A student asked me in the forum to share a little about my background. So, here is a little bit about how I learned the piano, what I’ve learned as a teacher and why I almost quit the piano when I was a kid!
When I was a kid, I didn’t learn piano in the “normal” fashion. Instead of learning to read notes and rhythms, I learned chords and how to figure out songs mostly by ear. It wasn’t until I started band in 6th grade that I actually learned more about reading music. I’ll talk about this more later on, for now, let me tell you about my first teacher.
My first teacher was my dad, Ernie Myette Sr. I remember my dad quizzing me in the car: “Name the notes of a C Major scale.” Or, he’d ask questions like “what is the third of a G minor 7 chord?” I found myself getting pretty good at these questions and I learned a lot about chords, scales and music theory.
My dad used to carry with him note cards filled with all types of music theory, scales, modes and jazz piano ‘tips’. See, in those days, there not many books or videos that presented jazz piano in a clear and easy to understand fashion. The popular books at the time were the Jazz Improvisation series by John Mehegan. These were fantastic books…yet difficult to understand for both me…and my father.
So every day my dad and I would study music theory together, quizzing each other on scales, chords and all things jazz. I would sit at the piano and try to plunk out songs that I heard while trying desperately to find the “right sounding” chords to go with the melody. I would write my own songs and improvise at the piano constantly. But, I wasn’t completely satisfied.
At one point in my irregular lesson schedule with my dad, I told him I wanted to quit taking lessons. I don’t remember the reason I gave him, but I remember why I wanted to quit. I wanted to quit because I wasn’t learning songs! I would find myself in situations where people would learn that I could play piano and they would ask me: “Can you play something for me?” At which point I would play something like a bluesy improvisation or some song that I created and they would ask “Do you know anything I might know?” That’s when it hit me. I wanted to learn songs that other people knew as well!
I realized then, and teach to students now: learning your scales, chords and music theory are extremely important to your development as a pianist. However, if you can’t play something that someone can recognize, it’s kind of like speaking Chinese to someone who can’t speak the language. Yeah, sure, it sounds good, but they have no idea what you’re saying or if you are even saying anything at all!
I still deal with this to this day. I LOVE to play original music. My group, Katahdin’s Edge recorded 2 CDs of original music and toured around the US, but I still have a garage filled with CDs of great sounding original music…anyone interested?
The point is that as pianists, it feels good to play music for our enjoyment and for the enjoyment of others too. I love playing and listening to original music, but give me a good ‘ol standard played by a great pianists and I am equally in heaven. I also love playing music and seeing the enjoyment that the audience gets out of hearing you take a song they know to a different place.
So, back to how I learned to play the piano. As I said earlier, I learned a lot about chords and music theory. In fact, when I entered Berklee, I tested out of the first 2 years of music theory because I had such a solid understanding of it upon entering school. At that time, I was playing a variety of gigs with different bands and many solo piano gigs as well. I was able to open a fakebook and create and arrangement on the spot just by looking at the melody and the chords. This is due to in large part because of the music theory my dad taught me.
Up to this point, I didn’t read many piano arrangements of songs. I created my own arrangements of songs. I found this extremely satisfying because I could do pretty much anything I wanted to the song. I made the decisions about the style, the harmony, the accompaniment, rhythm and the form. However, after leaving school, I wanted to make a living in music. Playing gigs is great, but it is not easy to support yourself just playing gigs alone…especially jazz gigs. And, like many other musicians at that stage in life, I began my professional teaching career.
New to teaching, I studied educational books. I got trained in the Suzuki program, the Alexander Technique along and the Kodály Method. I also remembered back to my days as a beginning pianist and remembered two points:
1) I enjoyed mastering things quickly at the piano, and
2) I liked improvising and playing songs
I realized that I was not alone. My students that I was teaching wanted the same things as I once did as a young player. Now that I knew that my goals and my students goals were aligned, I needed to collect or create material for my students to practice. So I began to do some research and what I found was shocking.
When I started to analyze written piano arrangements, I noticed something very interesting; the written-out arrangement was not that different from what I would come up with on my own just by looking at the chords and melody. I naturally thought that I was missing something by creating my own piano arrangements. So, I was happy to find that what I played and what a written arrangement looked like wasn’t that different.
Unfortunately, many of these arrangements were too difficult for my students to learn, so I began to create my own system and my own arrangements. I figured, since my arrangements were on par with ones I saw written out, all I needed to do was teach my students the process I used for creating an arrangement.
As a teacher, this was a breakthrough for me and I took to this like a fish to water. Breaking down full arrangements into smaller, easy to follow steps was something that came naturally to me. I think this is why I like computer programming. I like seeing a big “process” and breaking it down into smaller sub processes.
