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Colours in jazz piano playing

Jazz pianist

Drawing out colours in jazz piano playing

I spent a day last week working with jazz piano students at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a rather unique position for me to be in as a piano teacher and the nearest comparison would be to learning singing, where roles can be divided. Traditionally the voice teacher will spend a big part of their teaching on building the voice, and the vocal coach will then work on the language along with style and interpretation. From what I’ve discovered, jazz pianist students predominantly work with their jazz piano teachers on the language of jazz, and there isn’t much time left to work on their piano technique. They don’t want to and don’t have time to learn classical repertoire in order to study piano technique, so there is a gap.

Most of the jazz pianists I have worked with in this way over the years, and these from the RAM were no exception, play the piano with a focus on the percussive elements – light, rhythmic, staccato playing mostly on the surface of the keys. I feel my role is to offer other possibilities, a broader palette of colours for them to choose from. What happens if they use a Chopin legato for example, that focuses on the singing tone of the piano? How does it sound when they discover all the different ways they can sink into the keys and create a warmth and resonance in the chords they play? How is it when they don’t attack the first note of a phrase rhythmically but instead move towards another part of the phrase? I didn’t in any way want to make them play jazz in a classical style, nor did I want to disrespect the huge and different requirements jazz requires of pianists, more to take the best of what the classical style can offer and apply it to jazz.

Jazz band set up

As well as this, it was about how to play with a clear understanding of how the body works in relation to the piano. Most of the physical issues they had were not realising that the hands and the arms are connected to the rest of the body, and once they felt what it was like to have a flexible wrist and a free elbow, a whole range of colours opened up to them. It was so gratifying to see them find greater ease and freedom and how that in turn, inspired some wonderful playing. They were so dynamic, curious and interested, and they absorbed information like a sponge. It was a very stimulating day.


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