I was 20 years old and I didn't own a keyboard and I found myself in bass player Alex Rosa's living room auditioning with his band. Alex pulled a cheap keyboard from his closet for me to use. They asked me if I knew a particular song and I said, "No." They said, "It's in A, so play along." I would play mostly wrong chords and every now and then I'd hit an A when they were also playing an A. Then after about six songs they thanked me for coming and, to my surprise, they started talking about their schedule and set list. I got the gig.
Since then, I’ve played for Kenny Chesney, Blake Shelton, Tracy Lawrence (currently), and more–as full-time road gigs. And I’ve also played for over 100 well-known country and blues singers as one-offs or guest appearances. I’ve recorded with Blake Shelton and Hunter Girl, and do many home-studio recordings through Soundbetter.com.
I didn't know much when I joined my first band—and I did just fine—but here are a few things I've learned that might help you. I’ve included a few tips for joining a band as a piano player as well as some pointers on how to play piano in a band. I’ve divided this into 2 sections: practicing and performing.
Technique: I use Hanon (the first 20) and Czerny, School of Velocity.
Time: Feel the pulse as the main driver of your playing rather than the notes and chords.
Transcriptions: Write out on staff paper what you are hearing the piano is playing. I do this with Oscar Peterson solos, for example. I use an app called Transcribe+. Listen to the music, write it out, use Transcribe+ to slow it down, and then learn to play it—4 bars at a time. Then speed it up. Just learn 4 bars a day. Get every nuance you can, right.
Start with just one hand and just noodle around. Build on that.
Practice drum rudiments like paradiddles. You can practice these with your hands on your knees, with your fingers on a table, and you can play these on the piano.
Play the whole piano. Everyone is staying out of your way for a change!
If a song is in the key of D Major then you should be able to listen to the guitar and bass player and be able to recognize when they go to an A chord. Build on that.
Do this a little every day in case you get called for a gig that requires some reading. The SASR test in the piano learning software, Piano Marvel, is somewhat addictive and fun. Josh Wright recommended it on YouTube. He’s got a lot of great tutorials too.
Listen to the drummer and support that feel.
Don’t play what the bass player is playing but do be aware of what the root notes are.
Match the flavor of the guitar player's chords and rhythms without playing all over them.
In Rock and Country, if it gets too thick sounding, try to avoid the thirds. If the band is on a D Major chord, just play D notes and A notes—no F♯s.
For Pop, Rock, and Country solos, use pentatonic and blues scales for the most part. For Jazz and even some Pop styles, you’ll need to learn about jazz scales.
Put your insecurities aside and play it like it’s the last time you get to play piano and mean every bit of it.
Play between vocal phrases. Watching the singer solves this problem of overplaying. They sing a little, you play a little.
Overall, your goal should be to help the band sound better and enjoy playing piano. Rock on!