I Actually Like Jazz Music

I remembered I was a teenager who’s fanatic about music. In my naive attempt to widen my listening experiences, I bought Bill Evan’s Sunday at the Village Vanguard. I didn’t like the album (and I still don’t). That album scarred me and put me off jazz for at least 20 years. I thought all jazz sounded like that – abstract and what’s the word? distant.

I recently pushed myself to learn jazz piano amidst a midlife crisis of some sort. I actually like Ahmad Jamal a lot. And yesterday I discovered Oscar Peterson which I like too. And today Dave Brubeck got me out of bed. My. I actually like jazz music after all! Not all of them sound like Bill Evan!

Creating Bass Lines is a Skill in its Own Right

I was practising to create a walking bass line in the left hand on the fly while I comp to Just a Closer Walk With Thee. Oh my, did I sound terrible even when this was my third time over the last two weeks trying to do so.

It just occurred to me that creating (walking) bass lines is a skill in its own right. I have certainly only created walking bass lines less than 10 times in my entire life up to now. So it makes sense that I am awkward at it. If you think about it, bass players play the bass line and they spend years to be a master at it. So, of course I am feeble when it comes to creating walking bass lines when I have less than 10 times of practice under my belt!

My jazz journey has only started…

Celbridge Piano’s Teaching Methodology

The vision is for students to enjoy creating music on the keyboard/piano. The goals to accomplish is that are to acquire skills in the following order (for children):

  • Students are able to learn by rote i.e. play by copying the teacher, someone else, youtube videos, etc. By learning by rote, students practice their skill in memorisation, a key skill in music making
  • After which students are able to play melodies by ear i.e. they hear a tune/song/piece on the telly/radio/movie and can replicate the notes.
  • After which students are introduced to theory of music where they dictate the melodies of the tunes they learnt.
  • After which students learn to harmonise the melodies using left hand chords.
  • After which students learn to play by lead/fake sheets. By this, they learn to add left hand accompaniment to written melodies, improvise melodies, and comp.
  • After which students learn to dictate the left hand using bass clef.
  • If appropriate, students are introduced to notation software e.g. Musescore.
  • Students are encourage to take an exam to consolidate his/her knowledge

The above steps are reiterated in increasing complexity.

After an appropriate level, students choose to focus on a style:

  • classical piano
  • jazz piano
  • rock/pop piano

Improvise in Baby Steps

I remembered a particular lesson with a student advanced in note reading – he’s probably grade 7 or 8 in ABRSM music grade. That lesson focussed on primarily improvisation. I got him to “just play anything” based on a set chord progression. We did a bunch of other things as well. Towards the end of the lesson, I asked him how did he find the lesson. He said he felt he didn’t know what to do at times as there were no notes.

On reflection now, I think I gave that student too much of a challenge. It’s almost like I have thrown him a piece of paper, some paint and say paint me something happy. For someone who is used to paint by numbers, having to decide what specifically to draw/paint and what colours to use must have been a monumental task. And yet I did that to my student.

If I had to redo that lesson, I would have started that student from the beginning, gave him easy tasks to complete and build up his confidence in improvising. For instance, based on a straight forward melody, I would ask him to, for example:

  • add upper neighbouring notes to the melody
  • add lower neighbouring notes to the melody
  • add passing notes to the melody
  • add appoggiaturas to the melody
  • add turns to the melody
  • using the same rhythm as the originaly melody, improvise using chord tones
  • change the rhythm of the first, second, third, etc note of every measure
  • add fill-ins – neighbouring notes, turns and chord tones

Hopefully through the above process, he would discover the joy of making small alternations to an existing melody and eventually be skilled at it.

Improvise Using Ornaments

I was adding upper neighbouring notes to the melody of When the Saints Go Marching In today. Then I thought, why not go back to the original note after the neighbouring note? Oh, we end up with a mordent played slowly.

I was then adding lower neighbouring notes to the melody. And then I went back to the original note after each neighbouring note. Ah, I ended up with lower mordents.

What if I add an upper neighbouring note followed by a lower neighbouring note? E.g. on the note A, I would play A, B, A, G, A. I end up with a turn!

It occurred to me that I was adding stuff to the original melody. Pretty stuff. Which is exactly what ornaments are.

Sure, adding ornaments can’t exactly be called improvisation. But for pianists who have been taught the traditional way i.e. note reading for years, surely this is a little win for them (and me)? You may pooh-pooh at the idea of adding ornaments to a melody and dismiss it as simple and easy. Simple yes. Easy no, at least not to me. It takes an open mind, ears and heart to consciously add ornaments to a melody (unless you are a skilled baroque player).

I believe adding ornaments to a melody is one of the simple ways to get classical musicians improvising. Go on, make the tune pretty. Play the pretty notes!

Improvising Requires Theory Knowledge

I was adding a upper/lower neighbouring note to a quarter note. As I wanted those two notes to take up a quarter note beat, both notes had to be eighth notes. I was sightreading the rhythm and mentally adding neighbouring notes left, right and center.

I do the above rather easily as I’m a piano teacher. But I was thinking – how easy would this be for my younger students who I have taught mostly by rote and ear? How do I explain to them that when an upper/lower neighbouring note is added to a quarter note, you play two eighth notes? Or equally, when a neighbouring note is added to a half note, each note becomes a quarter note.

I’m sure I could explain to them verbally what needs to be done. But I do wonder if it is so much easier if I could write it out for them. This is where music theory is a language which enables communication among musicians.

Learning to Improvise

I started on an improvement exercise yesterday – use chord tones to improvise over the tune When the Saints Go Marching In and use the same rhythm as the tune. I did it thrice yesterday. Grand. I did it today for three times again. Improvising using chord tones felt more enjoyable today.