Now that I knew how to break down these complicated arrangements into something that students of all levels could tackle, my teaching studio grew in number by word of mouth. In fact, I often got students from other teachers (sorry) because the student wanted to learn jazz piano, learn to improvise or just learn how to create their own arrangements. I think, if you’re like me, coming up with your own piano arrangement is a thousand times more satisfying than just reading it off a page.
So how did I do it? Well, without music theory, I would have never been able to create my own piano arrangements. But, I also knew that working solely on music theory almost made me quit the piano all together. I knew that I needed to mix the right amount of music theory with “quick results” to keep my students interested.
So by breaking down my process of creating piano arrangements for a song, I created a step-by-step approach which added or “stacked” theory components on to each rendition of an arrangement. So this became my process. Students would start with a strip-downed, simple arrangement and then build it up from there adding a little more complexity with each iteration. Simple, challenging and satisfying.
Recently, I coined my process Step-By-Step Standards. These concepts work on all types of songs though, not just standards. The results have been wonderful to watch. I’ve gotten videos and emails from students around the world who are now able to create an arrangement out of nothing more than a set of chords and a melody.
What makes me so happy is that I know that these students are creating these arrangements. There is nothing wrong with reading piano music, but when you know how to create that arrangement on your own, you will have a deeper appreciation and understanding for the music. This is what gets me, pardon the term, “jazzed” about being a teacher. Seeing students gain that deeper understanding of music.
Over this past summer I’ve been busy adding to our collection of easy arrangements using my step-by-step approach. I’m happy to announce that we are releasing these new lessons today.
Many of these lessons are perfect for the beginner and they include:
- Latin version of The Shadow Of Your Smile (challenging for a beginner, but doable!)
- Van Morrison’s Moondance
- The classic, What A Wonderful World
- and a beautiful standard In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning
Since I realize that some students want to work on improvisation and grooves, I also created an important lesson I call 2-5-1 Essentials. If you want to learn your 2-5-1’s, you’ll want to check out this lesson.
A student this summer hipped me to Dr. Ethel Caffie-Austin’s music so I created a lesson on Easy Gospel Bass techniques and Easy Gospel Basics.
For the intermediate and advanced level students, I created two lessons that I’ve been wanting to add to the collection for a while. Essential Scale Tricks is a lesson that shows you techniques that I use in my playing every day to make improvising over chord progressions easier. And, finally, for those players looking for a more modern sound, the Advanced Pentatonics lesson details pentatonic techniques that I have learned over the years.
I’m happy that there are now many more opportunities in our catalog for beginners.
I hope that you enjoyed looking (laughing?) at the old pictures of me and reading a bit about my history as a young player and teacher. I am grateful for all of the students that I have the pleasure of hearing from, interacting with and learning from on a daily basis.
I look forward to hearing from you and as I say in the lesson…”I’ll see you in the next lesson!”
Great story, Willie.
Hi I enjoyed your story and at the same time I’m jealious. I’ve always been a musically Inclinded person, learned a lot of things by ear. Took two class in guitar and learned how to read music. So I’m more frustrated then ever now, still can’t play one song on the piano or guitar, I want to play my beautiful keyboard and make sound beautiful sounds. I e purchased. Numerious program out on the net that guarantee you will play, and needless to say I still can’t play anything. Your program sounds a amazing but I am a college student a quite frankly topped out hoping the last one I bought would do it. So as much as I would lo e to believe you about the ease of your lessons. I can’t afford to buy it. I hope and pray someone gives me a miracle and some free lessons, as I know these online lessons are time consuming for the writer/Instuctor. But maybe you can recommend a instructor/lessons I can use to assist me as a beginner, Because that’s all I am after all my effort and time spent. Music relives stress for me. I’m in need of some much needed stress relieving. Any hel
Or suggestions? Signed desperately wanting to play.
Hey Sheryl, thanks for your post. I’m glad that you mentioned how many places on the net guarantee that you’ll learn to play. You probably also noticed that I never say that! It is really up to each and every student to work to their ability to get better and learn. I’m still learning everyday! As far as the membership and costs, I know that it might be expensive for your region. I’m sorry to hear that. Our Bronze Membership is the lowest cost membership at $15 per month. This would be a great place to start and give you enough to work with on a monthly basis. We are also going to be doing a big sale at Black Friday (Nov. 23rd) so keep an eye out for that sale. It is our biggest sale of the year. Goog luck to you and many musical blessings.
Great info Willie. My main goal has been to learn new songs and “perfect” them, if such a thing is possible. I dont know how to make my own arrangements from a lead sheet and end up just adding a blues scale for endings. In other words, how to improvise remaind a puzzle.
