For Teachers: On (Jazz) Piano

During my virtual vagabonds through the world of Internet, I have picked up on a few trends and mindsets which concern me.  In addition, I have noticed that mental attitudes of pianists, more specifically so those of teachers, are regrettably a few dots off centre in terms of action, approach, thought, persona (detected through words written and thoughts shared) and ability in teaching (within the realms of this blog), jazz piano.

I commence with a disclaimer:  I am aware that the majority of piano teachers are qualified, experienced and perhaps even successful performers in their own right.  I astutely observe that many, if not all, teach for the love of teaching and the joy of watching students grow under their tutorship.  With this is mind, I wish to not offend, but rather encourage a particular approach and mindset which I trust will benefit a good few to guide their students in a more pleasurable way for both in the field of jazz piano education.

I begin with 3 points of note:

  • Many teachers pose questions about difficult students and how to deal with those who uninterested or who show little care in practice at home (parents' encouragement or not);
  • It seems a common trend for teachers to need to open up their students to more 'jazzy' playing styles but due to their classical training and experience, they are ill-equipped to successfully assist;
  • Discussion on the physical side of piano playing is just saturated by comments on rotation, wrists, elbows et al, all which lead to no definitive solution.

It is an inherent obligation of a teacher to firmly define their time.  A student under the tutorship of a strict, timely and assertive teacher will benefit more than one of a more lacklustre disposition.  This is not only a conscious, outward observation of the teacher's personality, but more importantly a subconscious lesson for the student for they will, without conscious thought, adhere closely to the rules and teachings acquired during each lesson; the gentle severity of the assertive teacher moulds, through repetition, their subconscious to take lessons seriously whilst developing their student mind into a receptive, quick-learning and attentive sponge.

A student who shows little interest is merely acting subconsciously; this must be understood.  They do not necessarily dislike the teacher, piano or music in general, but are being negatively influenced by some outside, unknown force which must be identified.  Rather than the teacher become overly-sensitive and concerned that they are falling short of their paid-for obligation, they should become the friend, the psychologist, the 'one to go to' so that the student feels at peace to discuss, even passively, that which is acting as an obstacle to their interest in piano.  Each case being unique, the teacher must be less strict about money and time and more focused on encouraging the student to prioritise their thoughts and to find an honest place for piano in their lives.  A good idea is to spend a piano lesson writing down what the 'uninterested' student likes in the world, then what they would like to change, and finding similarities between your own life and theirs, adding that music through the piano helped to make your life better.  A demonstration of a piece of music which helped you through a particularly difficult moment in your life will open a channel with this 'uninterested' student and will most likely affect them on a level deep enough to want to continue with you for you have given them a means to an end; music will solve their problems.

Teaching jazz piano without being a jazz pianist is not really the best position to be in, but as a professional music teacher, you are already light years ahead of your students abilities anyway (one would assume).  To be 3 or 4 lessons ahead in terms of jazz theory is marginally acceptable but you must remember that jazz piano is not classical piano; there is no sheet music, chords must be understood (the jazzy ones, including rootless voicings and extensions), blues scales and 'colourful notes' must be known and understood, etc, etc.  I naturally advise you to purchase my unbelievably cheap jazz piano eBook (read more here) to give you an enormously useful foundation in jazz piano technique from a more philosophical approach, but aside from this, jazz piano education is founded more on listening than theory (not to say jazz theory is not necessary).

To start your students on jazz, dedicate at least 1/4 of the lesson listening to at least 1 recording of a jazz pianist.  Perhaps highlight important or interesting moments in the piece so that the student begins to develop an ear for jazz.  Jazz is to be listened to, not heard.  On the piano, having prepared yourself beforehand, introduce jazz using the 12 Bar Blues and highlight how rhythm is paramount in jazz.  This introduction using the blues enables you to have a framework within which many jazz areas can be discussed:  timing, blues scales, fingering exercises, chord types, call-and-response improvisation ideas, etc.

Finally, I am well and truly eye-drunk by the enormity of discussion on hand technique and wrist action and arm movement and weight and... ... ... oh, excuse me, I must have nodded off.

Liszt always taught that every hand is different and never wasted a moment teaching his students either how to play like him, or how to play the piano 'against the grain'.  It is arguably true that arm position, posture and general hand control are of great use to the pianist, but such lengthy discussion ultimately ends up nowhere.  The reason is:  every hand, arm, finger shape, strength, size, arm muscle, weight, forearm/upper-arm length and weight , finger span... is different.  This is the only reason why such discussion is utterly futile.  May I propose a closure on the topic?

In my YouTube videos, for both jazz and piano beginners, I always say that I will not teach finger position/fingering because even I myself play the same piece using different fingers, and there is a reason for this which I would like to share and perhaps try to encourage you to also adopt:  See the piano not as 88 keys that we play with 10 fingers.  See the piano is a palette upon which we produce required tones.  In thinking less physically, and more mentally, we train our mind to spend more energy creating and less energy on muscles and fingering.  It seems impossible at first, but once you allow your students to play naturally but with your recommendations on fingering, they will progress more quickly.  How?  Because subconsciously, the mind has become more free to focus on the music and not be distracted by conscious thought on 'correct' (what is correct?) fingering.

In one of his lessons, Liszt explained how he did not want to hear double octaves, he wanted to hear the horses charrrrging into battle!  This is a lovely way to help you understand my point: he did not say:  "Don't play the octaves like that, with your arm dropped and your wrists raised, play like this...".  He was not interested in how  the sound was produced, he was interested in the sound being produced.

I wish you all well with your students and own studying and remember: