Photo: Jimmy Baikovicius from Montevideo, Uruguay [CC BY-SA 2.0 (]

What jazz contributes to the classical pianist

There is a long tradition of teaching quality classical piano in Canada. There are also a myriad of support systems to teach theory and written scores in a variety of contemporary styles. Then there’s jazz. Some teachers like it and some don’t. Others don’t feel knowledgeable enough to include it in their studios. For many teachers it is a big unknown which they don’t have the time or inclination to explore. Is there any reason why you should bother? The answer is yes!

Let’s begin with a little history. It’s often said that if J. S. Bach were alive today, he would be a jazz pianist. Why? He was a master at creating music. He saw musicianship as a craft and understood how to manipulate music’s components to make the sounds he wanted. Additionally, this is how he taught. In his time any keyboard player would be expected to be able to improvise a four-part harmony for a given melody. It wasn’t an option, and it wasn’t exclusive to talented students

Mozart once wrote to his father complaining about a student for whom he had written the beginning of a simple minuet. He was frustrated that the student couldn’t finish the piece. He also clearly saw creativity as a necessary part of the craft.

Around the time jazz was developing, traditional piano education moved away from creative aspects and began to emphasize the precise imitation of past masters. Those trained with this focus have lost the ability to see the components of the music they play. Many have been ingrained with a fear of changing a note or stepping out of time—to the point of having real performance anxiety. I wonder what Bach would think of our modern methods? Fortunately, jazz has maintained, as its basis, the old skills of improvisation and creativity. The art is not lost.

Classical pianists tend to read a score by note, including detailed articulations and dynamics. Some pianists look at the general structure to analyze what the composer has done, but other pianists do not. A jazz player takes this a step farther and begins with the chord structure and then fleshes out the music. If someone took a written jazz piece and read it by note, it would teach them nothing of their craft. The reverse also holds true. If a performer took a classical piece, analyzed the chord structure, and then fleshed it out, she would learn more about her craft. The style of music is irrelevant; it is the approach to the art of music that counts.

To test this yourself, take a piece you don’t know and write the chord symbols throughout. Within the context of the style, follow the melody line and fill out the harmonies using the chords. Once you’ve come up with something, then look at what the composer chose to do. Perhaps play around with dynamic changes or various articulations.

It is common to take an old song and jazz it up by adding rhythms, but what about taking a jazz melody and doing it in a classical style? Another exercise would be to take a simple piece, play a phrase, and then answer it. If you know a particular passage you like, stop and look at your hands to see what chords you are playing. Then take those chords and revoice them or try them in different keys to get better acquainted. Learn to listen. Teachers today have the knowledge, but often have not been encouraged to play around with music.

The next question is how to incorporate these skills into student lessons? It’s already hard enough to fit technique and theory into the allotted time. The good news is that these jazz concepts actually teach technique and theory in a functional way. They also prepare students to easily move on to bands and worship groups or compose their own works.

To begin, we must make more of the scales and chords that students love to avoid. Imagine them as Lego blocks, and then teach students to explore using scales and chords as building material. Playing a scale can sound like an elephant or a butterfly depending upon the touch or register. It can dance with rhythm or drag with sorrow. When a new key is introduced, let students begin on the tonic and create the scale by experimentation. This teaches them to trust their ears. Let them search for the desired sound. Have them name the notes they use and figure out the key signature. In other words—explore!

This probably sounds too cumbersome for a young student’s half-hour lesson. Rather than looking at the time of a single lesson, look at the year as a whole. In September more than half of each lesson should be devoted to scales and chords and really listening to what the student can create. As the year progresses, the time for pieces would increase and the technique can be focused toward exam requirements. Sound boring? Only if you let it.

There is nothing right or wrong in this process of discovery— it is in the hands of the player. Let the students explain what might be imagined. Once they have the sound of the scales settled in their minds, let them play around with the notes in different orders. Start on different degrees of the scale, telling them the names of the modes and listening to the different moods. In jazz, everything is related to the major scale. The relative minor is the Aeolian mode. Initially these names don’t have to be learned, but let them become part of the normal conversation in your studio. To help students achieve legato, suggest making the scale soar like an eagle or descend like a plane landing at home after an exciting journey.

