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Jazz piano 101
October 23, 2011 8:57 AM   Subscribe

First steps at jazz piano - how would you go about it?

I'm not going to go through my previous piano credentials, suffice to say that I had a 18-year break since I last cried over the 88 keys, and after going through the entire grief cycle of recovering from the trauma of being forced to play the piano since toddlerhood, I find myself drawn to that instrument again, but on my own terms.

So, I recently fell in with a group of jazz pianists, and I've been listening to jazz piano since about two years. Just listening.
The piano is undoubtedly the most versatile tool for self-expression, and I think I'd like to get myself playing again but I don't know where to start.

Yesterday for the first time since literally decades, I sat down at a beautiful Yamaha grand piano, onstage at at jazz bar here and I just played some scales and arpeggios over and over again. I had a good laugh at myself, because I'm more than rusty even at basic scales. I goofed around with some pop melodies, but I couldn't remember even one single classical piece.

So, I got a number in hand for a jazz piano teacher that comes highly recommended, especially for his teaching abilities.

I probably can't sight-read any more, and I'm really not too eager to learn from sheet music again, not too eager to have the metronome as the background music of my days, either.
What I do want is to learn the fingers, the chords, the logic behind jazz, the near-endless scope for creativity. Hell, I want to learn several standards, I want to goof around, I want to explore what's dormant in my mind. I absolutely loved, freaking eff'ing loved, being onstage at that Yamaha in the jazz bar, it was after hours, waiters cleaning tables, but I loved the background noise, the glasses clinking, the voices.. Once I progress beyond scales, you know, I think I would love to play in that environment, it felt totally natural. But I'm not gonna quit my day job, I don't want to be "on track to be a career pianist", I want to keep this fun for me.

Anyway, where do I go from here? What do you suggest? All ideas will very much appreciated.
posted by ruelle to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
Use that number immediately. Get a few backup reccomendations in case you don't like the teacher. Just hit GO!
posted by StUdIoGeEk at 9:27 AM on October 23, 2011


YouTube search for basic jazz progressions and scales.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:06 AM on October 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Don't shun sheet music. You wouldn't shun reading novels if you were a writer. And anyway, if you want to sit in with any kind of jazz ensemble you will be handed a sheet of paper more often than not. It's really worth brushing up---little kids learn it just fine, it will be even easier for you since you're grown up and you have some experience already. It makes learning songs MUCH easier, and is much faster than transcribing by ear (for mortals like myself and you, I would assume).

Most of what you'll be reading in this genre will just be lead sheets---the melody and the chords, which is easier (I think) than taking in a huge classical piano piece with 2-4 staves, and notes everywhere to be played exactly as written. Easier, but not necessarily easy. You need to fill up your RAM with different information, i.e. chords not notes. And know how to flesh out a nice-sounding accompaniment from just those details given on the paper.

Therefore, theory, especially chords. You can play a jazz song without fancy fingers flying everywhere, but you can't play a jazz song (and understand it) if you don't know chord theory.

The quickest way to do this is to head to your music shop and get a theory workbook. I would be shocked if there weren't workbooks specifically for learning jazz chord theory. This kind of book won't be particularly taxing on your brain, but it will give you necessary knowledge of scale degrees, triads, building 7th chords, inversions, and so on. These are all things that are simple, but in order to use them to the fullest potential you have to be able to internalize them. And you are as able as anyone else, it will just require some repetitive practice.

Do the exercises in the book at the piano. It's way more important to know what the right answer sounds like than it is to know what it looks like.

And once you get the mechanics down, start gulping down more complex chords, and playing in all 12 keys, and learning to rip out bitchin' solos like a mofo because you just don't care.

Those last steps may not be as easy as I made them sound.

tl;dr: Chord theory, ear training, reading (at least of lead sheets with a single melody line and chords). And call that piano teacher. There is no way to learn faster.
posted by TheRedArmy at 10:28 AM on October 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


Call the teacher, set aside a good time to practice, and go.

I've heard great things about Mark Levine's book, and I loved his jazz theory book, but your teacher will probably have his favorites.

The biggest thing (in my opinion) is listen and transcribe. It's how you learn to "speak" the language. It was much easier for me to learn theory after I learned to hear what the theory was describing first. It sounds like you've gotten a good start on that, so that'll help a lot.

Other than that, jazz is pretty social music. I enjoy practicing, but I LOVE playing with a group. Find some folks to play with, it'll give you a reward for your hard work and give you something outside of your lessons to work at.
posted by Gygesringtone at 10:43 AM on October 23, 2011


Its a while since I studied jazz piano - but I do remember my teacher advising me to switch from doing 2 octave scales and exercises to 4. He also recommended Jazz Hannon.

Absolutely seconding the idea that you get a teacher - but you can go further and get a group of other musicians to play with that would be great. A medium term goal might find a singer to accompany: half the challenge is learning to listen to each other.
posted by rongorongo at 10:56 AM on October 23, 2011


I would be shocked if there weren't workbooks specifically for learning jazz chord theory.

Prepare to be not shocked! My recommendation is the Jazz Piano Book by Mark Levine.
posted by dfan at 12:51 PM on October 23, 2011


I am an entirely self-taught jazz pianist – not a great one, either, although I guess I have my days. I can offer a few reflections:

First of all, I think people are correct in saying that it's a good idea to find a teacher or mentor of some kind. I haven't had one, and I've suffered for it. It's remarkable how much you can get from actually sitting down with someone and learning what they know about the instrument. As it is, I've had to get by with a lot of Youtube videos; while a teacher is great, I can recommend Youtube as well. This is a new resource that we have as musicians, and a tremendous one. Even a few years ago, getting close enough to an accomplished musician to see what they were doing so that you could try to imitate it was very, very difficult. Now it's simple. Just go to Youtube, search for a few of your favorite standards, and look for videos of people performing on piano. Really, I can't recommend that highly enough.

