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Ron's Blog on piano improv and the role of music in our lives

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7 Steps to Learning Jazz Standards on Piano

I’ve always been frustrated by the “artificiality” of much jazz piano instruction. None of this “play the 3rd and 7th of each chord” stuff seemed to fit in with how my own piano teacher, Billy Taylor, had himself learned. When he was starting out, he heard all the great standard songs on the radio, listened to jazz piano recordings, and dove right in by jamming with his friends. By contrast, the textbooks and much of the instruction being offered nowadays seemed too dry and often resulted in rhythmically stiff playing. Well, it’s taken me 30 years to finally solve the [...]

By |March 23rd, 2019|general|0 Comments

Bringing everything you have to jazz standards

A lot of aspiring jazz pianists think that they have to stay within a certain style when playing particular tunes. Usually, this style is closely associated with either the composer of the tune or a favorite musician who recorded it. This means that a Bud Powell tune like “Celia” will always be played with bebop phrases and comping with the left hand. And that “Cherokee” is “really a swing tune but can also be played bebop because Charlie Parker played it so much.” And that “Satin Doll” equals Duke Ellington and swing. “No bebop lines on that one!” However, I’ve [...]

By |March 17th, 2019|general|0 Comments

5 ways to work on your piano playing while on a business trip

Many of my adult piano students find themselves traveling on business without a piano and ask me what they can do during these times to keep working on their playing. If you yourself do any business traveling, you may find that it can be quite challenging to get any sense of continuity with your piano practice with all of these frequent (and sometimes lengthy) interruptions. (Ironically, touring musicians have the same problem.) Here are 5 highly effective ways I’ve come up with to practice your music while staying in hotel rooms or other temporary housing: 1. Keep the flame alive [...]

By |March 9th, 2019|general|0 Comments

How to avoid feeling overwhelmed by all the things you’re being told you need to practice on piano

Do you know those headlines that say something like "Studies show that eating tomatoes can help prevent disease?" I'll occasionally read these, and after citing the medical and nutritional studies at hand, they'll often end with "Of course, scientists say you'll have to eat 20 tomatoes per day to get the desired effect." When I first began reading these articles, I used to become discouraged. After all, I reasoned, no human can possibly eat that many tomatoes. And what's more, the article I read yesterday told me that I'd have to drink 10 cups of green tea in order to [...]

By |March 6th, 2019|general|0 Comments

Should you learn fingerings for blues scales on piano?

Should you learn fingerings for playing the blues scales on piano? I get this question all the time and while I know that there are books out there that give strict fingerings for all 12 blues scales, I've never used them. In general, the question of pre-determined fingerings all depends on what and how you want to play. If you're learning a Chopin piece then yes, you may want to learn a particular fingering for a passage since that's the only way you'll be able to rely on playing it fast. It can be the same thing with complex jazz, [...]

By |March 5th, 2019|general|2 Comments

The endless possibilities when playing piano from chord sheets

Imagine yourself in this position: You're at a party, and someone asks you to sit down at the piano, puts a chord sheet in front of you, and says "play this." What would you do? This is exactly what happened to a student of mine the other day and I'm happy to report that she had the ability and confidence to not only play something that sounded good, but that she enjoyed the experience! That's the first stage: learning how to play from chords and enjoy the experience. Once you begin to learn this skill, you'll find that it's easy [...]

By |March 3rd, 2019|general|0 Comments

Do jazz musicians ever use the tune’s melody when improvising?

Do jazz musicians ever use the tune's melody when improvising? The short answer is: yes and no. Some do, and most don't. The early jazz musicians did, and the early first-hand oral account of the birth of jazz tell us that jazz was indeed created in this way: One musician would play the melody "straight" while another musician improvised and embellished it. (Often a clarinetist.) Over time, jazz musicians began isolating the chords to a song, improvising their own melodies over them without referring to the original melody at all. This is one of the big innovations of jazz, and [...]

By |March 2nd, 2019|general|0 Comments

When learning jazz standards, “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be”

When I was in my early 20s, I would sometimes fill in at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Greenwich, Connecticut for the pianist Norm Kubrin. Here’s Norm playing the jazz standard “I Thought About You.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xjjMOOOEmwU One of the best things about the gig was that I got to play for 4 hours each time with some wonderful bass players, such as Russell George. http://palmcoastjazz.blogspot.com/2013/06/russell-george-interview-legendary-nyc.html This was in the late 1980s, when the swing-era players as well as the beboppers were older, but still very active. During our breaks from playing, Russell would tell of about his experiences playing with [...]

By |March 1st, 2019|general|0 Comments

Improvising like Mozart

Many pianists who want to improvise classical music go about it backwards. (By this I mean "ineffectively.") Instead of analyzing Mozart and then trying to improvise in his style, learn to improvise first, and then it'll be easy to improvise like him. Here's why: By learning how to improvise first, you'll begin to view written music in a new way. Then when you look at a Mozart Theme and Variations for example, you'll now understand what he did and you can try to play in a similar way to any given variation of his. It's fun to take, say, a [...]

By |February 26th, 2019|general|0 Comments

As an adult, you “own” your piano playing

Most people who played piano as a child took lessons and generally did what their teacher told them to do. The teacher selected much or all of the music, steered the child in a particular direction, and (hopefully) cultivated the child’s love of music in the context of piano study. Now, as adult, it’s different. You “own” your piano playing. You’re not doing it because your parents signed you up for lessons, or because it was taught in school. And you’re certainly not practicing because your teacher will get upset if you don’t. On the contrary… you’re playing piano because [...]

By |February 25th, 2019|general|0 Comments