Jazz piano is easily among the most fascinating of all instrumental styles and is characterized by powerful improvisations and often unique voicing. It has earned an ever-growing fan base among music lovers in general.
Today, there is no shortage of fledgling musicians eager to try out jazz piano for themselves. Fortunately, such a goal is largely reachable, although only if you are willing to put in the time and effort to reach it. Allowing for the inherent differences in eventual skill level that natural talent will allow different people to reach, everyone can still manage to try out jazz piano given a willingness to learn.
Too Old to Learn Jazz?
The reason a lot of people never end up giving it a try is that they fancy themselves too old to learn jazz. In fact, some even fancy themselves of an age too far gone for learning how to play piano!
The notion that you can ever be too old to learn how to play an instrument or attempt a new musical style is a popular misconception. Arts like music transcend concerns like age: the middle-aged student can be just as able to learn as the pre-teen.
Most music instructors will tell you that they have had their share of older piano as well as jazz students and will also say that age has nothing to do with ability here. Thus, you should not allow common prejudices against older students to affect your determination. Even if you have never played piano before, you can rest assured that others have been (and are!) in the same boat. There are piano lessons geared specifically towards adults, too.
Is There a Difference Between Learning Jazz Piano and Classical Piano?
The answer is both yes and no. All piano playing uses much the same core principles. To be a good piano player, you need to get rhythm and melody, harmonic and meter. You need to have a good ear, supple fingers, proper positioning, and a sense of your own musicality. All of this is true whether you want to play classical or jazz piano.
That having been said, jazz piano does have some departures from classical piano playing. It tends to focus more on improvisation, for instance, whereas most classical piano performances tend to stay true to the score of the piece being played. Jazz has a more swinging beat and is typified by strong focus on rhythm.
Some argue that a sense of rhythm is more important for jazz pianists than melody, although the latter is important too and is largely a matter of individual harmonic style. The emphasis on rhythm is partly due to the importance of improvisation and group performances — without rhythm, a jazz pianist could never perform successfully with other musicians. This is also why most piano courses dealing with different musical styles typically place jazz piano lessons after courses on rhythm have been covered. Look at Robin Hall’s Piano for All series, for instance, which only really delves into jazz after several books on rhythm.
Most of the good jazz pianists still do classical first, though. That is because the classical techniques give a pianist a great feel for the foundational principles and those will become the base on which a good jazz piano player can be built.
Tips for Jazz Piano Students
If you are already starting on your jazz piano lessons, there are a few things you can do to help yourself along this road. The following are some of them:
- Practice with others. This enhances your abilities in a way that self-study cannot, and also fosters a stronger sense of fluidity in translating your ideas directly into notes. Remember that playing jazz is largely an exercise in both artistry and impromptu composition, after all. You need to be able to challenge yourself to put out the music in your head almost as soon as it is formed.
Keep in mind that you may not do too well during your first jam sessions with other musicians, though. It takes time to get a feel for when to enter the music and when to leave off. Do not forget too that your rests are as important as your playing moments: sometimes, a moment of silence to allow others to carry the tune is where you can be most effective, by the contrast of absence.
- Do a lot of aural study. That is, you should be studying a lot of jazz records to understand what really makes up jazz. Look for greats like Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk as well as newer, up-and-coming artists. This can introduce your ear to a broad range of jazz styles and phrasings. Most of the greats studied the art form this way too.
- Practice scales in different modes. The chord scales are the building blocks of jazz improvisation. Getting them down can help you become more fluent in using them to express your own musical ideas on the spot.
- Look for jazz transcriptions. It never hurts to do classical piano exercises like Hanon too, but they will not really stretch your jazz piano muscles. Jazz transcriptions are better exercises for people focused on this genre of piano playing.
- Do not scorn music theory. A strong background in music theory actually does a great deal for a jazz musician. Not only does it help you in learning some major and minor chord progressions but it also aids you in recognizing many of the chord symbols in notation. These can be very useful once you start trying to really flex your jazz muscles. Music theory also gives you great foundations, like familiarity with the 12 major scales.
- Learn the jazz rhythms. As opposed to playing a note per beat, a jazz pianist will typically do it on the 2nd and 4th beats of a metronome, as in high hat drumming. Practicing using this rhythm will also help you in keeping your time steady.
- Experiment with the voicing of your chords. Jazz chords are not always perfectly connected at the harmonic level. There are many different ways of voicing a single set of chords, so try them out until you develop your own style.