Jessica Williams, jazz pianist, composer


Approaching the Piano

Currents + | -


About playing piano . . . when I play, sometimes I hum, and sometimes I rock, or I move my upper body in circles, but in which direction, clockwise or counter-clockwise, I've never been able to tell. Maybe someone could tell me.

Changes 2008, 2013 [bracketed]

my chair

Above, my piano chair - [no more sitting low after my back collapsed, JW, 2013]

There is a spot I look at a lot, a spot off to my left and down towards the floor, and it seems to take me out of myself and put me in a trance. I read about something similar in a book by Carlos Castaneda, but I don't remember much about it, except it was to shift the observer into the second attention, a concept I fully understand and endorse.


Above, Gould sitting low

The more I watch Glenn Gould, the more I realize how much I have in common with him when it comes to my present playing style. The video above of me was made long before I ever saw or heard Gould play. I see a lot of similarities in it, though. The economy of motion, the deep concentration, and the hunching posture.

[Bad bad bad JW 2013]

Back then, I sat on a piano bench. Now I sit on a chair with a back. The chair stands at [16 inches off the ground].

I could not ever use a bench or stool again.

The chair back is essential for my technique, and the lower height enables such precision and dexterity and speed that I can't even play a piece on a regular bench anymore. It has affected my Music immensely, in a very positive way, and has freed me of so many technical restrictions that I feel as if I can do just about anything.

It is the single biggest and best thing that I have ever done to improve my piano playing. [Ha!]

JWThe other thing is to remove the fall-board when I play (and, of course, the music stand, but I have been doing that for many years to gain easy access to the piano's strings) and that gives my fingers more room to move about, not just from side to side, but inwards toward the key's fulcrum.

The piano's tone changes if I play closer in toward the fulcrum, so it's another way to change the sound and get more color out of the instrument.

[Also, after removing the music stand, if I use the lid open at full stick, I "close the flap"; that is, I fold the top out and not over, so that the piano appears longer and the sound is directed downward, on top of me. Be careful when standing abrubtly not to bang your head or face on the piano's now larger "top". Not good practices for 9-ft pianos]

I use all three pedals, and the middle pedal is as important as the sustain pedal is.

The soft pedal is essential. Sometimes I think the piano would have been better made (for me, at least) to have two strings (not three) in the treble and upper range. The tuning is better with the soft pedal down (remember, the soft pedal mutes one string and plays only the two remaining, by shifting the entire key assembly up a notch) and so is the tone. But the volume is diminished.

And that's a "sticking point" with me. Everybody wants the lid open, full-stick, because it looks better. I think that sometimes, most times, the piano sounds better closed. [If it's too loud, it negatively impacts your use of dynamics.]

So, at home, I keep the lid closed most of the time, with the fall board off, and the music stand off (if you read, how can you listen???), and the chair that's 16 inches high is there, all the time.

I have a Roland X8, with 88 weighted keys, and the touch is adjustable, so you can make it really difficult to play. I play on this at 4 or 5am as to not disturb anyone. It's really a gas as its piano sounds are so warm and realistic, at least through headphones. But it's not a piano.

[I have switched to a Korg Krome - JW, 2013]

Practice? Always play, never practice. Music comes from the heart, not the hands. The hands are secondary. Big hands, little hands. No importance. It's the heart, and the ears. Hearing the music in the air around you and translating it into sounds that others can hear.

Hanon and Czerny have destroyed more fledgling pianists than all the bad piano teachers (and bad pianos) on earth. Scales? Learn and file away. Fast scales will win competitions, but will never contribute to making music that makes one weep. The only composer who knew how to use scales unerringly was Bach.

About Travel

When I perform, which is never nearly often enough, I want the piano parallel to the stage edge. I don't like it angled so that "they can see my facial expressions" or angled so that "they can see my hands" because I don't like my back to the audience and I don't like the right half of the audience to see my hands and the left half not see them.

Putting the piano in a straight line, parallel to the stage, is the right way, the formal, and correct way.

