Among my many students (most of whom are adults), some play exclusively classical music, some play exclusively pop and/or jazz, and many play both. In my previous post (Feb. 2011) entitled "Bridging the Great Divide," I discuss the benefits of playing multiple styles. I encourage that philosophy among my students and I practice it myself.
Here I'd like to elaborate on the benefits of learning to play from Fake Books (also sometimes called charts or lead sheets). For those of you unfamiliar with this: there is nothing fake about Fake Books. They are simply a method of writing out a piece of music (usually a song, but not always) where the melody is written in standard notation, and the harmony, or chords, are written in symbols. The player learns what these symbols mean and puts the two elements, melody and harmony, together. The chord symbols seen in the fake book give the basic information, the idea being that the player puts his or her own interpretation into the song by the arrangement made of those chords.
There are several benefits of incorporating this method of playing/learning into your skill set.
1. It is a great way to learn harmony and theory. Why learn about harmony from a dry book on the subject when you can learn it by playing music that is fun and beautiful? When you learn to read from chord symbols, you must learn how every type of chord is constructed. This means basic triads, 7th chords, 9th chords, even 11th and 13th chords (when you get more advanced). More importantly, you learn them not just mentally, but your hands learn to find them, fast, and to move smoothly from one to another. You learn first to play them in root position, and later in all possible inversions, and later in different types of arrangements, such as broken chords, and different "voicings" (how the chord tones are split between the hands). When you start to see and hear how chords progress, that is, move from one to another, you learn a great deal about musical structure. While this is not the entire body of what is called musical theory, it is, nevertheless, a huge component of it.
2. You can apply your understanding of chords to classical pieces. I find this skill so valuable, in learning pieces quickly, in memorizing, in accompanying (when you may have to sight-read a new piece and play the essential elements but not necessarily all the details). Virtually every piece of music in the classical world is based on chords (yes, even polyphonic music, which appears to be individual melody lines woven together, makes chords as the result of their melodies). For people who don't understand chords, any piece of music must just seem like a lot of random notes. When I play classical music I always know what chord I am on -- it has just become second nature and I barely have to think about it. When it is very complex, I take the time to analyze the chords and often write the symbol into the music. I can't stress enough how much easier it makes it to learn, and especially to memorize, a piece.
3. You are freed from the tyranny of the written note. I find it so surprising, and a bit sad, that so many pianists can only play something if they learned it from the written page where every single note was given to them. So many people who "play the piano" can't get through a simple song such as Happy Birthday if they didn't have written music to learn it. As you know from previous posts, I stress the importance of playing by ear, and that also means learning to harmonize songs. When you play from a fake book, it's true that it is still a written form, but the idea is that you learn to make your own arrangements, put your personal stamp on the song. This means a bit of improvising, playing that comes directly from your heart, mind and body. As we know from history, the great composers were all great improvisers. The improvisations of Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt and many others, are legendary. We need to incorporate some of that spontaneous outpouring in our playing. Fake books can help us do that.
4. It is fun, and perhaps that's the best reason of all! I recently gave a Valentine's Day concert where I played 28 wonderful songs about love, from such great composers/songwriters as George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rogers & Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, Lerner & Loewe, Randy Newman, and Joni Mitchell. Some I learned from written-out arrangements, some from Fake Books (so the arrangement was my own), and some were completely by ear. I had fun doing it and the audience loved hearing these familiar songs, even without their lyrics.
If the idea of playing from Fake Books is new to you, I urge you to give it a try. While it is possible to learn a great deal by reading about chords, it is best if you can find a teacher to help you through the process.