I tried another exercise. Using lower and higher neighbouring notes, improvise over the same tune above. It was okay.

My takeaway point from the above is that improvising is a skill which requires practice, just like note reading. One doesn’t become good at improvising overnight. If it takes years to be proficient in reading notes and sight reading, why aren’t we investing the same number of years into improvisation?

How to Practice Piano?

Dr. Brent Hugh, Assistant Professor of Piano from Missouri Western State College listed 21 methods to practise the piano! There are many ways to practise, not just mere repetition. See which ones you already know and which ones you/your child may incorporate into your practice!

For instance, method 17 Record yourself is something that I repeatedly suggest to my students. See, I wasn’t making things up when I asked my students to record themselves (playing their pieces). A professor recommends it as a piano practice method too!

NOTE: a method may not be suitable for a student at a certain point in time. For example, I generally do not advise method 13 Count out loud for beginners or young students. It is already very difficult to memorise the notes and rests, play with appropriate finger posture, maintain concentration, relax the body, move the arms and hands, etc AND count aloud all at the same time? That’s too much for a beginner/young student. Besides, depending on the counting system used, the student needs to be very conversant with addition and fractions before s/he can count properly.

It is a good idea to ask your music teacher which practice method(s) is helpful for you/your child at different stages of their learning journey.

Characteristics of Musical Keys

This is a great resource: Characteristics of Musical Keys (biteyourownelbow.com)

From http://www.wmich.edu/mus-theo/courses/keys.html

From Christian Schubart’s Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst (1806) translated by Rita Steblin in A History of Key Characteristics in the 18th and Early 19th Centuries. UMI Research Press (1983).

C Major
Completely Pure. Its character is: innocence, simplicity, naïvety, children’s talk.

C Minor
Declaration of love and at the same time the lament of unhappy love. All languishing, longing, sighing of the love-sick soul lies in this key.

D♭ Major
A leering key, degenerating into grief and rapture. It cannot laugh, but it can smile; it cannot howl, but it can at least grimace its crying.–Consequently only unusual characters and feelings can be brought out in this key.

C# Minor
Penitential lamentation, intimate conversation with God, the friend and help-meet of life; sighs of disappointed friendship and love lie in its radius.

D Major
The key of triumph, of Hallejuahs, of war-cries, of victory-rejoicing. Thus, the inviting symphonies, the marches, holiday songs and heaven-rejoicing choruses are set in this key.

D Minor
Melancholy womanliness, the spleen and humours brood.

E♭ Major
The key of love, of devotion, of intimate conversation with God.

D# Minor
Feelings of the anxiety of the soul’s deepest distress, of brooding despair, of blackest depresssion, of the most gloomy condition of the soul. Every fear, every hesitation of the shuddering heart, breathes out of horrible D# minor. If ghosts could speak, their speech would approximate this key.

E Major
Noisy shouts of joy, laughing pleasure and not yet complete, full delight lies in E Major.

E minor
Naïve, womanly innocent declaration of love, lament without grumbling; sighs accompanied by few tears; this key speaks of the imminent hope of resolving in the pure happiness of C major.
F Major
Complaisance & Calm.

F Minor
Deep depression, funereal lament, groans of misery and longing for the grave.

F# Major
Triumph over difficulty, free sigh of relief utered when hurdles are surmounted; echo of a soul which has fiercely struggled and finally conquered lies in all uses of this key.

F# Minor
A gloomy key: it tugs at passion as a dog biting a dress. Resentment and discontent are its language.

G Major
Everything rustic, idyllic and lyrical, every calm and satisfied passion, every tender gratitude for true friendship and faithful love,–in a word every gentle and peaceful emotion of the heart is correctly expressed by this key.

G Minor
Discontent, uneasiness, worry about a failed scheme; bad-tempered gnashing of teeth; in a word: resentment and dislike.

A♭ Major
Key of the grave. Death, grave, putrefaction, judgment, eternity lie in its radius.

A♭ Minor
Grumbler, heart squeezed until it suffocates; wailing lament, difficult struggle; in a word, the color of this key is everything struggling with difficulty.

A Major
This key includes declarations of innocent love, satisfaction with one’s state of affairs; hope of seeing one’s beloved again when parting; youthful cheerfulness and trust in God.

A minor
Pious womanliness and tenderness of character.

B♭ Major
Cheerful love, clear conscience, hope aspiration for a better world.

B♭ minor
A quaint creature, often dressed in the garment of night. It is somewhat surly and very seldom takes on a pleasant countenance. Mocking God and the world; discontented with itself and with everything; preparation for suicide sounds in this key.

B Major
Strongly coloured, announcing wild passions, composed from the most glaring coulors. Anger, rage, jealousy, fury, despair and every burden of the heart lies in its sphere.

B Minor
This is as it were the key of patience, of calm awaiting ones’s fate and of submission to divine dispensation.

Why I’m Against Teaching Western Classical Music

I like the song Never Enough from the movie The Greatest Showman a lot. In fact, it’s on my bucket list. Here’s me playing it.

It’s not perfect. I learnt it mostly by ear. The melody by ear and the chords partly by guitar chord sheets. I like the song so much that it’s actually on my bucket list. The playing is not complicated at all. A melody in the right hand and block chords in the left hand. It’s probably grade 2 in standard. But I derive so so much pleasure when I play it.

Which makes me think why don’t more piano teachers:

  • allow their students, especially teenagers and adults to play pieces that they like; and
  • teach their students how to play by ear so that they can pick out songs/tunes by themselves?