Honking car horns and your jazz piano playing

This morning I was walking out to my car, along with a neighbor who was walking to her car with her 3 kids. As we neared our building’s parking lot, a car across the street started honking. I barely noticed the honking and my neighbor kept walking as well.

But the honking persisted, and as my neighbor was getting her kids into her car, I finally looked up, mainly to see who was being so loud and obnoxious. To my surprise, it was a smiling woman, waving out her car window at us. She yelled to me, “Ask them if Jimmy wants a ride to school!”

As it turns out, it was the mother of a classmate of the youngest family member, Jimmy, and my neighbor joyfully accepted the woman’s offer to drive her son to school.

Even though it all turned out well, I kept asking myself, “Why didn’t we even notice the loud car horn at first?” And why did my neighbor and her kids completely ignore the honking and yelling which were directed at them by their helpful friend?

The answer, of course, is that we hear unnecessary car horns all too often. Constantly, in fact. People honk at us the split-second the light turns green. Cars honk when their doors are locked. Horns are so loud that we hear them as background noise all the way down the street.

The sad fact is that what was originally intended to keep us safe by alerting us to danger has become just one more thing that we ignore.

Leaving aside the safety factor, the point is that we tend to ignore something that we hear over and over again.

It’s the same thing with music. Even great jazz piano playing can get like this, when everyone sounds the same. Everyone learns the same A and B rootless chord voicings. Everyone develops the same rhythmic feel by playing along with Jamey Aebersold or computerized background tracks. And everyone learns the same Charlie Parker licks.

Do you want people to ignore your jazz piano playing, as my neighbor and I ignored the car horn?

No – of course not. We want people to listen to us when we play.

So yes, learn your A and B voicings. Play along with background tracks if you enjoy doing that. Learn every Charlie Parker lick.

I’ve done all these things too.

But at some point, gradually begin to put all that aside and cultivate your own style of playing jazz piano. Experiment with different chord voicings and find out which ones you want to play, instead of what some textbook tells you. Play rhythms that reflect your unique personality and that say what you want to communicate through your playing. And make up your own licks and melodic improv style.

All this will not only help you play in a more unique way, but you’ll find that people will enjoy listening to your jazz piano playing more. You won’t sound like all the other car horns out there!

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