Teach students to build chords from the scale. I tell students to play a note, skip a note, play a note, skip a note, play a note. It’s an easy jingle that stays in the mind. Point out that they are playing the first, third, and fifth notes of the scale to form a triad. This sets it up to easily add the seventh, ninth, eleventh, or thirteenth. Chord symbols will make sense without any further explanation. In my studio, students learn a simple I–IV–V–I progression in every key they study. This, of course, is the basis of harmony. By Christmas each year, I get each student to write out a lead sheet based on this progression in whatever key they are studying. I’ve had some add interesting harmonies to well-known carols. I ask them to justify their choices, and the discussion itself is a learning experience.

I also have a set of crossover arpeggios that I give students. It is only written in C major, and they must transpose it into other keys as requested (see Example 1). It includes: C, CMaj7, C7, Cmin7, C half-diminished7, C diminished7, Cmin6, and C6. If presented together, the sounds move from a happy day through clouds to danger and back to a happy day. Students are so used to hearing background music that they have fun making up a scenario to go with the moods.

Beyond the technique learned, students are allowed some input in the sounds they are creating. Any student who has this foundation would have no trouble if a band teacher handed them a lead sheet or chord chart. They would also have the confidence to play around in search of a sound or rhythm that fits.

​Example 1: Crossover arpeggio:

When students approach a written piece of any style, they should be encouraged to see the components in it. Three or four notes all on lines or all in spaces must create a chord. Look at running scale passages to see what mode they might be. It’s encouraging to see bits that you know before you even begin the piece. Phrasing, dynamics, or various touches can be practiced in the technique regimen to perfect these concepts for use in the piece. This keeps technique and repertoire solidly linked and gives scales and chords a practical purpose. Of course, the more students master technique, the more fluent they are with the instrument.

This shift in thinking should influence the way you work on a piece. For example, the persistent wrong note becomes an opportunity for discussion. Rather than labeling it as incorrect, why not say that there is something that sounds different from what is usually played? Let the student be part of figuring out what they’ve changed from what’s written. Insist they play it as written then discuss what they think of their version as opposed to the composer’s.

This brings us to an interesting point. If students are preparing for an exam, they must play their pieces as written. However, if they are getting ready for recitals, then they may be encouraged to interpret the music. Ask them to explain what they are doing in their variations. This can only deepen their understanding of a functioning artistic craft. For many teachers, this is a hard line to cross. Perhaps this quote from J. S. Bach will help:

If we hear the same piece played by ten equally skillful and practiced performers, it will produce, under the hand of each, a different effect. … merely from the mode of touching the instrument, which, in playing on the clavier, is the same thing as the pronunciation in speech.1

If Bach valued musicians finding their own voices, why are we so insistent on exact imitation of what we believe is the right performance? Some worry that if we allow interpretation of the classics that they will get lost to history. I believe we have enough written scores and recordings of this music to keep our traditions forever. The music is too beautiful and well-crafted by true masters to be ignored. This is the perfect place for performers to start learning. Yet, each generation has its own voice, and we should allow our students to find theirs. As they work on the classics, they will see what those composers did, how they thought, and how they expressed themselves. It would make these composers more like colleagues, perhaps leading students to know their works more intimately. Classical musicians varied Baroque music to suit their taste, yet Baroque music survived. Surely, great music will survive our manipulations. No doubt, there will always be purists who play some or all of their repertoire exactly the way composers wrote it.

In conclusion, if these jazz concepts were included, students, even at a beginning level, would learn the skills of the craft in a functional way. They would feel invested in the music they played, and improvisation and composition would be less intimidating. As musicians and music lovers, we need the ‘creative’ to keep us alive and growing. Incorporating these ideas into your teaching allows students to develop both their reading skill and their understanding of the great composers. It also gives students the functional skills to find their own voice and the flexibility to ad lib as needed. It is a winning situation all around. This is what jazz contributes to piano education and what is lost if it is ignored. Yes, it is worth the effort to incorporate jazz into traditional lessons. Why we have two separate camps in music—classical and jazz—is the real mystery. I hope one day they will be reunited in a systematic way that is accessible to teachers and students alike.

1David, Hans T. and Mendel, Arthur, eds., revised and enlarged by Christoph Wolff. (1988). The New Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in letters and documents. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., p. 431.

By Kay Alexander. This article first appeared on