How to play "If I Die Young" on the piano

One of the most beautiful newer songs I've heard lately is "If I Die Young" by The Band Perry, written by Kimberly Perry. The sentiment ("I'm at peace with death because I trust that I've lived well in the time I've been given") guarantees that this will be a funeral tearjerker for years to come.

Best of all, "If I Die Young" is a very simple song to play - and I'll help you figure out how!

Yes, I'll help you figure it out. There are resources online that might show you exactly how to play "If I Die Young", but I'll give you tools you can use on other songs.

If you just want to learn this song in the simplest way possible, scroll all the way down to the bottom of this post.

But if you've ever wondered how the people who make videos and tutorials learn to play the songs in the first place, you can dig a little deeper.

This is a fifty-dollar piano lesson disguised as a blog post! Read and learn.

Read More


Music is only songs. To learn music, you learn songs.

I mean “song” in the colloquial sense, which includes any piece of music even though not all musical pieces are sung.

This is a pretty simple idea, but it took me years to figure out. I thought I had to learn exercises, warmups, scales, riffs, chords, improvisation, ear training, history, and theory as separate, discrete subjects. No - these musical elements only exist in songs, in service to songs, the way the organs of the body can only live and survive when they are performing the function for which they were created within that organism. And while the body can only exist in health when all the organs are performing their functions correctly, you don’t need to monitor these processes unless something goes seriously wrong. And if you are listening well (to your music or to your body), you can often figure the solution to a problem based on the context.

Love Minus Zero/No Limit

My love affair with this song goes back to early 1993. Steve Wiatt got the Bob Dylan tribute video on Pay-Per-View (remember that?) and lent the VHS tape to my dad (I do believe it’s still in his possession after all these years). And then my dad showed me the clip: Ronnie Wood introduces Eric Clapton, and Clapton proceeds to give one of the most spiritually generous performances of his life.

I had never heard Dylan’s own recording of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” before - later that spring I would buy my first Dylan CD (remember those?) and fall in love with the pencil-sketch charm of the version on Bringing it All Back Home. But Clapton’s rendition is lovingly, reverently, exaggeratedly Dylan-esque: warm, humming organ, those noodley little walkdowns down from the five chord, and, as ever, liberties taken with the vocal melody, rhythms, and even the lyrics themselves. Bob would be proud - of course he is still alive, anyway, so I could ask him what he thought about it, if I knew how to get in touch with him.

But the guitars! Sounding like nothing Dylan ever recorded. The soaring, beautiful, sweet, bluesy guitars - Clapton on his trusty Strat, G.E. Smith (remember him?) chiming away on a Tele. I had been playing for a few weeks the first time I saw this performance, and it made an impression. Clapton takes two solos, and they are stunning in their immediacy and melodicism. Some gorgeous, soul-lifting bends…he makes it look so easy.

Ironically, the ease with which Clapton built his solos was something I could not relate to at the time, much as I loved the sounds I was hearing. My mind, like my father’s, was designed to distill the colorful richness I was hearing back down to the pencil sketch of Dylan’s original: figure out the chords, memorize the lyrics, and be able to play and sing this thing by heart before sundown. This is the song that taught me to transpose before I knew what that was called, taught me to sing in my own style before I knew what that was. I’ve never let go of it, but I’ve never been able to make it feel like that Clapton version.

A few Christmases ago, my brother Tristan converted that VHS tape into a DVD and presented it to me under the tree. We watched it that morning, and I wept. I sobbed in front of my whole family. It was bittersweet to see that the gorgeous lead guitar playing that had so inspired me was still so far out of reach, and worse, that it was so okay with me. It was like I had promised myself, “I will play guitar,” and then went out and bought a french horn, never even noticing or caring that I had broken that contract. And in a way, I still don’t care.

Today one of my students, a delightful sixteen-year-old, was working on “Love Minus Zero.” To explore arrangement possibilities, I went on YouTube. There, in the suggested search field as I typed in the song title, was “clapton.” Could it be? It was - some Japanese guy posted the clip. We watched and listened - and then I shared it with another student later that day. And then I listened to it on my walk home in the dark (YouTube on the iPhone!).

And something interesting is happening - I’m hearing more. I pointed out to my student that while it sounds as though Clapton is playing continuously, he’s really creating separate phrases that overlap. One comes over in an arc and as it ends another comes underneath, like the currents of water in an ocean wave. I noticed that most of the solos are pentatonic. I realized how little he was playing during the verses - laying out and letting the rhythm parts back up the voice, then filling in with meaty licks between the lines of lyric as though it were a blues tune.

So this thing might actually be within reach: to learn one or both of these solos just for fun and education. Maybe the assumptions I’ve always made about myself with respect to my natural abilities as a musician are ready to be overturned. That will mean a lot for the way I teach, but even more for the way I live.

Regardless, “she knows there’s no success like failure, and that failure’s no success at all.” Deep, man. That either means exactly what I’m talking about, or nothing at all.

Trying on Songs

It’s been awhile - our school is really growing and has required much care and feeding. Now, as the title of this post suggests, I’ve got a gig coming up and I am shifting my focus to my own musicianship.

I’ve had a few different performance opportunities this summer, but they were all very different venues and occasions: a night at Kavarna with The Omnivores, a wedding, a devotional event at the Baha’i Center. But I find myself in the middle of back-to-back Fridays at MetroFresh, so I’m warmed up and I have the energy to try new things next Friday.

I haven’t been writing songs much lately (yeah, I will eventually get back into that, too), so what I’m doing is trying on other people’s songs to see if they fit. You know, it’s exactly like going clothing shopping for me: browse the racks and pick out something that looks like what I would always wear, something that I really hope will fit because it looks like what I need, something that’s too expensive, and something unexpected. A lot of times the thing I picked up just for fun ends up fitting perfectly, while something that looked like a sure thing at the right price just doesn’t work on me. And the gorgeous, expensive thing is, alas, not for today.

Likewise, a song that seems ridiculous (how about a girl singing “I’m a Boy,” or an acoustic version of “Isobel” by Bjork?) ends up working because it challenges my creativity and my assumptions about myself. And I got so tired of the “sure thing” that, for the past ten years or so, I’ve mostly eschewed songs by young, white female artists so that I could find my own voice. And there’s always a song that will be just out of reach, at least until the day that I can perform “Never Going Back Again” flawlessly.

So today I have been working on “Walk on the Ocean,” that Nineties gem from Toad the Wet Sprocket. A nice complicated chord progression covers up the fact that I just stand there and strum the whole time. The recorded key is right in my range, which is a bonus. Pass!

Another one is “What Light” by good ol’ Wilco. The lyrics are simple and direct, and right up my alley. I messed around and stuck the capo down on the second fret instead of the fifth for vocal reasons - now my voice pops out nicely (maybe the musical the equivalent of making alterations to a vintage dress?).

As I played, a new thought occurred to me: I’d like to make up another verse to this song. And I might. That would really make it my own. In the song, Jeff Tweedy sings:

And if the whole world’s singing your songs
And all of your paintings have been hung
Just remember what was yours is everyone’s from now on.

So I guess he’d be cool with that, huh?