From Classical to Jazz - For Teachers

Of late, I have happily read of many Classical piano teachers asking for advice on how to deal with requests from students, of all breeds, on dabbling in jazz piano.  Students seem to develop an interest in jazz having been studying Classical piano due to the freedom it provides as well as the more modern chord types (read: sounds) it allows.

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Jazz (improvisation) is very useful to the Classical pianist (teacher and student) for a number of reasons:  it gives freedom to discovering more interesting notes on the piano than sheet music traditionally provides from the classics (Chopin/Bach, et al), it provides aural development due to the wider range of sounds (read: modes, blues notes), it subconsciously pleases the student which encourages them to stick to piano (and you as their teacher!) and it provides opportunities for the student to discover what I call their Musical Personality, without which even Classical piano pieces cannot be performed as successfully as should (and could) be the case with the pianist.

In this article, you will read some tips and tricks for both dealing with students who wish to dip their toes, feet, or lower limbs into the jazz pool.  As is common with me, I have a philosophical approach (such as is the title of my jazz piano book) so I hope that you will find from these few words something more than just advice but also a drop of inspiration, motivation or some kind of enhanced awareness of subconscious programming as I believe all educators should have, very much to the benefit of their students as well as themselves.

The Request

From what I have read, the untrained jazzer in you, the no doubt excellent Classical piano teacher, freezes on the spot at the first hint a student wishes to drift into the world of jazz, assuming it is something you are able to help them with, not really understanding that in fact, jazz and Classical music are very different in terms of performance (improvisation, no music, all memory or on-the-spot) and theory (modes, blues, extensions, etc).  But fear not.  Following these three introductory steps below is your sure-fire way of getting your student excited (hopefully!) and on the right path without them even suspecting that you don't know your blues scales over #9 voicings to your Dorian scales over sweet m9 chords (explained in my video playlist on YouTube):

  1. Tell them that you cannot simply enter the world of Jazz without understanding its history, or why and how it exists in the form it does today.  Depending on their age, suggest that they read this page if adult (no affiliation) or this page if under 14 or so (no affiliation).
  2. Once they have studied this and understand how jazz came to be and how it developed, highlight the fact that jazz started with the blues.  Blues is a 12 bar round, typically using 3 chords (but can be more complex): the I, the IV and the V, underneath (meaning played with the left hand) the same key's blues scale on top (in the right hand).  Blues is the absolute must starting point; do not venture anywhere else until blues has been discovered, explored, felt and experienced.
  3. Push your student to listen to blues and then let them spend some days discovering some jazz online at their own leisure; it's a good idea, and thank goodness YouTube highlights both tragically bloody awful and biblically astonishing examples of all jazz musicians, to listen to a variety of performers playing complete nonsense as well as listening to the greats such as Oscar Peterson.  If they don't 'get it' after digging the links I have provided below, plus anything else they may listen to, and as much as this may go down like a lead balloon with some, give up with them!  Trust me. They are simply not ready.  But hopefully they will enjoy what they listen to.

The Development

You must always stay a few steps ahead of the lessons, but you will be happy to know that jazz students need more a sense of theoretical assistance than demonstrations from you, the teacher, since they are on a path of self-discovery due to the development of their musical personality rather than the former Classical need to follow notation and apply correct fingering.

In terms of the type of theory you need, these books do the job well of being your starting point.

Each lesson, remind the student that to play jazz, a solid understanding of Classical theory is no less important now; indeed, without such knowledge of 'borrrrring' scales, jazz could not be played or understood.  One must understand major and minor scales, degrees (root, 5th, intervals, etc) and chord types to play jazz so do not feel that your plethora of knowledge re. Classical piano theory has all gone to waste on this particular student.

Indeed, Oscar Peterson thanked his childhood teacher, a I am proud to say Hungarian student from the Liszt Academy of Music here in Budapest (all great pianists go back to Liszt), as can be discovered in this video around the 5 minute mark:

I advise against using notation in jazz piano education for the simple reason that jazz is an expression of the self; as soon as black dots get involved, it becomes rigid, forced and artificial.  By all means encourage students to write improvised melodies to internalise for practice in the early weeks and months, but do not give them scores of music by pianists or transcriptions galore because they will be ignoring their own musical personality this way and become copies of others.

For fear of making this post too long, I shall bring it now to a close and encourage you to comment, share, question or add to this article and encourage your students or colleagues to have a little look at my YouTube channel and/or books.  I am always happy to answer questions and take requests.

Good luck!