Reading the Black Dots
Everyone knows that playing classical music requires a pianist to read the "black dots" on the page-and for good reason. Composers of what is called concert music write all of the notes, dynamics, articulation marks and words of musical expression on a musical score. And that they should! Why? Because the goal of the composer is to create and write down (or use the computer) her musical ideas in such a way as to HELP pianists to express those ideas.
This makes perfect sense. I composed concert music for 16 years, first with a pencil and later with the computer. Once a piece was finished, I'd listen to a performance by an orchestra, a chamber ensemble or a choral group and see how close they got to expressing the music I composed.
What the Famous Composers Did
Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Ravel and so many others did the same. Performances might vary, but let's face it. Every time you hear the Moonlight Sonata, you recognize it. There is one thing that might surprise you though. All of these composers improvised (not in a jazz style, but in their own style of the period). That's how they were able to compose great works of music. They KNEW the chords.
The Student Who Was Tired of Written Arrangements of Songs
At the risk of repeating myself, I'll tell you about the student I had who bought 5 arrangements of the song Misty. She liked parts of each version, but not one of them satisfied her musical taste. That's when she came to me and said, "there must be a better way to play songs." And that there is: use the chord symbols to arrange a song YOUR way.
When I was in the band business playing in the Holiday Inn circuit, my group was expected to play songs off the radio i.e. the Top 40. We had electric piano, guitar and drums with the guitarist and drummer doing most of the singing. The goal of most groups was to "sound like the record". This requirement was not something we could achieve with the type and size of group we had. So we arranged the songs our own way. A friend of mine was in a group that added recorded tracks to the instruments to get closer to the "record".
The Song is the Record vs. The Song is the Song
Pulitzer Prize Winning Composer John Harbison once wrote, "today's pop songs are the record. Songs from the Great American Songbook are the "song". What he meant was that wonderful standards and show tunes can be played in any way you'd like BECAUSE the songs themselves have recognizable qualities. So WHY would you want to restrict yourself to playing a note-for-note arrangement of a great song when you can start with the chord symbols and create an interesting, expressive, professional sounding rendition of a song you know.
Here's What Happens When You Work from Chord Symbols
As an example, I took one of my old favorites, Norwegian Wood, by the Beatles and created an arrangement that uses 4 accompaniment styles. My rendition is one way to play this classic. You may want to give it a totally different treatment. That would be terrific. The main thing is that knowing and using the chord symbols can make all the difference!
Diana Mascari Performs Her Arrangement of Norwegian Wood
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Diana Mascari has taught piano to hundreds of adults and children for more than 40 years. She holds two Masters of Music degrees from New England Conservatory and taught keyboard harmony to music majors while pursuing doctoral studies at Boston University. Her work as music director for a multi-cultural Presbyterian Church has continued for four decades, and her jazz and classical compositions have been performed worldwide. Diana has been performing for more than 50 years. From solo jazz piano (her first love) to commercial groups touring the East Coast to leading her own jazz ensembles at many colleges and jazz clubs throughout New England. For questions or comments, please get in touch with me