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I learned to play jazz piano and you can too.

When I was living in Madison, Wisconsin, in the early 1970s, I had been fired from a lucrative musical theater accompanist job because I did not now how to improvise. I was in shock. Me? I was a hot-shot classical pianist, I could play Rachmaninoff concertos, I could sight read anything. I was a top music student with a master's degree in piano performance. What was wrong with the commercial music world? Didn't they recognize my extraordinary talent?

One day, I saw a sign on a bulletin board: "Will trade jazz piano lessons for classical piano lessons." I decided that perhaps jazz would be a practical skill to learn. Plus, I had some vague idea of playing sultry blues on a rainy Saturday night in a bar somewhere. Thus began a long 40-year odyssey, filled with both rewards and frustrations. I began to study with a private teacher. I listened to jazz solos and wrote out transcriptions. I played with jazz ensembles. I played with country, rock and polka bands. I provided workshops and classes in jazz piano. I completed a Ph.D. program and wrote a dissertation about teaching jazz piano to classical pianists. Eventually, I got to the point I could play with a trio or as a soloist with confidence. Some of my most important discoveries:

* Jazz improvisation can be learned, even if you can't play "by ear."

* Learning jazz is similar to learning a foreign language: it takes many years, and fluency requires dedication and tenacity.

* Playing jazz is the most challenging, interesting and enjoyable way to connect theory and performance at any level.

After many years of teaching piano, I firmly believe that any classical pianist can learn to play jazz. People are not born with innate jazz-playing abilities. Many famous jazz pianists have started out as classical pianists. Through my teaching experience, I have determined that if you can play Bach Inventions or Clementi Sonatinas, and if you know all 12 major and 12 natural minor scales, and all 12 major and minor triads, you are probably ready to begin jazz study. The more theory you have studied and the more advanced you are as a pianist, the more quickly you can learn to play jazz.

What is Jazz?

Jazz is a complex and highly sophisticated type of music that originated in the United States in the early 20th century, and includes musical elements derived from both European and African music. There are many styles of jazz, including New Orleans or Dixieland, swing, bebop, cool, and free. Blues is considered a separate category, but blues and jazz are closely related and have many common characteristics. Of course, improvisation is an essential aspect of both jazz and blues. Traditional jazz is improvisation based on a literature of popular songs composed from 1920-1940. Blues involves improvisation on a strict 12-measure harmonic pattern.

Improvisation was commonly used by keyboardists in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. For example, pianists often improvised concerto cadenzas in the classical era. In the 19th and 20th centuries, however, memorization, performance and sight-reading skills became more important, and improvisation was seldom taught in piano studios. Today, there appears to be an increasing resurgence of interest in keyboard improvisation, and many pianists have discovered that improvisation is necessary to survive professionally in nonacademic environments.


Unfortunately, improvisation is a word that often terrifies many perfectly competent and even many highly artistic pianists. This is a great tragedy because improvisation can be learned without much effort. The most difficult task classical pianists have when learning jazz is overcoming their "notation dependency." Reading music provides security, and if you have been reading music for 10, 20, 30 or more years, the more difficult it is to tear your eyes away from the printed page and begin to rely more on your mind, ears and fingers. Improvisation requires using a different way to approach music than does reading music. In fact, improvisation appears to involve the use of a different part of the brain than note reading. Shifting into an improvisational mode of thinking and performing requires practice. For some, this shift may mean having to "unlearn" years of structured behaviors. For others, accessing internal creative resources may be very easy.

Many pianists who displayed musical creativity as children have found their spontaneity has diminished as they have grown older. They often feel reluctant about expressing themselves through music in a style that is improvisational, such as jazz. Striving for perfection, although certainly praiseworthy and necessary for artistic re-creative performance, may inhibit some pianists from attempting activities that could result in "mistakes" or less-than-beautiful results. Beginning improvisation requires the acceptance of imperfection and the willingness to play in a way that, at first, may seem unmusical, mediocre and very elementary. The initial stages of jazz improvisation are very similar to beginning the study of a foreign language. You might need a great deal of practice to make intelligent "sentences" and not sound "uneducated" when you improvise within a jazz syntax.

If you learn a foreign language when you are young, you will be fluent by the time you are an adult. Similarly, if you have done many improvisation activities as a child, learning jazz can be much easier. Traditional teaching methods seldom reinforce improvisation. Thus, adult classical pianists often may have "inferiority complexes" about their improvisational ability, and many believe they do not have any improvisational talent. This is a complete misconception. Improvisation is not a mysterious, magical process. Musicians at any age may begin improvisation and become very successful. If you think about it, people you know who improvise well (and who may be intimidating because of it) generally have had a lot of experience doing it.

If you were learning a new language, such as French or Chinese or Russian, how would you begin? Would you try to speak enough words and sentences to travel, or would you begin by reading? How fluent a speaker or reader would you expect to be after a week? A month? A year? Would you read books about the people and culture of the new language? Would you listen to tapes of the language to absorb it more quickly? Would you seek a good teacher or tutor who was fluent in the language? Would you give up learning if you did not become fluent immediately?

Some strategies that I have found helpful when learning improvisation include:

* Make the ugliest or most unusual sounds on the piano possible (strange chords, clusters, elbows on all blacks and whites and so on). It may help to shut your eyes.

* Use the piano to describe something, such as an animal (fish, mouse, rabbit, elephant or bird); weather (rain, blizzard, wind or hurricane); a person you know (Robert Schumann was good at this); or a place you have visited. This sounds hopelessly elementary, but it can really help you.

