There are many books which teach the theory of jazz. Learning the theory of jazz is important. However - what many pianists truly need is a method to expand their various jazz skills using that theory. To put this simply, competent jazz pianists play automatically. they "flip the switch" and the music flows out of them. The main issue is...how did they get to that skill level? Also, is there a more direct way to arrive at that point?
We know that classical players spend years honing their skills. They work on piano technique, pianistic skills, interpretive knowledge. This is done by studying with competent teachers who teach them the skills of playing the piano and guide them through piece after piece. Through years of learning and memorizing classical pieces, the classical pianist eventually develops musical skills, good tone, a fluid piano technique, good timing and rhythm, phrasing, interpretation, and music-reading skills.
The pathway to excellence in jazz is more nebulous and more mental than in classical. In addition to learning the classical fundamentals of playing the piano, the competent jazz pianist concentrates on jazz theory, comping skills, developing different grooves and great “time”, reading jazz charts, ear training skills, improvising and soloing, and interacting in many different bands and vocalists. The jazz pianist learns through personal development: by studying with teachers (who are great players); jazz books; transcribing and practicing licks; listening extensively to jazz; learning and composing lots of tunes...and most importantly, by playing lots and lots of gigs.
The issue here is to find specific exercises which help the budding jazz pianist to get from “here” to “there”. This is about training the subconscious to perform automatically - on its own. To do this we need specific exercises, using essential music theory to develop specific skills. We practice the exercises over and over...and over, until the subconscious learns them completely.
The jazz pianist practices exercises in theory assimilation, piano technique, ear training, rhythm development, style development, how to learn a tune, hand (and mind) independence, etc. I suggest that you go to the area that you want to develop and spend time on the specific exercises that will slowly lead you toward your eventual goal. The subconscious learns best in small digestible chunks. Take one exercise area that you believe that you need to improve. If you need, limit the “learning area” to a digestible bite. Then work intensely on one easily-assimilated area for five minutes or so, until the subconscious takes over the action. When this is accomplished, then move on to another exercise – or, if need be, just part of an exercise for another five minutes. This is the pathway of success.
It is a life-time process. In each step of your development, you will know that you have accomplished the “change in the subconscious” when the subconscious takes over the activity completely, effortlessly, and without conscious thought. Then, move on to another exercise, another goal. Little by little – you will improve. It will happen!
Assess your jazz skills. Where are you now? Where would you like to be...when?
Martan Mann is the author of the intensive online jazz study course, JazzSkills for Piano.
His website: musicmann.com.