Playing to your musical strengths

I’ve been lucky to have had some wonderful piano teachers when I was coming up. One thing that made pianists like Billy Taylor, Hale Smith, and Harold Danko exceptional teachers is that they helped me develop my natural pianistic style, instead of trying to get me to play like them.

Unfortunately, many jazz piano teachers, some of whom I also studied with, spent a great deal of effort doing the opposite. I would come in with a new arrangement or composition that I was really proud of, and they would say “I thought you’d do something more “modern” or “No one plays steady rhythms in their left hand anymore.” I didn’t like it at the time and I don’t like it now.

What they should have said was “That sounds great! It’s in an older style, and Charles Mingus used to include the early jazz sounds in his writing too. Let’s dig deeper into that at the same time we analyze some Wayne Shorter tunes.” Or, “I like what you’re doing with your left hand. Keith Jarrett does that a lot too, when he plays solo. Keep working on that while we also see what kind of rhythmic flexibility Herbie Hancock uses when he plays chords with his left hand.”

Do you see the difference? It’s about developing what the student already enjoys doing, while at the same time broadening their musical range. Helping them grow and expand without denying their natural instincts.

I was reminded about all this a few days ago while teaching a lesson over Skype. The student played How High The Moon with a kind of half-time stride pattern in his left hand. (In half notes.) It didn’t perfectly fit the bebop lines he played with his right hand, but it had a certain charm and was related to the swing music he grew up hearing on the radio.

So instead of telling him that he had to play exactly like Bud Powell or something, I smiled and told him the truth: I really enjoyed what he was doing with his left hand and we should dive deep into that style. I emailed him a copy of my Pachelbel’s Canon Rag so he could get started on ragtime, and I also gave him an arrangement with different left hand voicings, so he could also better incorporate what Bud Powell and Bill Evans did into his own playing.

Its about moving in two directions at once. Developing the techniques you already know and enjoy playing, and learning new styles to grow as a pianist.

Keep this in mind when you practice this week. Ask yourself what you already enjoy playing, and work towards taking that a step farther. And also be sure to start learning a new technique that you’ve perhaps avoided up until now. Maybe it’s walking bass lines, or reharmonization. Or bebop soloing.

Most importantly, remember to have fun at every step of the way and “let the music flow!”

Learn the 5 Essential Left Hand Techniques with my free ebook: Left Hand Techniques for Jazz Piano
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