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Part II Interview with Doug
December 23, 2008

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


As promised, here is Part II of the interview with Doug Hammer - pianist, composer, arranger and producer! Check out his website.

Doug Hammer's website

Interview with Doug Hammer - Part II

Debbie: If people want to learn popular piano, what is one piece of advice you would offer them in making that transition from classical?

Doug: What do you mean by popular piano?

Debbie: Jazz standards, broadway show tunes, or songs they hear on the radio. Where do they start? Iíve always said that you should get those chords down.

Doug: Yeah, if some of those songs are available in arrangements that are not in a fake book, where they have a piano part written out, that can be a good starting point Ė if itís well-arranged.

Debbie: I see, so they can analyze what the arranger is doing with that song.

Doug: Right. Thatís one way. Someone looks up ďAll the Things You AreĒ. Rather than just the fake book version of the chords and melody, they could find a simplified jazz arrangement already there. They can start with reading the notes. But the other thing is chords, chords, chords. C7b9Ö.. how many ways can you play that chord. If you are playing solo, how many ways can you play the bass and different inversions. I think that is the key, learning your voicings in all of these different inversions because voice-leading comes over time where you donít have to think.

Debbie: Would you say that practicing the chord progressions are important as well?

Doug: I would say, for jazz, yes. I Ė IV- V7-I, ii-V7-I. I-vi-ii-V7-I. There are a lot of standard chord progressions in jazz that get used a lot and so if you are able to fluidly play those chord progressions, then you are well on your way. With jazz, it can be frustrating at first. Itís like learning a new language. Your brain hurts and itís like, whatís that word? And youíre trying to conjugate verbs before you even speak it! Youíre operating in slow motion, thinking how are you going to play this chord and that chord? Itís slow and mechanical. Itís a hard process but if you just keep at it, it just becomes second nature over time. So with jazz, the rewards come later. With a pop piece or classical piece, the rewards come earlier.

Debbie: You accompany a lot of singers. How do you play differently when you accompany versus playing solo piano?

Doug: Itís getting out of the way. I am there to support. The number one thing when accompanying as opposed to just playing is listening. The key to that is just being sensitive to what singers are saying and not playing a bunch of notes while they are singing. In between their phrases is when you can fill. There are some great jazz pianists that are terrible accompanists. They donít know how to accompany. Itís a completely different art. Not to knock them at all but itís very different. One needs to support the singer and be with them at all times.

You also have to listen for timing. You need to listen to what they are doing with dynamics. Are they building that section? You may have rehearsed it but now they are performing live and they want to build that section even more. You need to build with them. They might be slowing down more than they did in rehearsal.

Debbie: You are following them.

Doug: Yes. That just takes time to build that skill set.

Debbie: Where do you find singers in general have the most difficulty?

Doug: Well, working with a lot of singers, what they think is important is not. They think they need to know all of the latin words. If itís a jazz tune, some people have a difficult time with rhythm. Snapping on two and four and counting it off may be hard for them. They may count it off faster or slower than what they really want. Having done a lot of open mics, I just ask them to sing a little of the song on their own and I get their tempo. Then we go from there. I think that one of the biggest issues is that the singers donít take charge. They are the ones who are driving the engine.

Debbie: Why donít they take charge?

Doug: They may be timid or cautious so they follow me, but it is the accompaniest who should follow them. So if we are doing a song and it is slower than what they wanted the song to be, they should pick the tempo up. I will follow you. You are not locked into that tempo for the whole song. I think some singers are afraid of when they come in, how long the intro is. If you are just starting out and you want a clear cue as to when you should come in, I would tell the singer to talk to their accompaniest about that. See if the accompaniest can do the same intro every time or give a clear musical cue so that pressure is off them. That can affect the whole song. Now they have started off well.

Debbie: So, letís switch gears. Tell us about your new CD. Itís called ďNoelĒ. It is a CD of Christmas songs and original songs.

Doug: One year ago I released my first CD called ďSolaceĒ which I had worked on off and on for a number of years. Right when I was releasing that, I was thinking it would be nice to do a Christmas CD. Obviously, as a pianist and accompaniest, playing a zillion Christmas songs over the years, I wanted to put my own mark on them with my own style and arrangements. I didnít want the songs to sound like shopping mall music Ė typical standard arrangements that weíve all heard over and over again.

Debbie: You donít have Feliz Navidad on that do you?

Doug: No! My Dad said ďDonít put ĎThe Little Drummer Boyí on itĒ!

Debbie: I guess everyone has their most and least favorite Christmas songs. You have quite a few songs on your CD.

Doug: What happened was, I approached the songs very improvisationally. I know these songs. I have them in my fingers. I donít need the music to play them. So what I would do is just sit in the studio and try it out. I didnít practice it and I didnít know what I was going to do. I hit record and I started to play. So most of that album was in- the- moment captured. What I am doing now is practicing and learning my improvisations for the CD release concert! Iím like ďwhat did I do?Ē

Debbie: So itís kind of the reverse order. Usually people practice and practice for their studio recording, get it just perfect and then they are fine for the live version. So now you really have to know your stuff.

Doug: Exactly. I also didnít know how long the songs were going to be because I didnít know how long I was going to stretch them out.

Click on this link to hear the popular song "Stand By Me" played by street musicians all over the world simultaneously.

"Stand By Me" around the world

Well, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! May music always bring you joy in life.


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