Aspiring jazz pianists: Start with the music you love!

What kind of jazz piano do you want to play?

The reason I ask is because if you’re like most aspiring jazz pianists, you have a favorite player you like to listen to, or a favorite type of jazz, or a specific jazz “sound” you want to create on piano.

The difficulty you’ve probably run into is that most jazz education is too generic. There’s such a massive amount of material presented in the form of chord voicings, scales, etc. that you might spend years practicing these before you ever get to the stuff that inspired you in the first place!

This is actually the downside of having so much published instructional material available to us. Beginning jazz instruction often focuses on dry, generic theory that none of the great jazz pianists ever started with themselves. (Fun fact: Bill Evans didn’t start out by memorizing A and B left hand voicings. What’s more, he didn’t even use them himself very often when playing solo piano!) On the other hand, if you do search out instruction methods in a specific style, the material is often too advanced for a beginner because they assume you’ve already spent years mastering the same things everyone else has practiced! You’re stuck either way.

A far better (and more enjoyable) approach is to start with the music you love. Ask yourself what jazz pianists, tunes, or styles inspire you the most and start with that. If it’s someone “advanced” such as Chick Corea, that’s fine. Learn a few of his melodies or arrangements and have a great time doing so. This is OK. It’s actually better than OK, it’s great! The experience you’ll get by doing this will give you the inspiration to go back and learn the basics you need to get started in a way that appeals to you.

Ask yourself what it is about Chick’s playing that you love. Maybe it’s the latin influence in his music, like on the tune “Spain.” Then yes, learn your A and B chord voicings, but play them with latin rhythms. Have fun and enjoy the process. After you can do this fluently, try a latin bass line with the chord voicings in your right hand. Then learn a few bossa nova or samba melodies. You’ll probably be learning some of the same latin tunes that Chick himself enjoyed playing when he performed with latin dance bands as a teenager. How’s that for a musical connection with one of your musical idols?!

You get the idea; start with what you love and let that lead you to learn the basics. You’ll still end up learning everything you need to know, but you’ll have a lot more fun along the way!

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