I have a good background in classical music(several yrs of instructions taken), ragtime, some blues , pops, but mostly reading music. Have a hard time remembering pieces, even by recognizing harmony structure etc. Took a few months lessons from a popular entertainment musician about 2 yrs ago. He brought me into lead sheets, and I downloaded a large variety of lead sheets from wikifonia, trsnaposing into a few keys so I could remember the chords in each key better. This has worked out fairly well. I still play regular piano sheet music, oldies, and other things. My problem still is taking a melody line , using proper chords on my own. Am working with seventh, major/minor, ninth, eleventh. That is where I am , I am enjoying, but would like to get better in impromptu as you described, like: Horst can you play ….. for me?
Wonderful stuff Willie,
I am a fairly recent student of yours and am currently really enjoying your ‘My Romance’,’Wave’ and ‘In a Sentimental Mood’ DVD’s.I think this is a fantastic way of learning piano pieces from an excellent teacher like yourself.
After nearly 25 years of playing,for the first time last week my wife passed comment on my playing ‘what is that you’re playing,it sounds really nice!’
Thanks Willie and keep up the good work.
Thanks you your interesting story. I fall in love with jazz at my age of 16 and have started learning 18 and playing and earning money with jazz piano at 20. Am I genius? No way. But there was not many people who can play jazz nor popular piano. One reason was that there was a myth that playing jazz piano won’t do any good for classical piano playing. 50 years later, I still regret that I should have taken up jazz pianist for my life time carrier. Yeah, I am still in love with it.
Wow….so lucky, you have a musician father, I’ve learned piano since age over33 years old, hehe….thought Now I am a father too ..playing in church choir and at least my kids like music too~ , keep dream on ~ and Thanks for your generosity to tell this good story. ~
Nice article, Willie. I’ve learned so much from the many videos I have purchased from you.
My questions, I do not own a piano. I own an
Roland Atalier organ.
Are your lessons compatible to playing the organ?
Willie, I could agree about the part where you spoke about playing something that your audience would understand. I have quit playing the piano since quite a few years now. But I can vividly remember that I was one of the brightest piano players during my childhood. However, my dad and guests would come up to me and say play some songs or some hindi music(basically Indian). I used to kinda get nervous, cause I was completely into western classical. However, over the years I realized having a strong theoretical background enables you to play to any genre of music later on.
I miss music and have often thought of buying myself an acoustic upright piano in future and start practicing. Thanks for the great article. Very refreshing 🙂
If there are other aspiring keyboard players like me—I consider myself an experiment to see how much can be accomplished by a person with no innate musical gift and who can’t sight read—I recommend reading the book “Guitar Zero” by Gary Marcus. It is also must read for music teachers. I have found your website to be the best I’ve found. If my great local teacher ever goes on the road or beces unavailable, I will be a subscriber.
Thank heavens you didn’t quit piano playing and teaching!!
Interesting background piece.
Klaas, Pearl Beach, Australia.
Dear Willie reading your wonderful story was a breath of fresh air. How I wish I was in America to be taught by you. When I read how you teach and your wonderful attitude and piano skills; I wish here in London England we had such a master at teaching. I regret I could not on day one continue to study via your initial courses; which is to my loss.I am deeply attached to Jamey Abersold’s study books. I also appreciate your e mails of special motivating ideas. I also find in your story many things similar to your self. I send my best wishes to you and your family and thank you for always keeping me informed.
Yours very sincerely Barron Mendelssohn 6 Kings Keep London SW15 6 RA 07947 461 987 mobile
Thanks Willie for giving ‘loose end’ musicians such as myself a sense of purpose and focus. You truly are an inspiration.
Thank you for this very personal letter and the wonderful photographs, I really liked both very much. The experience you made as a youngster – making your own arrangements beeing much more satisfying than playing a written one – I’m just gaining it as a man in his 70ties – thanks to your excellent lessons! I would very much like to have this experience extended to improvisation, though, so I’m eagerly awaiting your next lessons in the field! Sincerely, Juergen
On giving up on the piano I have a rather nice story to tell. A friend of mine was an electronics designer and a very able amateur jazz pianist. He could only after much persuasion be encouraged to play and one Sunday in a pub was persuaded to play when the regular pianist became ill. He was such a success that the owner gave him a regular spot and he began to develope something of a following which increased the pub turnover so everyone was happy. Then came the day that as he was reaching his high spot in the performance, in walked a customer who announced loudly that Christine Keeler, the “woman of the night” who was currently at the heart of the resignation of a British government minister, was in the pub down the road. My friend said the place emptied in minutes and he began to realise that good though his playing might be, sadly it would never compete with illicit “scandal” and he went back to playing for friends only. Areas in “quotes” edited to be more family-friendly.
