This is the first of a series of interviews with working musicians. Eric Shechter is a keyboardist who gigs in Southern California.
Eric, did you learn to play classical and jazz simultaneously, or classical first and jazz later (as is often the case – it was with me)?
I learned classical music first, starting at age 5. My formal classical training ended at 18 when I graduated high school, and I rarely work on classical material now. I started learning jazz at age 11 in middle school jazz band, although I didn’t take it seriously until 14 when I entered high school jazz band. Learning technique and music theory through my classical training was helpful when I started learning jazz.
Did you study jazz in college? Privately? Who were your teacher(s)?
I have never officially studied jazz with a recurring one-on-one teacher and my college degree is in engineering. That being said, I have had many mentors throughout my time playing jazz in high school band in my hometown of Newbury Park, and gigging in both San Luis Obispo and San Diego.
What is the state of live performing in Southern California now? Have audiences returned to venues in numbers similar to pre-Covid times?
I think at this point things have mostly returned to normal. In San Diego, Covid restrictions were somewhat more relaxed compared to other major California cities so this may have played a role. I can’t speak to other regions of Southern California post-Covid since I’ve been located in San Diego since then, but there are a lot of opportunities for playing live music here.
One of my teachers described life as a professional musician as “wearing many hats,” i.e. it might include teaching, performing, arranging/composing, etc. How does that describe your career?
I think this is true, especially for my friends who are full-time musicians. I would say that almost every single one of them teaches. I work in Biotech to support myself, and I have a lot going on between my engineering and music careers. One ‘hat’ I think that is overlooked for musicians is the social hat – there’s a lot of networking involved in getting calls for gigs, especially if you’re new to town like I was. In a healthy scene there’s a lot of good players; you need to be liked to get called.
Do you teach piano? If so, do you have a focus as a teacher?
I have taught in the past, although these days I focus more on gigging. I do enjoy teaching though, and I try to provide the information I wish I had received as a younger student.
What is a status quo or unquestioned assumption in music teaching that you think might be worth reconsidering or turning upside down?
I think that a huge misconception in the teaching world is the focus on “systems” for learning – scales, techniques, rhythms, chord progressions, etc. I’m not saying that these aren’t important, but what I’m saying is that the focus should be on simply playing your instrument and using your ear first, and then using these “systems” to explain the music later. This is the most natural and non-artificial way to learn. For example, I don’t like that students are taught to use scales to improvise in jazz. I’d prefer that students were taught to transcribe and play simple licks taken from real recordings. Learning scales is still important but would be taught later.
How would you answer this question if posed by a beginning adult piano student: “How long does it take to learn the piano?”
This is a tough one because I wouldn’t want to discourage the student, but my outlook is that learning piano (or any instrument) should be considered nothing short of a life-long process. For me, there’s no end point, there’s no point in time where I’m going to consider myself complete. There’s unlimited areas to grow in music. At the same time, this may be overwhelming for a beginning student, so I would just say that in 1-2 years you’ll likely be good enough to say you’ve learned the piano, which I think is a reasonable estimate for most students. After those first couple years, you’ll have the basics and be able to focus on more advanced skills.
What are the top 3 things (principles, strategies, techniques) that new adult piano students should know about effective practicing?
First, you need to practice what you’re not good at, not what you’re good at. This is my biggest weakness and I continue to struggle with it. Don’t sit down and play the things you already know. If you’re avoiding something because it’s uncomfortable and difficult, work through it diligently and you’ll improve rapidly.
Next, record yourself. You won’t hear yourself the same while you’re playing because your brain is focused elsewhere. Things sound different when you listen back (usually it sounds much worse, but not always). This will help you identify weak points much more effectively.
Finally, make sure you are having fun. If certain songs are becoming a drag, just cut them from your repertoire. You don’t want to develop a negative relationship with practicing or with your instrument. Play music you love, and you’ll find motivation to put the hard work into your practice.
What are three solo keyboard compositions or recordings (in any genre) that you think every piano student should know (if not necessarily play)? Why?
I’d encourage everyone to listen to the music that resonates with you the most. If you love music, there’s times where you hear something and it just sticks in your mind forever. What I can do is provide three examples of solo piano recordings that have impacted me:
You may not even like these recordings and that’s ok. Cory and Brad are two of my favorite players so I had to include them. I really like the virtuosity and jazz harmony of the Kapustin etudes. There’s definitely a ton of reasons why each of these examples is amazing but at the end of the day, what matters is I connect with the music and enjoy listening.
What is your opinion about the myriad of apps and online self-study options for learning to play without a teacher? What aspects or levels of piano do you think can be self-learned via apps, online self-study courses etc.? What aspects of piano are better learned in private lessons with a good teacher?
I love the self-study options available! Your blog is a great example of this kind of resource. It’s amazing that in this day and age there’s options for everyone. My main resource is Youtube – I just slow down videos of my favorite players and try to emulate everything I hear.
A good teacher is valuable though because they can help you avoid mistakes, keep you accountable, and provide wisdom. If you have access to a good teacher that you like, I would recommend sticking with them because they do make things easier. The key word here is “good!”
Eric, thank you for your time and insights.
Eric Shechter has been playing piano since the age of 5. Hailing from Newbury Park, California, he developed into both an accomplished classical pianist and jazz keyboard player. Eric has combined his training with his love of jazz, hip-hop, and pop music to create a unique sound. Eric can be found gigging, performing, teaching, and writing in San Diego and across Southern California. He hopes to continue sharing his music with all audiences and develop himself further as a performer and entertainer. You can find his blog and music at https://ericplayskeys.com/.