Learning Project…and all that jazz

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.


Photo Credit: dave.fergy Flickr via Compfight cc

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:

  1. Different approach – classical is written out vs jazz is a lot improvising
  2. Classical musicians aren’t taught how to improvise
  3. Different technique – classical (scales, arpeggios) vs jazz (walking bass lines, chords)
  4. Different scales
  5. Different chord progressions
  6. Different chords (jazz has a lot more clusters compared to classical)
  7. “Colour” chords – in jazz you add notes to chords to make it sound different
  8. Confusing chord symbols in jazz
  9. Jazz requires more listening – to play unique styles (classical music is written out – play exactly what is written down to notes and rhythms)
  10. 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):

  1. Play from a “Lead Sheet” (a standard requirement for all jazz musicians)
  2. Learn how to play the blues (12 bar blues) and other common progressions (ii V I)
  3. Improvise using different scales, modes and techniques
  4. Play more by ear than reading sheet music
  5. 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,


9 thoughts on “Learning Project…and all that jazz

  1. Thanks for sharing your thought process, Catherine! I can’t imagine how hard it would be to learn Jazz piano, so don’t worry, I would not consider it cheating in the slightest. I plan on learning piano for my project, and Youtube seems like the best choice. I like your idea of putting out a Facebook call-out, but have you thought about Twitter? If you try to contact a jazz pianist through Twitter, who knows where it could go! I am looking forward to seeing where your project leads you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Catherine, great post! I really enjoyed reading about your learning project. I love jazz music so I am really looking forward to seeing / hearing your progress throughout the semester. While I don’t have as much musical experience as you, I am a classically trained pianist as well and totally understand how the improvisation would be tricky. I am the same as you and would need to practice the sheet music before being confident!

    I also really enjoyed reading the ten-thousand hour article you referenced. While not surprising that it takes so long to “master” a skill, the number is certainly large! I find this idea motivating and learning about this theory allows learners to enjoy and engage with the process of learning rather than becoming frustrated with something new after only a few tries! If I put 5 hours of effort into something new, I can’t expect to be as good as if I would put in 20 hours, or 100, or 400, etc. Anyway, it was an interesting article to connect with your learning project. Again, I look forward to hearing more about it your learning project!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I read ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell years ago, and the ten thousand hour rule has always been in the back of my head. An interesting way to look at how we master skills. And I agree- it helps with motivation and expectations. Thanks for the feedback!


  3. Hey Catherine, I think that’s great that you want to do this! I’m also classically trained, and I was toying with the idea of learning the accordion, which would be really different for me!

    Honestly, I think with YouTube you have an amazing resource. As others have suggested, Twitter might be good. Maybe a call down to some of the local music stores might also help… I know it’s not Social Media, but maybe someone over there might have a good suggestion? Doubt it though, not actually good for their business haha 😀

    I found a few more resources for you:

    There are some free lessons here: https://www.pianogroove.com/jazz-piano-lessons/

    And if you sign up with an email on this webiste, you’ll get 5 free videos: https://www.freejazzlessons.com/

    Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the suggestions! I am finding that my biggest challenge right now is sifting through the massive collections of “how to play jazz” videos on YouTube! I asked some of my jazz musician friends for their suggestions, so I have a few good channels to start. I also think I will have to narrow my “goals” if I want to have real success.


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