I just received a new course catalogue from the Benslow Music Trust, which includes Tim Richards’ ABRMS Jazz Piano Syllabus for Piano Teachers, which was introduced for the first time last year.  I thought I’d contribute my thought regarding the course, hoping that it would encourage many apprehensive piano teachers to try it out themselves.

I suspect most classically trained pianists and teachers would feel hesitant when they hear the word ‘jazz improvisation’, let alone working such art form with their students. In my view, it’s not that we’re not interested in it, it’s just that the whole concept involved in jazz improvisation seems very foreign to us and we simply don’t know where to start. But yet, we know that children in general love catchy jazzy tunes and their choice of music from the exam pieces most definitely includes a jazzy one. You may say, why bother with improvisation when they can enjoy playing jazz music from the notation only?

Children are naturally curious and imaginative being. Young ages are the best period in their lives where they can explore unknown territories carefree. Just for that reason only, I strongly feel that it’s our duty as piano teachers to provide an environment for them to be able to explore the world of piano playing from various angles. Especially creative approaches that would lead them to acquire a skill to think outside the box. Jazz improvisation can be one of such creative exercises that teachers can incorporate into their conventional piano lessons. But where do we start? This exact question lead me to attend a 3-day course at the Benslow Music; ABRSM Jazz Piano Syllabus for Piano Teachers. The tutor was Tim Richards, a very seasoned jazz pianist and inspirational (and very, very patient!) teacher. From the title, the course seemed to be intended for piano teachers who are preparing their students or themselves for the ABRSM jazz piano exams but I felt that it also could be suited for those who:

  • wish to have a little dip into the world of jazz improvisation without any previous knowledge
  • are interested in learning a few new ideas for jazz improvisation
  • are interested in how basic jazz improvisation can be introduced and taught in piano lessons
  • are budding piano teachers or teachers-to-be who wish to build their teaching ideas
  • wish to get a grasp of basic jazz harmony and structure

‘Jazz improvisation’ can sound very daunting for those who have never tried it before. But what if you say instead, ‘Let’s have fun messing around with a few notes from the scale and create our own tune!’ I’m sure that many teachers have already done that with their students, especially when students are at the early beginner level. In my personal opinion, this jazz course for teachers was to learn one of such methods that you could have fun yourself or with your students in a structured way while getting to know different music styles; improving your aural skill, ear-eye-hand coordination, steady pulse, phrasing, musical shaping and articulation, understanding of the form & rhythmic and harmonic languages, etc. Here’s a quick view of what went on in during the three days:

  • Blues – 12-bar harmonic progression; 2 pentatonic scales; basic improvisation using 3-note; various bass patterns; improvisation techniques, etc.
  • Listening/suggested listning to jazz piano masters – cultivating the ear to understand the feel of vairous jazz piano styles by listening to many influential pianists in jazz history, such as Jelly Roll Morton, Jimmy Yancey, Mead ‘Lux’ Lewis, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Art Tatum, Theornius Monk, Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson, Horace Silver, Wynton Kelly, Abdullah Ibraim to name a few.
  • Basic jazz chords including tritone – chord(LH) & arpeggio(RH) workout routines around the circle of fifth
  • Basic jazz scales – Mixolydian, Dorian, Lydian, Flat 3 Pentatonic, Minor Pentatonic; chord & scale relationship
  • Harmonic analysis – recognising I-IV-V & II-V-I in the tune both visually and aurally
  • RH & LH coordination – chord with rhythmic variations (LH) & simple scale pattern(RH)
  • Jazz/Classical style comparison – pedal use; treatment of quavers; articulation; tempo, etc.
  • Performing – pieces from ABRSM Jazz Piano Pieces books with improvisation added (one each from Blues, Standard and Contemporary sections)
  • Slash chords – polychord (2 different chords played between the hands)
  • Embellishment methods – top harmony; grace note; glissando; arpeggio, etc.
  • Fun with scales & arpeggios! – various walking bass(LH) & major scale/broken chord/arpeggio (RH); duet with a teacher or solo to exercise improvisation
  • Various LH chord style – rhythmic variation; swing & Latin feel; shell; rootless voicing
  • Improv within a secured comfort zone – 5-finger position(RH); start with any note of the scale; as many melodic variations as possible with 4-note pattern, including various pentatonic scale notes; cue (teacher gives a starting note) & respond game, etc.
  • Sing and Play game – play back (RH) the melody you just sang over 2-chord harmony (LH)
  • Exploring various pentatonic scales – start from any note of the scales
  • Interval singing – P4, P5, M2 m2, etc.
  • Aural trainingtapping on given beat(s) or upbeat of given beat; echo singing; improvise answering phrase to a given phrase; quick study (improvise a continuing phrase to a phrase learned by ear or at sight) with a single hand or both

 

Since I was a college student my interest in jazz has always been there in the background. I went through countless books on how to learn to improvise. So, I had a very basic knowledge of jazz harmony, including various types of scales often used in jazz idiom, but putting them into practice was a tricky part, especially when I had to step out of my comfort zone. Having been so used to read the notes put in front of me, when I see the suggested notes in the improvisation section, I can’t help playing those notes in the written order – that’s hardly an improvisation! Having attended Tim Richard’s jazz piano course for teachers was a great help in a sense that he knew what our habits are as classically trained pianists and taught us how to get out of it and what’s more is that he also taught us how to pass it onto our students.