Often on the road, someone will ask me for a "sound check at 3pm." Get real! A sound check for a solo acoustic piano? What are they going to do, knock out a wall? And so they'll say, "well, we thought you might want to practice." I've been playing for 56 years. Practice? Practice what? Badminton?


It's really important to rest and sleep before a concert, and not to eat too much. If at all. An excellent food choice is sardines, in your hotel room, with chopsticks. Homeland Security will not allow forks to be carried. Chopsticks are fine.

Bananas and peanut butter are great too. That's what we call road food. But I usually eat NOTHING the day of the concert. After the concert, I'm famished.

[I have discovered, after 40 years of travel, that Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is one serious problem for many performers, and for solo performers in particular. It's important to travel with lots of vitamins, and to stay warm and dry, and to reserve energy for the concerts. Do NOT let a promoter tell you that you have to take a cab to the venue, or rent a car at the airport. And at no time should you be exposed to the elements.]

I have a boardroom pass for the airport that allows me to be in a much more controlled environment than that which prevails at most US hub airports. Airports in the EU are infinitely more civilized, with areas for reading, resting, and even showering.

Boardroom passes are expensive (usually 3-400 dollars a year) but they are worth every penny. Particularly when your flight is delayed or canceled.

When you get to flying a lot, you'll find that certain things become very important. One is hydration.

It's in my contract that I have 5 or 6 liters of Evian or Volvic Bottled Water waiting at my destination, with a few liters in the car or limo that picks me up. Some promoters think that musicians neither eat nor drink. They even think that we'll drink the tap water. And I've NEVER been to a town where the promoter DID NOT SAY:

"You can drink this tap water... it's the BEST water in the whole WORLD." Without fail, I've heard that innumerable times. It's a standard and very stale joke with me. Do NOT, EVER, drink that tap water. Even at home, we drink FUJI or EVIAN.

So hydration after a long haul is very important, as is sleep.

Sometimes (all the time for me) it's very hard to get to sleep. If you leave NYC for Heathrow (in the UK), you're looking at a 6-hour time difference, plus a six hour flight. From SFO, the flight is ten and a half hours. The planes don't fly as fast now, to save on jet fuel. Honest. Usual air speed at 36,000 feet is about 550 mph maximum, and with a strong headwind it can be as low as 420 mph.

And when you get to the hotel finally, you're bone-tired. You need water first, and food. I travel with sardines and crackers and natural health-food cookies or scones. I only pack one bag, but I know exactly what to take, and a bag is always half-stocked with things I need. I used to take a hair-dryer but now most hotels have them. The hard part in certain cities in the USA and most all of Europe is finding a non-smoking room. [Ireland leads the EU in changing this reality.]

The Brits will say "Oh my. Well, we'll remove the ashtrays, and that'll make it a non-smoking room." No it won't. The smell permeates everything. They have to do better than that. And, as consciousness is raised about the hazards of second-hand smoke, the world is gradually changing. But when I was in North Carolina it was AWFUL. The entire hotel smelled like a pub in Birmingham.

No aspersions on the great city of Birmingham.


After you hang up your clothes, you hit the bed. If anything is wrinkled, hang it inside the bathroom, on the door, so that when you shower, the hot water vapor will take out the creases and wrinkles.

If you have really cool cable TV, be sure you don't stay up until 7am watching an Adam Sandler movie. ESPECIALLY an Adam Sandler movie. Just bring a book with you and read. Put a cover over the light so you can see to read, but so the room is dark. Remember to put the "do not disturb" sign on your door. And always leave a "wake-up call" with the front desk, even if you have a good digital clock. Sometimes they won't go off, or you're so out of it that you won't hear it. The phone ringing will usually wake you up.

Before you leave the hotel to play the concert, pray or chant or do something verbal, something to clear your throat and lungs, something that'll make it easier to walk out in front of hundreds or thousands of people and feel like you can talk easily. I get really inward, pensive, and introspective inside those hotel rooms. Not a funk or depression but very inward... quiet and self-absorbed. So it's good to talk to anyone, even yourself, before you go out there to play the concert.


