Ignore rules, but embrace principles

Hey Improvisers,

It seems like everywhere we look these days, someone is telling us rules we need to follow:

“You need to use 9th voicings to sound good playing jazz piano.”

“Start with the blues before you play rock or jazz.”

“You have to practice everything in all 12 keys.”

Rules. And more rules.

But are they true?

Let’s look at it another way:

In a group of 10 pianists, how could any of these statements possibly be true for all of them? Can they even be true for 5 of them? 3?

Of course not. It all depends on the musical tastes, previous experience, and learning style of the individual, which none of these so-called “rules” takes into account.

Let’s look at the second “rule” above: “Start with the blues before you play rock or jazz.”

If you love, say, Emerson Lake and Palmer, the best way to proceed is to tap into your enthusiasm for their music. Immerse yourself in their recordings, which are not primarily blues-based. Learn a few of their songs, such as A Lucky Man and Take A Pebble. Eagerly jump into a transcription of Tarkus (if you want a real challenge!).

Would having a great time playing ELP’s music for a full year have any downside? No… none that I can think of. You’ll have a blast!

And then… somewhere along the way, you’ll hear a bit of bluesy ragtime influence come through in the way Keith Emerson plays the accompaniment to Jeremy Bender. And their bluesy adaptation of Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn.

So yes, learn those tunes too, and this may whet your appetite to dive into some traditional blues music.

You may go back to study the boogie woogie pianist Meade Lux Lewis, whom Emerson himself studied. And Otis Spann and the other great blues pianists of the earlier generations.

In other words, your enthusiasm for the music you love will have lead you to the blues after all, but in a very organic and enjoyable way. There’s no need to start with the blues if you love ELP. ELP will lead you to the blues one way or another because it’s in their music on some level.

It turns out that there’s a principle involved here:

“Rock and jazz are branches of a family tree that contains the blues in its trunk.”

Some of us will choose to begin with the trunk, and some with the branches. If you initially like the branches, then by all means, build a treehouse. Have fun. Practice songs you like. Jam with your friends. Form a band. Thrive.

And then, as you expand your musical horizons, check out the trunk as well.

But don’t let anyone’s so called “rules” dampen your enthusiasm by forcing you to go in another direction initially. It’s vital for us each to tap into our enthusiasm as much as we can.

Ignore rules, but embrace principles.

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”


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