Practice Time

The questions that often comes up from parents and students are “how often, and how for how long” should one practice between lessons. As I often remark to parents and older students, that practice is not the issue. It is when one does decide to practice, whether it is in an everyday disciplined routine, or on occasion – it is being mindful and fully engaged in the activity in the dedicated time frame. So, I do agree that opening up into the experience in the present moments is what will tap into a heightened sense of creativity. Clarity is also achieved to provide a better understanding of all musical concepts that will result in a very artistic and convincing performance; if that is the goal.

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Transitioning from classical piano to jazz piano

Many classically trained pianists are interested in learning jazz piano. Classical training will help physically but not a lot mentally. Your ability to play notes, chords, runs, etc, will all be very useful and put you ahead of the learning curve.

That said, jazz is mentally a fundamentally different way of approaching music. Some classical people think that just like Bach sounds different than Debussy, jazz is just a different sounding kind of music. It isn’t. It’s a different way of approaching music, primarily focusing on chord progressions and how to improvise over them.

I could not have come as far as I have given the given time I’ve spent without the classical training. So you will benefit from all of that training. But be prepared to learn a new method of making music. For me it’s been one of the most rewarding journeys I’ve undertaken.

Learning Jazz Piano: The Process

What skills are required to play jazz piano? What should you expect to learn from a jazz piano teacher?

Improvisation: The element that defines jazz, improvisation is in large part about self-confidence, risk-taking, and the will to explore and experiment. But jazz piano improvisation also involves tools that can be studied both theoretically and practically: a knowledge of harmony (chords), melody (scales), jazz rhythms and phrasing, and the general vocabulary of the jazz language.

Comping, short for “accompanying,” is what a jazz pianist does when another instrumentalist or vocalist is playing or singing the melody. Comping is improvised, and involves all of the basic elements of improvisation; but it relies more heavily on a knowledge of harmony — and more specifically, chord voicing. The more options you have for voicing a C7 chord, for instance, the more creative and supportive your comping can be.

Playing in a group and playing solo piano: A jazz pianist must know how to do both. The first concern when playing in a jazz ensemble is a pianist’s left hand — it must not clash with the bass player; it performs different, non-bass-like functions. Ensemble playing also involves close interaction between all players. When others are improvising, the pianist has to be a keen listener, able to react in the moment.

Knowing the jazz standard repertoire: Performing with musicians you have never met, let alone rehearsed with, is a fact of life in the jazz world. Jazz musicians do this easily when they are familiar with the standard repertoire. Because jazz musicians know the same tunes, they can use this knowledge as a starting point and go on to improvise from there.

Solo jazz piano is a special challenge, because you have to emulate the rhythmic intensity of a jazz ensemble without the support of bass and drums. The jazz piano soloist must provide the bass notes, harmony, melody, and groove — essentially the job of three or four instruments.

Creative interpretations: Knowing the tunes is not enough. Jazz is a creative art, and the essence of jazz lies in experimenting. If you want to create your own jazz piano arrangement of Autumn Leaves, you will have to be comfortable with the basic elements of music — harmony, melody, rhythm, and form — and able to make choices: combining different sounds in different ways, and deciding how far to alter any of these elements from how they have been done before.

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Relaxed Playing

If you are not using the proper technique you will get sore. The entire playing mechanism which includes the wrists, forearms, elbows and the shoulders should be relaxed. It should never be tense. How do you relax while playing a difficult piece in mind,say a Liszt Etude?
One answer to that would be a sigh. Yes,a sigh. A sigh effectively relaxes muscles and reduces tension in areas where you might not even realize you are tensing.

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Beethoven on dynamic markings

There is a story I read (can’t remember which book) where some famous pianist/composer sent Beethoven a letter asking him about dynamic markings for a piano piece. He received no answer so he wrote again and again a 3rd time. Finally Ludwig answered him scathingly with words to the effect of “Do you think I’m such an idiot that I would play it twice the same way? Play it how you feel it!” So much for purism.

Performance Anxiety

Different people respond differently to stress as we all know. Some thrive while others worry, deflate… One thing we all have in common however, is the we all need to breath to stay alive. As simple as it may sound, ‘don’t forget to breath’! You have probably heard it from lots of people. Here are a few tips that have worked for me under pressure:

1. Breathe regularly while playing piano
2. Breathe deeply (use your diaphragm)
3. Cycle a pleasant scenario of your piano performance in you mind (example, you enjoying yourself as well as the audience)
4. Rehearse effectively for your performance by mentally placing yourself on stage while following the routine above.(Great confidence builder when time comes for the real thing!)
5. Relax and feed off your own positive energy at least until the audience gets into it. The mind responds very positively as well to self-validation.

An audience is likely to get more enjoyment out of your performance if they see you are fully engrossed in your piano playing swinging. And even if they do not , you know you had a blast!

When you practice piano, don’t just practice the music, practice your state of mind. Always practice in a mode where you can be completely focused, relaxed, and aware of what you’re playing and what comes next. You don’t want to practice panic.



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Sight Reading

Don’t look at your hands: keep your eyes on the music. If you have to look, glance with your eyes, but don’t move your head.

Learn to look one beat ahead: quickly memorize each beat before you play it so that you can already be looking ahead while you are playing. As you get better, you will be able to recognize notes and chords faster, so you will be able to look farther ahead as you are playing. (This doesn’t mean stop, memorize, go, stop, memorize, go… what it means is that you are constantly playing, but instead of always focusing only on what your fingers need to do RIGHT NOW, you are always looking ahead, having already quickly read and remembered what you are playing right now – that way, you have already seen every note that you play; albeit, you have only just seen those notes a few seconds earlier. Especially when you see that you have a rest coming up, that is a GREAT opportunity to look farther ahead and remember what you have seen.) It doesn’t give you a lot of preparation time, as you really are only seeing for the first time what you will be playing in a second or five seconds or ten seconds, but it certainly helps.

Count out-loud.

Practice scales and arpeggios and chords without looking at your hands, so that when you are sight reading, you don’t have to look away from the score to play such passages. Practice scales and arpeggios and chords so that you will recognize the patterns in music when you seen them, and so that you won’t have to worry about fingering.

Learn to recognize patterns: see notes as parts of chords, not just as single notes.

Remember what you have already played. Remember the key signature and time signature. Remember accidentals. Remember recurring patterns. Remember harmonic progressions (if you can recognize the progressions as you are playing: we actually have to do this in my class. As we are all sight-reading together, say, a Beethoven Sonata, one of the students is assigned to shout out the chord progressions as we (and that student) sight-read the music.)

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Melody Phrasing For Piano

One of the goals during piano lessons is to discover and illuminate the hidden threads of musical structure in pieces. Adjustments are a matter of discovering the emotional content of each phrase, carefully shaping the dynamic while following the logical progression of a line—becoming aware of where it started and where it ended. Thus what had been merely a pleasant listening experience can become visceral and compelling.