As you would agree, it usually takes years of training to master something that requires intricate skills. The same goes for jazz piano playing/improvisation. So, how can we, classically trained pianists, possibly teach jazz improvisation to our students after having attended just a 3-day course? If your students feel serious about becoming a professional jazz pianist, then it goes without saying that they should be sent to study with professional jazz pianists to be trained as one. But for most piano learners, jazz is just one form of styles of music that provides relief and pleasure. When you look around the current music scene you hear full of styles that are influenced by jazz music in some form or the other, whether it’s pop, rock, or even some of classical music! I’m sure that’s the reason why many piano learners are drawn to play jazzy pieces because they find it accessible and they can easily relate to it.

Now getting back to the question I posed. Can a 3-day course prepare teachers to be able to teach jazz improvisation? As long as teachers posses genuine interests in the subject and prepare to dedicate some time to extend their knowledge on the subject, I think it’s possible. In this jazz course for teachers, we had a frame work within which we could focus on, using ABRSM jazz piano grade exam pieces from Grade 1 to 5 (mainly 1 – 3). The pieces are quite simple but it allows you to experiment with it based on the information that each piece presents, in terms of form, harmony, scales, tonality, etc. Just to be able to give students opportunity to ‘look into’ the piece of music from a different angle in such way, I think it’s worth spending some time to learn how to improvise and pass the acquired knowledge to their students however basic it can be. This may open the door to a new venture for your students. You’ll never know where it’ll lead but I’m sure your students will have joyous time while learning how to improvise. I always feel that if you can teach someone something you’ve learned, and that person understands it too, your understanding is proven to be well enough. In that sense, teacher and student are learning new skills together.

Even if you’re not preparing for the jazz exam, there can be ways to incorporate the elements of jazz improvisation into your regular lesson curriculum. For example if your student is currently learning a jazzy solo piece, you could add an improvisation section to it so that s/he gets a glimpse of the essence of jazz music – freedom to create your own melody within a certain frame. Or you could try one easy jazz piece from the ABRSM Jazz Piano Pieces books. You could modify the scales that your student already know to fit within the harmonic structure of the piece. A little freedom from written notations can be very liberating and boost students’ confidence in piano playing and also help to them to get a grip of music theory in a practical way as well as improving their rhythmic sense, including the coordination skills required for that.

Regarding the level of skills required for playing jazz piano, for those who are about grade 2 to 4 standard, a good place to start is probably jazz grade 1 to 2. For those who are about grade 5-8 standard may try jazz grade 3 to 5. Playing the written part of the piece may be relatively easy but the improvisation section will get more challenging above jazz grade 3 because you have to coordinate your improvisation with rhythmic harmony in the left hand.

Now, for the teachers whose immediate intention to use jazz improvisation in their piano lessons is not on their card just yet, the question would be, ‘How can this experience be useful to your conventional piano lessons?’ If it doesn’t fit within the repertoire you teach, it doesn’t have to be in a form of jazz improvisation. Perhaps, applying similar exploring methods to get around the problems that students are facing (technically, aurally, etc.)? For examples, if you student feel stuck on a particular spot in the music which doesn’t seem to improve. You could try an improvisation game in a piano duet style, using the notes from the problematic passage; your student copies what you plays; when the student gets a hang of it, s/he now creates an answering phrase using the same selection of notes; make sure to explore as many variations as possible here. Then, found out how the written notes in the problematic spot in the music are formed, the student may have played it or similar one in his/her improvisation. Looking at the same thing from a different angle often helps you overcome the stubborn problem.

I was very glad that I attended this course, although I was slightly apprehensive because I knew I had to go outside my comfort zone to learn something unfamiliar. It was the most intensive 3-day learning course I’ve had for a very long time. Preparing one piece each day with improvisation had us go straight to the practice rooms whenever possible, reviewing over what we’ve learned from the previous sessions. I also met likely-minded passionate teachers who wish to bring a fresh approach into their lessons exploring jazz music. Needless to say, accommodation and full board service were spot on at the Benslow. Practice rooms were always available; you can practise until 11pm. If early in the morning, you can choose a digital piano with a headphone on, which was strangely my preferred way of practising when it comes to working on improvisation; something about using other than piano tones helps me to improvise better; and also it was very private!

I hope this post provided some ideas as to what to expect in the Tim Richards jazz course for piano teachers at the Benslow Music and how you can make use of it even if your intention doesn’t include entering your students for the ABRSM jazz piano exams, and those teachers who feel a little apprehensive about attending such course as this are encouraged to try it out themselves and learn a few ideas to incorporate some elements of jazz improvisation into their piano lesson curriculum.

Stay creative!

===follow-up news===
This course came with a coupon (valid until June 2016) to enter myself or my students for ABRSM Jazz Exam free of charge. I’m happy to announce that my teenage student passed Jazz grade 4 with distinction. Some time in the future, I’d like to write a blog about how I help him prepare for the exam. He was juggling with GCSE exam preparation, so he had the very limited time he can allocate to practise improvisation. So, I created worksheets to cover everything he needs to know in a relatively short time scale to be able to improvise comfortably. So that he can apply the learned concepts to the improv section of the 3 pieces, Quick Study and in the aural section of the exam. It was sort of a shortcut method (if there’s such thing!). In addition to Tim Richards’ useful books and tips, I extensively used Bert Ligon’s Comprehensive Technique for Jazz Musicians. What I like about this book is that Bert also refers to classical music examples to reveal how the composer used a simple chord notes to elaborate melody lines. It’s an eye opening experience for those pianists who have never looked at the ever so familiar melody lines that way. Learning improvisation will definitely help increate an analytical skill for learning written pieces, no doubt.

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