Second, I will echo the recommendation for Mark Levine's The Jazz Piano Book. That book has been a bible to me; and what's more, it's really laid out perfectly. It's aimed at the beginning student who has some knowledge of sheet music but wants the theory explained to them and would like to be referred to examples to listen to – that is, I think it's perfect for you. And it goes through these things in a solid, step-by-step way, though it's also great as a reference.

Lastly – Mark Levine recommends this, but I want to stress it, as it is, I think, the most important part of moving from the early, learning-the-scales steps to the next, real-beginner, actually-having-fun steps (and playing with people) – always learn everything in every key. Yes, that means transposing every single song you learn eleven times; yes, it means practicing each tune for a long time before concluding that you've learned it. This is one thing that differentiates Jazz from other musics, and it forms the basis for everything more advanced in Jazz that deals with chord theory and substitution and so on. It took me a while to get to this, much longer than it should have – partially because, I think, I didn't have a teacher to force it on me. But once I did, a whole world opened up, and playing became much more enjoyable. It's essential, for all Jazz instrumentalists but particularly for pianists, since we work with complex chordal structures: you must learn everything in every key.
posted by koeselitz at 1:32 PM on October 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


The key(s) to my success lie in the way I practice alone. I'll also skip the credentials and just list what has kept me ready at a moment's notice to sit in and be viable, after 20 years.

I will undoubtedly get a few snickers for this one, but I still practice with Jamey Aebersold. It keeps the standards fresh and more importantly lets me practice in my time, in my comfort zone with the Feel of having a band play with me. While Aebersold is a bit rigid in it's simplicity and standardization of time per song, it puts you in the ready to jump into any casual open mic situation/jam session invite and know the basic song structures well enough to completely change them to fit the situation and number of solo's. What I mean is, from these events you'll hopefully glean new ways to stay fresh when the bridge ends and you've got 6 or 7 people looking to put in a solo while you tinker in the background. Suddenly the song is ten times as long and you're the guy (ok, maybe the drummers too) who puts it all back together to repeat the main verse and bring it home (after your own solo, of course.)
The song changes from your home practice to fit the members of the group. Not just because of solo's but also by the level of skill/experience of those playing- you might find a leader who likes to keep it loose by having back & forth's for a few bars between the drummer and trombonist, for example, or between two sax players with such different playing styles that he (the band leader) wants them to play off each other, trading turns for 4 bars with their licks, all the while you've completely stopped playing for 3.5 of those repeating 4 bars. When they've riled up the crowd, you're expected to come in like at the right time, at the right place, with the right notes. I think my point was to stress song structure, so that you can completely forget song structure and then come right back to it.

I have to agree with anyone who politely tried to change your mind about sheet music.
I went out and dug up every real book from the ages and used them to make myself better. Being on a piano makes your life easier in that regard because every book in is your key. I'm on an Eb instrument and sometimes a book is only found in the Key of C. This taught me to transpose on the fly because it is a given that you will show up for a gig or go to a practice and be given some half printed, half written, half-assed, sheet of music that was scanned and copied minutes before, no matter how professional the gig is. It just comes with the territory. Be ready to play it, in any key, at any time. With a little bit of practice, that scenario becomes nothing more than a quick judgment call on why/how to change it. So having a home repertoire of old books can help you get used to that. For instance, I'll grab a book not in my key, pick a song, put on Aebersold and transcribe in my head while playing along. For me, that holds the same importance as knowing my scales.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Who do you listen to? Is it a group or a specific pianist? Get their sheet music and play the hell out of it (you can find transcribed solo's on the interwebs.) You know the rhythm and the style already, you're familiar with tempo and structure. All that's left is to play it yourself. You'll learn yourself much faster while essentially just practicing. Do you love a certain solo? Why did the performer play it that way with those specific notes at those intervals. The answer is, it doesn't matter- how would YOU play it. Answer that by learning what key the song is in, what key the soloist stuck to (or didn't stick to) and for how long before a key change. Take that info, then perform it your way a few times until you've cranked out a workable solo that hits the key changes and feels damn good to play. You've just put every boring, monotonous task that comes from standard practice texts through the Jazz improv wringer and come out with pride, enlightenment, AND something to bring to your next practice/open mic/jam session or gig.

There is still so much to say about the life, but most of it will never sink in until you're out there. So do just that- get out there. Accept an invite no matter how clunky you feel- you will learn something. If you completely botch something- you'll feel that sting but you'll also know exactly what you did wrong and exactly what to do in practice to fix it. There isn't much in life that gives you that kind of instant insight.


Good Luck : )
posted by MansRiot at 2:47 PM on October 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


here's a little tip that's worked for me. Try noodling around Chopin's prelude no. 4 (score can be downloaded here). The falling seventh chords in the base, and the simple melodic structure make it very suitable for a bluesy improvisation. Just throw in some Bbs and Ebs and gradually feel your way around the key of E minor.

My general non-professional method was to pick a key and just play around in it with some simple changes until I felt comfortable. Yes the piano makes everything technically transposable, but the different key positionings make each key feel different under your fingers, so I think it's worth getting the hang of them one by one.

As for standards, I guess if your friends like to play standards together, or you want to sit in at open mic clubs, then it's worth doing as well. Personally I prefer totally free improvisation.
posted by leibniz at 3:31 AM on October 24, 2011


Re Chopin Prelude 4, compare the download (above) performance with Sergio Tiempo's performance on YouTube. It's all in the timing and dynamics!
posted by RichardS at 4:56 PM on October 24, 2011


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