Elephants Everywhere!

The following was originally divided between four posts.  I’ve combined them for better fluency.

– – – –

In case you missed it, please read my post: Elephant in the Room

I want this room to be huge!  Ideally, we’re not excluding anyone. But there are elephants everywhere!  And they’re getting bigger and bigger. I’m afraid to say that that means our room may have to be smaller and smaller.

Let me explain.  No more rooms, no more elephants.

Teachers from the ‘read-execute’ tradition are beginning to see that jazz education offers a better balance between ‘listen-execute’ and ‘read-execute.’  They want to incorporate jazz into their curriculum.  In some cases, they want to offer jazz as an alternative.

Wouldn’t it be beautiful if we could get all these teachers together, give them a few workshops and then send them on their way to properly teach the jazz tradition?  Wouldn’t that be ideal?  We could start changing the world tomorrow!

Unfortunately, I’m discovering more and more that their infrastructure can’t support jazz education.  From the big music institutions (i.e. RCM) to the individual teachers, there are so many obstacles (elephants) preventing it from happening properly.  Moreover, they don’t believe that jazz education requires specialists and so the ‘jazz education’ they do offer is a mere extension of their current program.  For example, Teachers take a few workshops, they get their students to learn ‘Happy Birthday’ by ear and they add an Oscar Peterson transcription to the grade 7 exam syllabus.  All shortcuts.

If jazz education wants to go mainstream (students aged 16 and below), it’ll either have to start independently in very small pockets with groups of specialists, or institutions will have to incorporate these specialists into their programs (which would likely require a complete overhaul).  Lately, I’ve been thinking that the former is more realistic.

Here’s another elephant: All of these workshops I’ve been giving have focused on ‘how to teach jazz piano.’  But what’s a jazz education without jazz ensembles?  Do these teachers have room in their studios for a piano, bass, drums and horns?  Nope!  Their infrastructure can’t support it! Not to mention that it would take another workshop to explain that they’re not qualified to direct a jazz ensemble!

This raises an issue with these workshops.

(Part 2)

I received mostly positive feedback from these workshops I conducted but I received a few criticisms as well.  One critique was from a teacher who thought I spent too much time talking about elephants and not enough time giving practical information that they can teach their students.  She/he expected formulas and shortcuts, but I gave them elephants and bombshells.

In defense of my workshops, I do give practical information. I try to divide my time evenly between elephants, answering questions and giving practical information.  I’ll also play a tune or two.  In response to this critique however, I would raise the issue I have with these workshops:  The problem isn’t how I balance presenting practical information with elephants.  The problem is whether I should be giving practical information to non-specialists in the first place!  Should I even bother!?

Remember, I’m teaching teachers.  That’s why I spend so much time on elephants.  I think it would be justified if I spent the entire workshop on elephants.  Simply put, the message would be: “If you have students interested in learning jazz piano, please send them to someone more experienced in the jazz tradition.” But this is up for discussion!

So the question is, from Another Elephant: If our goal is to build another room, to what degree, if any, can the new room include non-specialists?

From another angle: To what extent can jazz education follow a formula?

(Part 3)

If you’re interested, this is my attempt at a formula for non-specialists for their piano students.  It’s very limiting, but it’s a start.

First and foremost, tell the students to start listening to jazz records.  Hopefully they can make a connection.  I recommend Oscar Peterson’s Night Train because that was my first record.  I also recommend Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue because I handed out a lead sheet of Freddie Freeloader.  The point is that students are hearing (and hopefully enjoying) these tunes, and then take steps to learning the tunes themselves.  Piano students might like Night Train better than Kind of Blue, so I would consider handing out lead sheets for C Jam Blues and Night Train instead (emphasis on the blues).

Side Note: For all you James P. Johnson fans, notice that my starting point for beginners is Freddie Freeloader from the 50s.  I start here because this is where I began my jazz education.  When you’re shaping your lesson plans, where will you start?

I’ll divide the tune into three parts: bass, harmony/chords and melody/improv.  Bass parts are played in the left hand, melodiy/improv is played in the right hand and harmony/chords can be played in either hand (I also handed out a chord chart).  The student’s challenge is internalizing all three parts individually and then pairing them with another part.

  • Bass + harmony/chords
  • Bass + melody/improv
  • Harmony/chords + melody/improv

I’ll show you.  For the sake of example, I’ll only use measures 5-8 of Freddie Freeloader.  Also, the melody/improv part will be restricted to just melody.  For a number of reasons, figuring out an improv formula is very complicated.

The lead sheet:

Elephants Everywhere - Lead Sheet

The three parts, in their most basic form:

Elephants Everywhere - Three Parts

Paired in three different ways:

Elephants Everywhere - Three Pairings

So far, I think non-specialists can handle this. What’s next!?

Usually, the next step is derived from either recordings or the guidance of a specialist.  We can’t assume young students (or their teachers) have the skills or patience to figure out what’s happening on the recording.  That leaves us with needing a specialist, but we don’t have that either.  So if we bother to continue, things will get shady from this point on.

(Part 4)

The chords are easy to expand on. No more root position; use inversions and better voice leading:

Elephants Everywhere - Chords Inversions

Add the Charleston; shift it through the measure.

Elephants Everywhere - Chords With Rhythm

Here’s a bass line they can learn:

Elephants Everywhere - Bass Line

If they listen to the recording, maybe they’ll figure this out:

Elephants Everywhere - Melody Variation

Here’s why this process is shady: With the exception of the chord inversions, every expansion is coming from my knowledge of the jazz tradition. A non-specialist would have no way of figuring out that bass line without listening to a recording (which won’t happen) or learning it through me. That means whenever a student is ready for the next step, his/her teacher would have to come back to me to get more information! That’s a problem on many levels. Namely, his/her teacher would be acting more as a relay than a teacher. It’d also be impossible to shape lessons around the student’s individual capabilities and interests.

The best solution I can think of is for the teacher to pass his/her students on to a specialist, someone who knows instinctively how to play Freddie Freeloader. Maybe he/she can keep the students and give them the above material over three lessons. But preferably, they take lessons from a specialist sooner than later. Remember, I haven’t even touched improvisation!

The question: If our goal is to build another room, to what degree, if any, can the new room include non-specialists?

My answer: Non-specialist piano teachers can stay for three lessons max!

Thanks for reading!

(Chris’ posts appear every other day at www.chrisdonnellymusic.com. If you enjoyed this post, please share using the buttons below! Sign up for free email updates or RSS updates.  Thanks!)

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