I am very excited at the prospect of learning something new, just for me. I have always had lots of interests that I wish could become hobbies, but it seems like it is never the right “time”. Things like knitting, baking (fancy French macarons), cake decorating, photography, musical instruments, languages, calligraphy…they are all on my wish list of things to learn at a higher level. I have dabbled in these interests, but never committed my ten thousand hours to master these “hobbies”.
Enter Option B- The Learning Project: The targeted learning outcome should be something that is complex to learn, worth learning, and of great interest to you.
I want to really learn how to play jazz piano.
As I reflect on my nearly 25 years of classical music training, something I have always appreciated is the genre of jazz. I love listening to jazz (especially live) and the delicate balance between the musicians as they weave in and out of intricate chord changes, rhythms and improvisation. In high school, I played piano in the jazz band and then I sang in the vocal jazz choir in university. Both experiences gave me the opportunity to learn some of the basics of jazz (form, like the 12-bar blues) and improvisation (although mostly for the voice – called “scatting“). BUT, the biggest problem I ran into as a classically trained musician was my inability to go “off-book”. I could fake jazz playing if I had sheet music and spent hours practicing exactly what was on the page. Something I have always wanted to do was to be one of those people that could sit down at the piano and “jam” – play freely and effortlessly if given a few chords or even a key of music.
You might be thinking that this is cheating, since I am already a very capable piano player. And I have a music degree, so lots of theoretical background and knowledge that will make learning jazz easy. But it is hard. This video sums it up perfectly:
In case you don’t want to watch the 9 minute video, here are the reasons given:
- Different approach – classical is written out vs jazz is a lot improvising
- Classical musicians aren’t taught how to improvise
- Different technique – classical (scales, arpeggios) vs jazz (walking bass lines, chords)
- Different scales
- Different chord progressions
- Different chords (jazz has a lot more clusters compared to classical)
- “Colour” chords – in jazz you add notes to chords to make it sound different
- Confusing chord symbols in jazz
- Jazz requires more listening – to play unique styles (classical music is written out – play exactly what is written down to notes and rhythms)
- Emotion vs precision – classical musical is all about interpreting what is on the page (based on an understanding of the time period, composer, etc). Jazz involves a lot of emotion and “feel”.
While this is not an exhaustive list, I feel like it is a pretty good start to show why it is SO. HARD. to play jazz music for strictly classically trained musicians. I sort of equate it to learning a language. When young children start learning a language and are immersed in it, they pick up the nuances and details of the language more easily. I wonder if I had been exposed to jazz from the beginning and learned how to play it, I would be in a different place today. Or if I had ever taken lessons specifically for jazz. I find it so difficult to “get off the page” and always prefer to have sheet music.
With that long preamble, I am excited to use my understanding and interest in analyzing music and theory to develop my skills as a jazz musician. I started brainstorming a list of things I would like to be able to do at the end of this exploration. This includes (but will continue to evolve):
- Play from a “Lead Sheet” (a standard requirement for all jazz musicians)
- Learn how to play the blues (12 bar blues) and other common progressions (ii V I)
- Improvise using different scales, modes and techniques
- Play more by ear than reading sheet music
- Play a few jazz standards and maybe learn how to “jazz” up a piece like Happy Birthday or Christmas songs
I have a few ideas about how to document the process (video and audio clips) and where to look for “how-to” videos (YouTube: “How to play jazz piano” brings up a lot of options). Does anyone have suggestions of other online resources to use to work on this project? I am considering doing a call-out on Facebook for all my jazz musicians friends and their recommendations. Maybe a Skype lesson could take place?
Looking forward to reading about other project ideas from my classmates!
Until next time,