The performance

I was ill for a very long time, but still gave outstanding concerts. I played into the illness. When it was a cold day and I had to play outside (many years ago) I would play into the cold. Let it freeze my hands. The worst thing you can do is fight the cold. I played brilliantly by embracing the cold.

So it was with illness. I would feel SO bad, bone tired and nauseous. And I would go out and play like an absolute angel. Because my music would take me out of my sick body.

Now, the major health issues have been resolved, and I am blessed with more energy than I know what to do with. The music is now a JOY. It always was, but I smile a lot more, now.

You'll usually be an hour or two hours early to the concert. Not because you need or want to be, but because the promoter is nervous and wants you there so that he knows you haven't flown the coop. Also, he wants you to "acclimate" and maybe even "check out the piano"...I always say this: "If I don't like the piano, are you going to go out and get me another one?"

This usually works to stifle their panic enough to leave me alone.

Because they are ALL in various states of panic, all the time. And, if you're not careful, the panic will communicate itself to you. So you have to be really laid back. Go to your "Green Room" and stay there. Sit and drink water and don't think or say too much.

Never make set lists. It's okay to have a slip of paper up there with you but never write anything on it. It's just to look at. I promise, if you get bandstand amnesia, that by looking at a blank piece of paper, a piece will pop right into your head.

Also, take a small clock (not a watch) and set it strategically on the piano, inside where the music stand usually resides, so that only you can see it. Digital clocks are great. So when the promoter says "play about 55 minutes" you and go out there, calculate what time it will be when 55 minutes have passed, and stop when it gets to be that time.

I usually only play ONE set; I always say "if one set was good enough for Gould, it's good enough for me." So my set is usually one hour and a half.

If I hear a tune VERY strongly in my head when I sit down at the piano, I'll usually let myself play it. Otherwise, I'll hear that song for the rest of the concert and it'll undermine everything I play. My performance will arise spontaneously, and I'll know what to play next almost immediately upon finishing the piece I'm playing. If I don't know, I'll sit there for a while and stare. It's my stage. I'll do what I want to. But I try not to take too much time as the audience fidgets and gets nervous.

Sometimes I'll just play. Improvise, make things up. Sometimes those are the best segments.

When playing a ballad or an Adagio (or any piece) I'll let the last chord ring, but I WON'T REMOVE MY HANDS FROM THE KEYBOARD UNTIL THE SOUND HAS FULLY DIED AWAY.

I can't stress that enough. The minute you remove your hands from the keys, the applause starts, and the dying tones are mushed out.

If you are holding a chord with your left hand, as I often do, use your RIGHT HAND to conduct the piece to a close. It can just be a downward gesture, palm open, hand moving slowly down. Sometimes a natural tremor will run through the right hand, as if there is GREAT INTENSITY in the last chord, as if the hand was straining to close down the tones. There IS great intensity, really. It is the END, the last thing the audience hears of that piece. It MUST BE THE BEST PART.

And I try to never put two pieces together that are in the same key. That's an obvious one.

Now that I use a chair with a back, I can set back, lift both legs, and play very very VERY fast. It's like flying with your feet forward as if you were driving a car or a plane. It's a trip!

[For a long time, I had an issue: I was convinced that, as I aged, I was slowing down. Now, with the new seating arrangement, my recordings are evidence to me that I am speeding up, and my fears are thus allayed. Speed is only for the service of content and communication. Still, it is an important facility, and I am determined to retain and improve it.]

And when I bow, I bow from the waist, as it is a show of great respect for your audience. Japanese people do it all the time: the deeper the bow, the more respect is conveyed. I bow as deeply as I can with this old back of mine.

Then "show's over" unless there's an encore or a call-back. It's important to think of this piece alone before you ever walk on the stage. At that point, you have finished, and you're being asked, begged, to play another piece. Make sure it's the right one. Have several encore pieces in your arsenal.

