Jazz Improvisation – Why is it So Hard and How to Overcome the Initial Difficulty?

Nicole H. E. Lee, EzineArticles.com Basic Author

By Nicole H. E. Lee

Thanks to Norah Jones, Jamie Cullum, Michael Buble and many other young jazz and jazz-influenced artists, interest in jazz music has been making a strong comeback. And with singer/piano players like Norah and Jamie, it’s not hard to see why jazz piano-playing has taken on with many piano enthusiasts as well.

However, because many of us started off learning the piano by playing classical music which deeply grounds us in music-reading and interpretation of the works of the masters, i.e. Bach, Chopin, Mozart, etc., the jazz style and its element of improvisation become, to many, extremely difficult to learn, or a skill which “you either have it, or you don’t.” It really doesn’t have to be that way.

Learning how to play jazz – no matter how brilliant a pianist you are – is going to be difficult in the beginning because you are learning a new skill. However, the best part of it is if you are a classically-trained pianist you would already have many years of technique and musical knowledge to support your foray into jazz. Think of it this way: if you can ride a bicycle and would now like to learn how to ride a scooter, chances are you won’t have any balancing issues. In the case of jazz piano-playing, all you have to do is to have the right approach and a systematic practice routine.

For your initial improv journey, I personally recommend this three-step approach:

  1. Scales & Chords – Add on to your repertoire of major and minor scales and triads and 7th chords to include the major modes (dorian, mixolydian, etc.) and minor modes (lydian augmented, lydian b7, altered, etc.); and A&B voicings (or rootless voicings), and keep your left hand comping simple – it’s not a crime to hold the chord down through the bar!
  2. Song Choice – Sounds like I’m channeling American Idol, but it’s excellent advice. Choose pieces that are not too challenging in terms of its harmonic changes (you don’t want to struggle with the new voicings that you have been working on), have a melodious tune (keeps you interested and provides an easy fallback during your solos) and is rhythmically easy (you don’t want to stumble over intricate swing syncopation).
  3. Listening Session – This cannot be overemphasized. The easiest way to learn a new musical style – how it feels, how it sounds, how it moves and grooves – is to listen to how it’s actually played by the experts in the field. All the more so with jazz music which is such an audible art – meaning the improvisational aspect of playing the piece is facilitated by a highly-skilled and trained ear. Listen to the gurus of jazz piano, i.e. Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Marian McPartland, etc. Wouldn’t you know it; some of these jazzers were classically-trained – just like you!

Most of you are probably already listening to jazz music. Guess what? That means you are one-third of the way through the above approach! Work the other two into your practice routine and let your creativity fly!

I have been teaching piano for more than 20 years. Although classically-trained, I have always loved contemporary music. I grew up in a household filled with all types of music, from classical to jazz, Pavarotti to Sinatra, Goldberg to Grusin, pop, rock, etc. Currently residing in Singapore, I conduct private piano lessons in pop and jazz music to students of all ages, ranging from music enthusiasts, piano teachers to professional musicians. I also write a blog especially for pianists who find themselves rhythmically and harmonically challenged, and also on other interesting music and piano-related stuff.


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