Posts tagged learn

How Classical Pianists Learn Jazz

I’ll never forget sitting at the piano at age 15 completely frustrated and baffled by the fact that i had witnessed musicians playing without music.  Now these weren’t musicians playing memorized pieces… they were apparently making it up as they went along.  How intriguing!  Improvisation of notes… but how? How did they know what combinations of notes ‘went together’ to make that kind of sound?  Sure i had practiced (ad nauseum) my dominant 7ths… and i had read somewhere that jazz was all about 7ths… but my solid and broken chords sure didn’t sound like any jazz i had ever heard.  Enter Dave Brubeck.  My brother gave me a book called Impressions of New York for Easy Piano (pictured).  If you can get your hands on a copy it’s a FABULOUS book!  But one great thing about Brubeck is that he wrote out what he played.  For Classical died-in-the-wool piano players, this is INVALUABLE because we’re so used to reading… then processing, then playing.  And this book was my first small step into jazz – listening to chords i liked the sound of, extrapolating, analyzing, and integrating into my own playing.  Jazz is all about vocabulary.  Ask a child 7 years of age to write a story.  Ask a well travelled, well read, well educated adult to write a story and you know of what i speak.  It’s the vocabulary of words that make the difference.  In jazz, it’s the chords – the musical words that tell the story.  So next time you play some chord that you like – pause – listen – think – analyze then integrate.  And if you’re not great at experimenting with chords, get a book like Dave Brubeck’s where he weaves together musical concepts – bridging the gap from those who read with those who improvise.

Practice Practicing the Piano

Without fail i’ve had this conversation at least ONCE with each of my students.  It pertains to HOW to practice.  It’s not enough to just start arbitrarily playing through a song, the student needs to be shown HOW to actually go about learning the nuts and bolts of practicing.  To do this, i usually find the closest book available and i say to the student, “Ok i’d like you to repeat word for word what i am about to tell you.  Ready?” (They ALWAYS nod their heads in agreement)… “Here goes”

In the fleeting seconds of final memory, the image that will become Burma is the sun and a woman’s parasol.  He has wondered which visions would remain – the Salween’s coursing coffee flow after a storm, the predawn palisades of fishing nets, the glow of ground trumeric, the weep of jungle vines.  For months the images trembled in the back of his eyes, at times flaming and fading away like candles, at times fighting to be seen, thrust forward like the goods of jostling bazaar merchants.” (1st paragraph from The Piano Tuner – EXCELLENT book BTW)

I then turn to the student and say “OK let’s hear it”.  100% of the time they give me a blank stare.  Some start to laugh, some start to look worried… and then i explain that human beings learn in bite sized pieces.  If i were to say the same quote “In the fleeting seconds” – have them repeat that and then move to “of final memory“, the student would remember the words right? Now join the two together.  Do you see where i’m going with this? Learn an entire song? Forget it.  Learn 2 bars at a time? Now we’re talking.  We need to teach students to be brilliant at the small stuff – the short sections.  I tell them “I’d rather have 4 bars done for next week – 4 bars you are completely genius at rather than slosh through the entire song”.  Time and again i remind them of this analogy and the ones who get it will grasp the art of practicing and excel.

PS – if you haven’t read the Piano Tuner, it’s a FABULOUS novel! Get it!

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