* Make up a story and use the piano for sound effects or for your imaginary film score. This is fun if you do this with a partner or a group and take turns adding to the story. The wilder or weirder the story the better. For example, "A spaceman was flying around in the sky (sound effects) and his spaceship crashed to earth (smash sound, glissando and so forth).... The first thing he saw was --. Then the spaceman --. Then people saw him and they all --" and so on.

* Express any or several of the following emotions on the piano: joy, sorrow, hate, fear, jealously, anger, melancholy and so on. Try using lots of black and white key clusters.

* Play how you feel right now. Play how you would like to feel. Play as if you are a world-famous improviser.

Today there are pianists who use very simple improvisational techniques to create a certain popular style of music sometimes given the label "new age." A simple, repetitive harmonic framework or ostinato provides the basis of this style. This style is not considered to be jazz. However, its simplicity can enable pianists to develop improvisational skills that can be used in jazz. In your left hand, play a whole note fifth with A as the lowest note, and repeat over and over (or alternate an A fifth with a G fifth). Another left hand pattern is this: using quarter notes, play a low A, up a fifth to E, up a fourth to A, back down a fourth to E. Repeat the pattern over and over. Transpose the pattern down to G, or down to F and E for variety. In the right hand, use only white notes (or A harmonic minor). It helps to begin and end on an A. If you are really "notation dependent" try these techniques:

* Pick three pitches (for example, A-B-C) and a simple rhythmic pattern (for example, quarter-quarter-half note). Keep the left hand pattern consistent. Play the right hand pattern in the first "measure," an octave higher in the second, inverted in the third, twice as fast in the fourth, add 3rds or 6ths in the 5th and so forth.

* Find a partner, play "follow the leader"; one person plays a short melody, the other tries to imitate it. Take turns being the leader. If you do not have a partner, play follow the leader or question answer (call-response) with yourself.

In addition to improvisation, another very distinctive characteristic of jazz is the use of seventh chords and chord structures that have added 9ths, 11ths and 13ths. These chords evolved from the music of romantic pianists such as Chopin and Liszt. Contemporary jazz also uses quartal-chord structures similar to those used by Bartok. Fortunately, your ears will be familiar with many of the sounds, and your hands will be familiar with the shapes of the chords used in jazz.

Learning all the seventh chords used in jazz takes a certain amount of drill and practice, depending on how much previous work you have done with chords. It is helpful to be able to play any major or minor triad, in any inversion, quickly, with either hand. Knowing the intervals of a major seventh and a minor seventh, starting on any key, is also essential. If you are not familiar with triads or intervals, it would be a good idea to review a college theory text, a theory book from any adult piano method or obtain assistance from a knowledgeable teacher. Drilling on major 7, dominant 7, minor 7, diminished-minor 7, and diminished 7 chords (for example Cmaj7, C7, Cm7, Cm7-5, Cdim7) on all 12 keys is helpful. It is also very helpful to purchase a "fake book" and start playing songs you are familiar with, using chords in the left hand and melody in the right.

Keeping the Beat

The basic underlying pulse of most jazz music evolved from dance music and is very steady. One major challenge for many classical pianists will be learning to keep a steady and constant metronomic beat throughout every jazz piece, instead of using tempo rubato. This may be especially difficult for highly trained, sensitive and flexible accompanists. Practicing with a metronome or tapping your foot to keep a steady beat will enable you to eventually play jazz with a drummer and/or a bass player, if you choose, and to be an effective member of a rhythm section. The internal rhythms used in jazz melodies and improvisations are based on rhythms found in African song and speech, which are different and somewhat less than European notated rhythmic patterns. Thus, melodic rhythmic notation in jazz is often approximate and is learned best by listening to jazz performers.

There are many excellent jazz programs on NPR radio and on some local stations. If you live in an urban environment, there are many opportunities to listen to and support live jazz performance. There are thousands of solo jazz and blues piano recordings by famous pianists such as Marian McPartland, Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, Mary Lou Williams, George Shearing, Bill Evans, Roland Hanna, Ahmad Jahmal, McCoy Tyner and many others. It is also useful to listen to jazz and blues trios, quartets, big bands and solo vocalists from many jazz style periods. Videos and DVDs of jazz pianists and other jazz performers are also readily available. There are general books about the history of jazz and blues, and biographies about famous jazz performers. You may also want to examine jazz improvisation texts by authors such as Aebersol, Baker, Coker Levine and others. The more you immerse yourself in the culture of jazz, the more quickly you will become a knowledgeable and sensitive listener and performer.

Playing jazz can be richly rewarding. The more you learn about jazz, the more your classical music playing will be enhanced. You will become more conscious of chord structures and chord progressions in your music, and memorization will become easier and more reliable. You will develop a greater sensitivity to rhythm, increase your creative capabilities, and improve your listening abilities. You will gain confidence in your classical performances, and you will be able to improvise your way out of memory difficulties. You will find new ways to stimulate your students. If I could do it, you can do it. You may even find a new way to make money while you are having a wonderful time.


For more information on jazz studies go to and on the "Resources and Services" tab, and in the drop-down Click on "MTNA Marketplace." Scroll down to the IAJE-MTNA Jazz Studies Guide.

Janeen Larsen, NCTM, a professor of music at Black Hills State University, has an M.M. degree in both piano performance and musicology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Ph.D. degree in music education from the University of Florida.
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Author:Larsen, Janeen
Publication:American Music Teacher
Date:Dec 1, 2006
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