What advice would Einstein give to bebop pianists?

It’s been a hundred years since Albert Einstein unveiled his General Theory of Relativity on November 25, 1915, and it seems to me that he still has a lot to offer musicians as well as scientists.

For one thing, Einstein was a musician. He loved playing the violin and recognized the value of improvisation at a time when it was disappearing from the classical music world. But even more than that, Einstein understood the learning process like few others do.

One of Einstein’s common quotes you see going around the internet is this:

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”

Now admit it. Aren’t you thinking, ” Yeah, yeah, that’s easy for a genius like Einstein to say. Sure, he may have been curious, but he accomplished what he did because he was a genius.” That’s what I used to think and I’ll bet it’s most people’s reaction to hearing him say this. (C’mon…admit it!)

Well, he may have indeed been smart, but so are lots of people. Maybe smarter than him. But he was curious. Very curious. And even more importantly, his curiosity was so passionate that he stayed with problems for years. Years!!! Long after his fellow scientists had given up on relativity, Einstein was still sitting there, trying to imagine what would happen to someone who moved at the speed of light.  What would they see? What would happen to time? Most of us “shut down” after about 30 seconds of an imponderable, but young Einstein didn’t. And keep this in mind: there was nothing about the subject that he could research. No book, no article, no Google, and no one to talk to for guidance. It was a complete unknown!

Yet he stuck with it.

Many pianists who are learning jazz feel the same way that Einstein did: “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” The problem is that most people give up far too soon. Bebop in particular can seem exciting yet forbidding to learn. From interviews I’ve read with him about science students, it seems Einstein would advise jazz pianists to let this curiosity become so passionate that you won’t rest until you’ve learned bebop.

For instance, the most famous bebop pianist is Bud Powell. But there was also Duke Jordan, Walter Bishop Jr., Billy Taylor, Al Haig, John Lewis, Horace Silver, and many others. Listen to them all, one by one. Then go back and listen to them again. Make a list of all the ways they’re similar and identify one unique characteristic of each. John Lewis and Horace Silver both recorded with Charlie Parker, yet they sound entirely different. When I first noticed this difference, I would spend hours listening to the way each created their piano intros and solos. I’m still fascinated by this when I listen to Parker’s Savoy recordings.

That’s the key: become fascinated. Play transcriptions. Make transcriptions yourself. Listen to how they comp behind soloists. Read interviews. Take lessons and ask your teacher as many questions as you can (hint, hint!). Take a full year and immerse yourself entirely in the sound of bebop. That’s what it takes, and that’s much of what my friend Giacomo Gates did while learning jazz singing. Check out Giacomo’s energetic version of “Jeannine“.

Albert Einstein didn’t give up, and if we’re truly passionate about learning, we won’t either.

I’d be happy to help you learn bebop and other jazz piano styles. You can get started here.



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