8 jazz things that made me a better classical pianist
I love everything about jazz: the freedom of expression, the communication between the performers, and the edge-of-the-seat excitement of improvisation. And while my classical career never allowed me enough practice time to become more than an intermediate jazz pianist, I learned enough through lessons and working with other musicians to feel comfortable improvising, reading lead sheets, and playing by ear. What I didn’t expect when I first began studying jazz was that what I learned would go way beyond arranging a solo from a lead sheet, but would improve my classical playing as well.
For the classically-trained pianist, jazz and improvisation feels like standing on the edge of a cliff without a railing. But this sort of experience is exactly what I needed to shake me out of the prison of “right” or “wrong” and give me the freedom to try new (and sometimes unsanctioned) things at the piano, regardless of the style of music I played. I learned many valuable lessons from jazz, but these 8 were the lessons that most transformed my classical playing.
The wisdom of this is self-evident. Music is an aural art. If we don’t listen to ourselves and to other musicians, we’ll never play well. Sure, I listened to what I was playing before I took jazz lessons, but sometimes the intricacies of executing a difficult score made technique feel more important than listening. It took jazz training to teach me that listening is the most important thing we do when we create music.
Keep the time, even if you drop the notes
Jazz is an improvised dance between sound and silence. Notes can (and should) be changed, but one should never, ever, ever drop the pulse of the music. I may not improvise in a classical score, but I now know that while dropped notes are regrettable but (at times) inevitable, dropped time can shipwreck the whole piece.
Know your chord changes
In classical music, strong sight-reading skills allowed me to develop a lazy habit of skating through a piece without worrying about analyzing the chord structure. In jazz, I had to memorize my chord changes or I never felt free enough to improvise. The freedom I gained in jazz convinced me that the only way I can feel truly secure and expressive in any style of music is to know the underlying structure.
If you get lost in the chart, fake it until you find your place
I learned this the hard way when I played the piano for a jazz band. When the ensemble was going pell-mell, there was no time to stop and find my place. This transferred to my classical playing two ways: 1) the ability and the confidence to improvise my way out of memory slips, and 2) to make stuff up when fellow ensemble musicians lost their spots in the score.
Don’t like a note? Choose a different one
A vocal jazz instructor told me this when I complained about a note I couldn’t sing. The freedom of this transformed my jazz singing and playing. When I returned to my classical repertoire, this gem made me a more musical sight-reader. It also allowed me to play open score or orchestral arrangements—both of which contain more notes than any one pianist can play with 10 fingers—confidently and musically.
Don’t be selfish; leave space for others
Every jazz pianist learns this the moment she sits down to play with an ensemble: because we can play in the range of any other instrument, we’ve got to back off or we’ll stomp all over the other musicians in the group. This kind of polite give and take translated to all my classical ensemble work as well, as I learned to get out of the way and let others have their moments.
Stay within yourself
When I first started to improvise, I thought I needed to sound like Oscar Peterson or Bill Evans. Not surprisingly, because I’m neither one, my solos fell flat. A wise jazz teacher told me, “stay within yourself.” In other words, don’t try to be what you’re not. My improvisations improved, and that teacher’s advice helped me make better choices about my classical repertoire as well. “Stay within yourself” taught me to stop playing music that was either too difficult for me, or not suited to me, and to focus on what I played the best.
In jazz there's no right or wrong, just better choices
This advice was given to me when I asked a jazz band conductor what to play when faced with 16 bars of nothing but chord changes. While terrifying at first, his words taught me to toss the word “should” out of how my life. Not only did this give me permission to play whatever music I liked, it became a mantra for life.