Every now and then, I face with a new challenge in my piano teaching.  The one at the moment is to help one of my 11-year-old piano students to get started with jazz piano improvisation.  I’m not an improviser, nor a jazz pianist, which makes it sound totally impossible to offer any help.  But there’s always a first time in everything, and to some extent you can learn as you go along.  That’s something this young boy and I are doing at the moment.  The fact he plays a saxophone in a school jazz band is a great contribution to what he can do at the piano already.  With a bit of reading skill and ear & hand coordination, I found a very useful book that can assist students like him to get started with basic artistry of improvisation.

This book comes with a selection of jazz numbers, which are categorized in 3 groups: Standard, Blues and Contemporary.  All the tunes in Book 3 are 2-page in length and reading is not that demanding, intermediate level students can learn each tune very quickly.  Then, each tune has an improvising section where notes are not written out except the left hand bass line.  But this book comes with a CD with a sample improvisation inserted in each tune.  Most young learners don’t have much musical vocabulary with which they can play around to be able to improvise.  So, this is where vocabulary building starts by exercising ‘playing by ear’ method.  With a portable music player such as iPod in front of you, you can listen and stop and copy over and over until you internalise the sample improvisation.  It seems like a painstaking process but that’s probably the best way to get started!  You’ll soon discover the joy of being free from notation, and also your aural skill becomes much sharper, as a result your hand coordination improves.  Once the sample improvisation is under your fingertips, you can start experimenting by changing a note or two using the selected notes given in each tune or varying the rhythmic patterns, and not to forget, adding some rests!  The key thing to start with is to try not to fit too many notes in one phrase.  Best to try starting with a 3- or 4-note pattern followed by some space by adding rests, so you have time to listen and think ahead at the same time!  And of course, there’s a limit to what you can do with experimenting improvising this way, and the obvious next step would be to listen to jazz recordings to learn how seasoned jazz players improvise.  A suggested listening is also indicated at the end of each tune in this book, so you can get some new ideas from it and try and come up with your own.

This is a new territory for me but I think this 11-year-old student and I getting are somewhere with this method.  One day when he wants to learn more serious jazz playing, hopefully by then he’ll have had some basic elements covered that are useful in learning the true artistry of jazz piano playing, then I can proudly send him off to a good jazz piano teacher.

Sample pages from the book are here: http://www.sheetmusicplus.com/title/Jazz-Piano-Level-3/4814588