christopher: Fantastic. So we’ve been talking about how you can be more creative and I love that cocktail piano sandbox as a way to kind of explore the options available to you and you touched on something earlier when we were talking about your own musical background which was that you got into songwriting. I believe you have a new project underway which is very exciting based around this songwriting extension of creativity, you know, it’s kind of one step further than learning to improvise creatively is to actually think in terms of a song structure and putting a final product together. Can you tell us about that?
Bill: Yeah so, I mean, as we were saying earlier, by the time this podcast goes live, probably these videos will be up on YouTube so people can go look at them right away but I’ve always been interested in songwriting. The — and I’ve written lots of different types of songs. I’ve written kind of pop style songs, I’ve written sort of jazz style songs. I’ve written songs for a lot of things like school shows, university shows, stuff like that and the song style that’s particularly deeply buried in my head is the kind of great American songbook style, you know, the verse instruction followed by the A-A-B-A structure, songs like “The Lady is a Tramp” and things like that, your classic Broadway melodies and I’ve wanted to talk about songwriting on my channel for awhile because it’s related to an idea from another book I have, a book of songs and maybe even a book about songwriting down the line.
So I thought what I would do on the channel was write a song from scratch rather than go and dig one out of the attic because I’ve got loads up there. Rather than dig one out of the attic, I thought write one. Keep all the scratty old bits of paper that I’ve written it on and then make a video about the creative process.
I’ve recorded the song with a brilliant singer I know called Mogana Mullin-Jones who’s actually sort of an opera singer. She’s a mezzo-soprano but we recorded the song. The song’s included in the video and then kind of take apart the creative process because even if you don’t want to be a songwriter you can learn an awful lot just from going through that process and make one or two other points on the way as well, so when you’re writing it’s really easy to go online and spend thousands of dollars, thousands of pounds on a kit, yeah? But when you’re writing a song, you know, the most sophisticated piece of technology that you need, really, is a pencil. That said, you can have all the plug-ins and all the fancy bits of software in the world but it comes back to that creativity.
What you need is the creativity and if you’ve got that then you don’t need anything much more sophisticated than a pen and pencil and various bits of free software, you know, to help you out. So that tutorial did that pretty well. There was a follow-up tutorial that was basically — I have to put together a piano accompaniment to the song so I included, I am going to include, get my tenses right here — the, you know, version of the song with the piano part stripped out so people can play along if they want to and color (phonetic) chords on the screen and stuff and it’s just one of the ways I want to, kind of, expand the channel. I want to see if there’s a hunger for this kind of thing because, again, it comes back to something I was saying earlier. I think the day you start being a musician is also the day that if you want you start being a composer or a songwriter because you don’t need to be a genius, you know, if you can hum a tune in the shower and just develop the very basic skills to pick out the piano and maybe jot it down you’re a composer just as much as Beethoven was, you know? You know, maybe not to the same level of complexity but you’re still doing that fundamental creative process, and that’s kind of the, just a new kind of trajectory I want to kind of send my viewers off on if I can and kind of see if they like it.
Christopher: Terrific. I’m so excited to see those tutorials and I definitely echo what you say about what, you know, being a songwriter or a composer doesn’t have to be this big intimidating thing that you’re taking on. It can be a very natural part of who you are as a musician just for the enjoyment of it and, you know, that concept of sandbox you mentioned before, I think it’s another great sandbox for exploring your musicality. Whether or not you ever record it and let other people hear it, just the process of songwriting is so valuable.
Bill: Yeah, absolutely, and again, it’s about, yes, understanding the process, understanding the technical skills but with a musical, with an artistic end result in mind. We’re often a bit scared of that word, artistic, but that’s what we’re doing. We’re creating art, you know, whether we are, you know, Justin Bieber or, you know, the London Symphony Orchestra, we are creating pieces of art and we should not be scared of thinking in terms of that artistic goal.
All the technical stuff, all the physical skills, all of the knowledge are just tools to get us to that goal, you know, they’re not ends in themselves. All the kits, you know, you can pay as much as you want for as much kit in the world, you know, you can spend thousands, but the end result must be that goal and I think, you know, because people do say, you know, “Should I buy this? Should I buy that?” I think one of the — and it sounds like I’m bigging you up here, but I am — one of the best things that you can buy is education, you know, music education, whether that is from, naturally for me, but whether that’s from me or from you guys or from a music teacher or whatever, you know, if you’re gonna spend money on learning how to play a musical instrument, learning the piano, then get a cheap old, you know, beaten up old piano and invest that money, if you can, in learning, whether that’s online, whether that’s with a teacher, you know, whatever.
A really interesting phenomenon in the past three years — I’m going slightly off topic here so feel free to cut me, is because pianos, now, especially, are so cheap that has driven the demand for the stuff you do and the stuff I do because people often can afford to and are happy to pay three, four hundred dollars for a playable piano but don’t want to commit to three thousand per year for the lessons, you know? But as far as you can, you know, if you have resources that you want to expend on music, focus on developing the most important resource of all, which is your own skill.
Christopher: Wonderful. I think this conversation has just been packed with really valuable and insightful messages for our listeners and I hope everyone listening has been paying careful attention because I think whether you’re a young learner or an adult, whether you play piano or not so many of Bill’s ideas here can have a huge impact on how much you enjoy and succeed in the process of learning music. Thank you again so much Bill for joining us today.
Bill: No problem at all. Pleasure. Really enjoyed it.
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