The Next Step - Bradley Sowash and Scott Houston - hard copy

The Next Step - Bradley Sowash and Scott Houston - hard copy


Shows you how to add style beyond the basic chords and melody.

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How many times have you picked up a jazz piano educational book only to find content that was over your head by page three?

The Next Step is a fun and creative approach to piano playing in which increased knowledge of chords, scales and rhythms leads you to greater personal expression. How much previous experience do you need to benefit from this book? If you know how to read basic music notation and can construct a C, F and G chord, this book is for you.

I co-authored this book with my good friend, Scott Houston, host of the popular PBS-TV music education series “The Piano Guy,” the book is a practical guide for learning to play piano “off page.” Product Details:
Publisher: Houston Enterprises Press
Paperback with “stay open” coil binding
100 pages, 9 x 12 inches

With The Next Step, Bradley Sowash and co-author Scott Houston, a.k.a. The Piano Guy, set out to show how to begin with a song written in a fake book format and develop it into a full, original arrangement. They succeeded. 

Twenty-five dollars gets you your choice of a ninety-eight page spiral bound book or a CD. This review is based on the book.

The Next Step is intended for people who are ready to move up from the complete beginner level. You can start working with this book if you can read notes written in the treble clef. To really work your way through to making a full arrangement, you'll have to learn to read the bass clef, too.

Houston and Sowash use an informal, conversational style. Almost right away they let us know that, "You'll get the theory, but in a practical, 'show me how to use it' kind of way." They also emphasize that it's important to read and play through all the examples.

In the first two chapters, we learn that chords are built on scales, that we can build chords by "stacking thirds," that the I, IV, and V chords are the most important, that there are such things as seventh chords and slash chords, and that we can vary the sound of a chord by using an inversion. We learn to create inversions by simply moving the bottom note up to the top. Examples are shown in both dots-on-a-keyboard format and in standard notation. 

Formal theory is presented informally. In addition to constructing chords by stacking thirds, we also learn that they can be constructed using intervals, a method which the writers describe as fussier, but more accurate.

Then it's on to harmony. We learn that we can play harmony as chords, as single notes, or as bass patterns, including a "walking" bass, which tends to rise up toward the root of the next chord. The examples which use chords show simplified harmonies being played in the middle of the keyboard. But we do also learn how to play by using extended movement. For example, we learn that the first beat of a full waltz harmony will use two C notes, with the second being played an octave lower, then use three-note chords for beats two and three. 

The example songs are the usual suspects, such as When The Saints Go Marching In, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, and Amazing Grace. I suspect that these are used so often because they're no longer protected by copyright, but it's certainly true that their simple melodies make it easier to focus on the lessons being learned.

By the time we've worked through the first six chapters, we've also learned how to begin embellishing melody and harmony, how using "broken chords" in the harmony can help move a song forward, how to take our first steps toward improvising, and how to vary our playing by using chords in either left or right hand.

Things become even more interesting in chapter seven, How Chords Function. We learn that chords are more than just sounds and that, "they actually do things like creating tension to move the music forward or releasing to bring the music to rest." We also explore "substitute chords" and see how the V chord, played as a seventh, makes a "cadence" by being followed by a return to I chord, where the song ends.

Chapter nine, Putting It All Together, presents a complete arrangement by Bradley Sowash of Amazing Grace. Introduced in Chapter six, this song provided out first foray away from the key of C (it's here played in G). We're reminded to begin our own arrangements by making a skeletal one (just the melody and the chords we'll use) and choosing a style. Then we see Sowash's arrangement, which includes turnarounds, fills, and a second and more elaborate presentation of the melody. All elements of the arrangement are clearly marked. This in an invaluable learning resource.

No one resource can provide a blueprint for playing every song. Entire books have been written on every aspect that's presented here. But people who follow the authors' advice and work through all the examples will develop the frame of mind that should let them approach a fake book with confidence.

The only reservation I have about The Next Step concerns the suggested harmonies. A couple of them seem not completely appropriate for the example songs. For example an open chord, closed chord combination is introduced to accompany Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. The harmony itself is lovely, but to my ears does tend to overwhelm the melody. This is really a minor criticism, because showing how to begin improvising, how to make a skeletal arrangement, and how to construct a complete, original arrangement make this a great resource for everybody who wants to put their own feelings into the music they play.

When judging price it's always, Compared to what? In Northern California, where everything is over priced, $25 would get you a single, half-hour private lesson. I suspect that people who are moving up from the complete beginner level will discover that this is a resource from which they can learn for several months. - Piano World