Dear Sir, At 81 years old I regret not being more serious at studying more and playing less. I started with the organ for about 22 yrs and after Katrina I lost it and purchased an 88key Casio. “Bottom Line”. I am a frustrated would like to know it all, piano player who knows just enough to know I know too little. I really enjoy the incredible cord sounds you achieve, and would love to know how to do the same. Do to my age, I feel I would be kidding my self to engage in a comprehensive study. I did wish to tell you that you are amazingly gifted and I do so enjoy your short email segments that you send out. Thanks.
We’re so happy to hear that you enjoy Willie’s articles! Thank you so much for keeping connected.
Willie, I enjoyed reading your bio on this, and I could really relate to a number of points you presented. What’s really great is how you’re able to take your musical gift and meld it with the technology of today to bring it to a “world wide” audience. Keep up the good work!
I retired this year and playing the piano has been my dream for years. I felt you wrote the story for me as I have not been on line for some time due to a move and a longer trip abroad. I have not given up yet, although my ambition levels appear to exceed my skills.
What appealed to me in your lessons was the combination of theory and applying it to known pieces of music. The breaking down of the music in different parts is also great. What frustrates me is that something that appears so simple is so hard to get the fluidity into. I guess one has to reach a certain level of speed and then be able to expand ones repertoire.
I have not given up yet.
Great story! Thanks a lot for your wonderful lessons and your wish to help people become happy in short time.
Very interesting story and you was very handsome boy.
Juat want to play simple nursery songs to my grandchildren. I can still hear them in my head the way my father played them on the squeezebox, but I can,t manage to bring them to life , exct by singing croakily. Inga.
Thank you so much for this sharing.
you are a great source of inspiration
Thanks for the story Willie. I am a college student in India studying music and reading your story has been very inspiring be. Thanks a lot.
Thanks for the story Willie. I am a college student in India studying music and your story is really inspiring. Thanks a lot.
Willie, your lessons are what brought me back to the piano after a 12year hiatus, and I’m finding that I practice daily and look forward to my practice time now, whereas previously it was a chore that I had to get through (and which I only did once or twice a week!).
As a result, I’m learning songs quickly and able to impress my family and friends, and isn’t that what all pianists want? 😉
No doubt Willie….your way or teaching is very…very clear….thank you for sharing all this knowledge with us…..I’ve learned a lot of things…..for example…quartals
Thanks Willie. I learned the classic way. My mother was a music teacher and it all looked so easy until I started learning. But I hated practice – cricket and footy in the street were far more interesting than piano practice! So after 6 years of Baa Baa Black Sheep, I said that’s enough.
Now at the ripe old age of 71, I regret what I did. I should have continued on through the pain of practice because I now know the moment would have come when I understood. So at 60 years of age I started all over again and I have made great improvement – most recently because of your DVDs.
BUT I’m not yet at that point of being free of sheet music. I love your arrangements and I have your series on improvisation but I haven”t been able to put them together yet. What I have done is go back over some of my earlier DVDs and work through them with you. That has been a great help and I have decided I will continue doing that with all the other music of yours I have.
The Blues is still a mystery to me so I’m going back over that and I will work on it until I get some level of comfort with it.
That’s the great thing about your DVDs – if you don’t get it the first time you just put the DVD on again and keep going over it until you do get it. And your style is so relaxed you can spend as much time as you like enjoying it.
So you keep doing what you’re doing and I’ll keep buying until the day arrives when I can fly on my own.
Thank you for your story.
I have had five years of classical piano lessons but there was nothing creative about that, it was only reading music from a paper and no jazz chords at all.
Two years ago, after twenty years, I started playing the piano again and last year I discoverd your lessons. In ons year I learned all jazz chords I longed for and I keep on learning so much. I never had so much pleasure in playing as I do now.
Your lessons are clear and complete. You are a great teacher, thank you for your creativity.
Kind regards from The Netherlands.
Hello Willie, I happy that you shared a little of yourself with your students. It’s a wonderful story. You might not believe this, but just last night I was working on one of your lessons (scales) and then I got to thinking that although I know that music theory is essential to knowing what makes music tick, I realized, as you mentioned in your story, that If someone was to ask me to play something familiar, I would be hard-pressed to do so. So I made a decision to at least learn one song every other week. I just love the way you break down each song and gives us a good understanding of what’s going on. I know your job is very demanding and where you find time to keep us current on all your efforts is beyond me, but I greatly appreciate it. There’s no other website like yours. Thank you Willie
hi willie, great story, i’m from buenos aires, argentina. I’m 19 and i’ve been learning english for so many years but it was not till this website that i realized how glad i am of being able to understand the language.
When i was 6 my parents bought me a piano and sice then i’ve been playing night and day, and this site keeps me company and helps me improve a lot. Hope one day i’ll became a great musician. Thanks again, vale.
Thank you for the hard-works and even I could really fulfill my piano thirst since a kid, even I am not a native English speaker (I’m Chinese ) ^^ God bless you ~