Principles for Learning Jazz by Jeremy Siskind

Principles for Learning Jazz by Jeremy Siskind

Below, you’ll find some of the best advice I’ve heard about learning jazz. Please take the time to consider each of these principles and review them every so often throughout the learning process.

1)    Learn Rules and then Break Them

I know, I know, jazz is = supposed to be something you “feel.” Thelonious Monk breaks all the rules, so why shouldn’t you? 

The answer to that question is that without structure, you’re not going to learn much. There will be plenty of time to break rules down the road, but you have to really master the rules to even know how you might break them effectively.

If we return to the language metaphor from the introduction, the rules are the grammar of a language. Poets, rappers, playwrights, and novelists must all know how to speak the language fluently before they create their own variations. 


2)    Make a Mess, Then Clean It Up

I hate to say it, but your playing is probably not going to sound amazing very often during these first six months. But please don’t let that stop you from playing! Please go make a great big mess at the piano as you pursue jazz and improvisation and as time goes on, with the help of this book, fellow musicians, and maybe a teacher, you’ll learn how to tidy it up. But if you wait until everything comes out perfectly, you’ll never get started. 


3)    Ask “What If” Question

While there’s a lot of information stuffed into these pages, limiting yourself to what’s in the book is going to be, well, limiting. To get beyond the information given, every time you learn something new, ask yourself as many “what if” questions as you can think of, and pursue each of them. Does a certain phrase sound good on dominant chords? Great! “What if” you tried it on a major chord? Does it sound good to add the thirteenth above your chord? Great! “What if” you tried adding the eleventh too? Does a lick sound really good as eighth notes? Great! “What if” you tried it with triplets or sixteenth notes? Great students never simply stop at the information being presented. 


4)    If It Sounds Good, It Is Good

How do you know whether these “what if” scenarios are working? If it sounds good, it is good! While you should trust your teacher, the rules presented in this text, and the guided listening examples to hone your ear and educate yourself about the jazz style, you also have to trust your ears. Not only will it help you to sort through successful and unsuccessful “what if” questions, but it will also help you develop a unique sound as an artist that’s based on what sounds you like.


5)    Practice Succeeding…

Ultimately, you want each element of your practice session to stretch your abilities but not overwhelm you. If practicing is the process of building habits, practicing failing will lead to more failure. Modify overwhelming activities until you can execute them successfully, building a habit of success. The three ways to modify an exercise in piano practice are:

  1. Shorten – Work on a smaller amount of music at a time. Instead of trying to tackle eight measures, tackle two measures. Instead of trying to play a whole piece, just play the first line of music.
  2. Slow Down – Find the tempo at which you can play the exercise successfully, then raise the tempo up gradually to your goal.
  3. Simplify – Change or simplify the exercise. Do just one hand at a time instead of placing hands together. If the exercise is supposed to be done in all twelve keys, practice just two keys for now. Disregard the articulation until you master the notes. 


6)    …or Push yourself

If material is too easy, ask yourself “What If” questions to make the exercises stretch you a bit more. These three suggestions are the inverse of the previous modification suggestions:

  1. Add Pieces or Keys – if you can successfully play an exercise over one piece or key, choose more tunes from the tune bank or practice until you’ve mastered it in all twelve keys. If you can do it in all major keys, try some minor keys too. 
  2. Accelerate – bump up the tempo until you’re going blazing fast! 
  3. Add Elements – add a left hand pattern or right hand phrase, add ornaments, try with a faster subdivision of meter, practice over a difficult piece or chord progression.


7)    Practicing Without a Metronome is Like…

…playing tennis without a net. Without a net, you’re just hitting tennis balls wherever. Without a metronome, you’re just playing notes wherever you want. Without a metronome, you also don’t have any metric to measure whether you’re getting succeeding at your exercise. Unless the text specifically prompts you to practice out of time, practice with a metronome. 


8)    Play with Others

I know it sounds scary now, but play with others as soon as possible. Jazz is social music and you’ll learn so much by testing your ability to stay in time and with the correct form by playing in an ensemble. To return to the language metaphor, it’s important to actually have conversations with others regularly instead of always studying alone. By the time you reach about Unit 6, you should be highly qualified to contribute to an ensemble.


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