Teaching Jazz Piano: A New Strategy

For the last three years, I’ve taught privately at the University of Toronto. I always get my students to learn a tune and write out a piano arrangement.

It’s a voicing exercise. The top voice in the RH plays the melody, the bottom voice in the LH plays roots and the rest of the fingers fill in the chord. The challenge is to find and play the nicest voicings. So a student may write the first four bars of It Could Happen To You like this:

Ex 1

I would make some suggestions.  Like this:

Ex 2

The point is to build a vocabulary of nice chord voicings.

But I’ve been rethinking the nature of this exercise.  Whenever my students play the above exercise, I think it’s missing something – something special.

So lately, I’ve been asking my students to play it like this:

Ex 3

It’s harder than it looks.  The challenge is to play music, to make it sound good and to play from the heart.  They’re allowed to take melodic and phrasing liberties, but that’s it!

I record their performances and after listening to them, I ask: How can you make it sound better?  Then we discuss tone, feel, balance, phrasing, lyrics, meaning, life and more!

Most importantly, we establish that music is greater than hip sounding voicings.  Only then do we start adding notes and crafting an arrangement, with music and musicality being the primary focus.

We’re building on a musical foundation, rather than a vocabulary of notes and licks.

What do you think?

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