Week 8 – How to Play Jazz Piano (Improv Attempts)

One of my biggest challenges in learning how to play jazz music has been figuring out how to practice.  With classical music, my practice has always been very “prescribed” – technical warm ups and practice, followed by working on specific pieces. This might include hands separate practice, slow metronome work and focusing on small sections.  In fact, it was very rare that I would do a full run through of a piece because it was not an efficient use of my practice time.  With my jazz learning project, I feel like I am always jumping to the “full run through” phase without taking the time to build a solid foundation.  Looks like I need to take my own advice! This week I tried slowing down and focusing on some of the fundamental aspects of crafting a solo.  My recap this week highlights that I have a long way to go!

What I worked on:

  • Started practicing how to solo (improvise) over “Autumn Leaves”.
  • Scales, scales and more scales!
soloing over autumn leaves A section
Example of different scale patterns

Wins:

  • I found a few great resources that help me understand why you choose particular scales to create your solos. It was a nice connection to my previous scale practice from studying classical music.

Fails:

  • I underestimated the amount of practice needed to incorporate these news scales in my soloing – I need more time.
  • I felt very “stiff” – afraid of playing the “wrong note”. I need to loosen up!

Resources used:

Next week will be my final learning project post. I plan to reflect on my progress over the last two months and make a plan for future practice.  This is only the beginning of my jazz journey!

Week 7: How to Play Jazz Piano (Autumn Leaves, Part I)

As we near the end of our learning projects, I started working on my final goal piece, the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves“. This has always been one of my favourites and my earliest introduction to jazz music.  After a little bit of analysis, I found that it follows the simple 2-5-1 chord progression I started working on at the beginning of my learning project.

I love that I can start transferring my new skills to different pieces! Here is my progress this week:

What I worked on:

Wins:

Fails:

  • This week was heavy on sheet music use, but I tried to use it as a tool (by analyzing the score) rather than a crutch.

Resources used:

Next week I will continue with Autumn Leaves, but I plan to go back to only using a lead sheet and begin practicing scales for improvising.

Week 6: How to Play Jazz Piano (without chord roots!)

This week was all about rootless voicings on the piano.  I carried on with my work on ‘Misty’ from last week and tried a different style of comping.  I originally planned on introducing another song this week, but I found the rootless voicings to be challenging and require more time.  I tried figuring out the voicings in my head at the piano, but it was too much to think about. So I decided to break it down by going back to the theory basics and writing out each chord, determining the root, 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th and 13th.  Then, I wrote out the chords transitions so that there would be nice voice leading and common tones between the chords.

A side note about voice leading: I studied a lot of Bach chorales in my first and second year of music school, with the goal of understanding proper voice leading. There are lots of “rules” with voice leading, but they help with problems like:

“smoothness, independence and integrity or melodic lines, tonal fusion (the preference for simultaneous notes to form a consonant unity), variety, motion (towards a goal)” – Open Music Theory

Open Music Theory is an open source textbook (open educational resource). Cool!

In short, good voice leading makes music sound pleasing to the human ear! I really like the end result of my progress this week:

What I worked on:

  • continued with “Misty” – added a separate recording of the bass line in the left hand so I could comp using rootless voicings
  • rootless chord voicings – figuring out which notes to play and using good voice leading

Wins:

  • Starting to incorporate good voice leading
  • Overlaying multiple videos in my vlog

Fails:

  • I had to write out the chords this week (instead of figuring out the chords in my head). Although not my original plan, it allowed me to really understand the theoretical sides of rootless chords and good voice leading.

Resources Used:

Next week I am going to begin my final piece as part of my learning project. I am looking forward to learning my favourite jazz standard, “Autumn Leaves”.

Week 5: How to Play Jazz Piano (It’s “Comp” time!)

I think we have reached the halfway point in our learning projects! I feel like I am developing more independence in my jazz playing skills (for example, I can just sit down at the piano and experiment – get this – WITHOUT SHEET MUSIC!). Last week was all about reading a lead sheet and this week I focused on the art of comping. In a jazz group rhythm section, there is usually a bass player (responsible for the root of the chords), drums (rhythmic accompaniment) and piano/guitar to fill in the chord harmonies. Comping is essentially accompanying a soloist in an interesting way. Here is my progress with comping so far:

What I worked on:

  • Practicing the chords for “Misty” (focus on playing the root, 3rd and 7th notes)
  • Experimenting with different comping patterns for “Misty”. I learned about 3 different styles: walking bass, open voicings, rootless voicings. I chose open voicings this week.
Spread Voicings
Source: The Jazz Piano Site

Wins:

  • I felt like I was able to use my creative side and experiment with different comping rhythms and voicings. It was fun!

Fails:

  • Feeling hesitant with my chord voicing choices and concerned with playing the “wrong” notes. As soon as I relaxed, it felt a lot easier.

Resources used:

Next week I plan to continue experimenting with different comping styles (different rhythm patterns and rootless voicings) and try out a different jazz standard.  I think am ready to start jamming with other musicians – any takers?? 🙂

Week 4: How to Play Jazz Piano (‘Leading’ the Way)

This week I tackled how to read a lead sheet (or fake sheet) in jazz piano.  Basically a lead sheet has a melody line and chord symbols – the musician is expected to fill out the rest (using their understanding of the style of music and the type of accompaniment required). This is where my classical background and key knowledge was very helpful, since I already know how to read chord symbols and translate this to the piano.  But the challenge this week was to read a lead sheet like a real jazz musician – incorporate 3rds and 7ths in the voicings and always make sure the melody note is the played “on top” in the right hand. Hopefully my vlog this week explains my process with a jazz standard, “Misty”.

**Note – in a jazz group, there is a “rhythm section“. This usually includes piano (and guitar), drums and bass. The bass in responsible for playing the “root” of the chords, so the pianist usually omits the root of the chord when playing. Since I don’t have a rhythm section, I have included the root of the chords in my version!

What I worked on:

  • Analyzing and reading the lead sheet for the jazz standard, “Misty”
  • Used the 2-5-1 exercise and C Blues as a warm up

Wins:

  • I felt very invested in my learning project this week because I realized how much I enjoy the analytical side of music. Figuring out the chord voicings in my head was tough but rewarding!
  • Stayed on track with my practice plan this week. Short and frequent sessions as suggested by my classmates.
  • I learned how to do a video overlay in WeVideo (similar to what Amanda and Brooke did with their videos last week! Thanks for the idea!)

Fails:

  • None! It was a good week!

Resources used:

I hope you enjoyed watching what I mean by “classical fake jazz playing” and learning to read a lead sheet.  I am looking forward to pulling out my “Real Books” (massive collections of jazz standard lead sheets) and putting my new skills to work. Next week I would like to try another style of Blues (perhaps with a walking bass line) and start looking at comping patterns in the left hand.

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.

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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,

@Catherine_Ready