Then I might sell some cds and sign them. I always like to sit down and have someone help me. The audience will want signatures but they won't often remove that hated shrink-wrap so I need help, as I don't have much in the way of fingernails. I always keep them clipped down drastically. (My own company, Red and Blue Recordings, does NOT use shrink-wrap for a number of very good reasons)


I'll always sit with a wall behind me so that no one sneaks up behind me and pulls a handful of hair out or puts me in a choke-hold. I know this sounds insane, but these things have happened. Once, in Saskatoon, a fellow who ran a local jazz radio show snuck up behind me, grabbed me by my head (in a wrestler-like scissors-hold) and lifted me out of the chair, all the while telling me he loved me madly. The last thing I heard was someone remarking, "I think you're hurting her, Chris." And I woke up in the hospital with a badly bruised nose and forehead. So now I sit against a wall, and I try to make it a brick wall if they have one.

Also, I'm VERY careful shaking hands. Some guys don't know their own strength. Either give them only a few fingers by retracting your hand just as theirs starts to close, or use your left hand turned sideways and also retract it before they can fully grab it. The BEST ADVICE is to NOT SHAKE ANY HANDS. This is a thing that most people will understand immediately. "Her hands are her life." If you MUST shake hands, use the techniques above. If you are like me, you won't EVER shake hands with a stranger.

Also, wear silly-looking gloves before and after the concert. They'll keep your hands warm before the concert, and after the concert they'll discourage too much skin Gloves with the tips of the fingers open are nice. They allow you touch sensation (you can even play in them if necessary) but keep your hands very warm.

After the concert I NEVER "hang out" with the promoters. Or anyone. I came to do a job and I do it with all my heart, and afterwards I have nothing to give in a social situation. I never get too close to the promoters. I usually dislike most of them, but I'm not there to be liked and neither are they. They're usually all about business, and that's the way I prefer it.

The Courage to die, onstage and otherwise

This is what I love about Keith Jarrett. He takes enormous risks. Sometimes he succeeds brilliantly, and brings us gifts from the gods and goddesses that are priceless. Never before or since has anyone taken quite as many risks as Keith and Glenn Gould and John Coltrane. I can't claim the success rate of any of those giants. I'm beginning to understand this, though:

When we rely on formula for life, whether it's giving up your beloved art or music or other sacred gifts to pursue a lucrative career that you love not at all, because "that's the way we do things here in the USA", then the results will be predictable and uninteresting. When we step outside of the formula, we step outside of the zone of safety.

In Tales of Power by Carlos Castenadanew window, Don Juan admonishes Carlos:

"If you take the warrior's path, you will cry a million tears. But if you step off of that path, you will die a million deaths. So cry, Carlos. Go on, have a fit."

So I work without a net now, and more and more people want to see and hear me do that.

That net's always there, should I need it. After playing predominantly jazz, professionally, for 45 years, I have plenty of licks and chops and cliches and lines. They're all "nets".

Without that net, I moan and whisper to myself. I forget my body, I forget my life, I forget my flu if I happen to have it, I forget my bills and my fears and my pains and, well, everything. I sing the Song of the Sirens. I'm alone in the Universe with the notes and they bring me to my God, which is the MUSIC that has run through my life like a red thread since I was a very very little girl. All of the things I am are in the notes. I sometimes exclaim loudly, wordlessly. I sometimes laugh hilariously. I am told the light is bright, and I am told I am very beautiful (at my age that's a real compliment). One woman left the room last night because she couldn't bear the light; she went outside and stared at the stars and cried.

This must be God. This must be what everyone seeks but few truly find. This must be what the Buddhists call "the sacred ground of being", the "bardo state", the "luminous state", the experience of being a Bodhisatva.

I am not happy to have this: I am blessed, elated, and humbled to have this, even for a moment. I could die happy right now. Buddhists embrace death so that they may know and love life better. I am no longer afraid of death and so I'm no longer afraid to live. This is not forever, for anyone. We know what we know, then we evaporate. We are visitors, renters. We own nothing. The world is a minute of our time. It's awful and it's awfully beautiful.

Makes me think of that tune by Thelonious Monk. Ugly Beauty. I must record that. [I did. JW 2013]

Peace and freedom, JW 11.19.07

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