Teaching Jazz to the Classically Trained Pianist

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Over a hundred years ago musical pioneers created a phenomenally popular musical style – jazz!  And the toes of children and adultselena-pic have been tapping to its rhythms ever since!

The idea was that within a certain musical structure, and for a certain amount of time, there was a place in the music where players could be creative and show their thoughts, ideas, harmonies and so on. It was a very different way to think and create.

Judging by the number of children entering the classical exams each year, it’s clear that children can be interested in whatever kind of music their teachers recommend. But, however malleable the pupils might be, teachers tend to believe that you need to be a specialist to teach jazz. They think that children who are eager to focus on it, need to learn sophisticated bass lines and intentional dissonances under the watchful eye of an expert and it isn’t considered to be something that an untutored teacher can offer – disappointing news for the average child.

Of course, classically trained teachers do have the advantage that they can tell pupils how to play each piece appropriately for the chosen composition style to make sure no marks are lost, and this works well for how current exams are structured, but what about the one, very important element of jazz which is different from the elements of classical music – improvisation?

Improvisation is believed to be a spontaneous moment of sudden inventiveness and, in reality, it has been around for as long as music exists. Great composers and performers of all classical styles were very good at improvising. But, somehow, it didn’t make it into the books we use today and it seems that only jazz musicians carry on the tradition.

0bf0Not wanting my pupils to miss out on such an important musical experience I felt that as a modern classically trained teacher, I should be able to cross boundaries to provide a balanced education to my pupils. So I wrote and published ‘Higgledy Piggledy Jazz’ for young pianists, which, unlike normal jazzy piano books (which don’t have improvisation sections), includes elements for young pianists who have plenty of enthusiasm for improvisation.

The main benefits I have found that jazz improvisation brings to classically trained children include:

  • an increase in confidence and self-esteem
  • a more positive attitude to home practice
  • improved sight reading and eye-hand coordination
  • improvements in the ability to maintain the beat and think on the go
  • greater creativity in the lesson with increased development in independent thinking
  • a sense of achievement for something that is considered difficult by others
  • and last (but not least) let’s not forget the ‘cool factor’ – with lots and lots of fun!

If you’re a classically trained teacher and you find yourself confused as to whether to introduce improvisation to your pupils or not, you could find the following improvisation exercises very useful as a start. There are both rhythm and notation exercises and you could practice them with your pupils from memory or by looking at the sheets associated in this magazine with this article.  Hopefully, you’ll find the exercises logical and easy to remember – and it will be fun for both you and your pupils.

Rhythm ExercisesRhythm Exercises

Tip – Count aloud

Remembering that every crotchet consists of two quavers and we are getting ready to ‘swing’ them, tap rhythms on your thighs and count aloud one and, two and, three and, four and.  Get your pupil to start slowly and repeat exercises with different rhythms in the right hand while the left hand always taps crotchets until they are ready to move on to playing.

Notation Exercises

Click this link for visuals of the  Exercises

Tip – Know your notes and fingers

The blues scale is very special and if you play the notes from it you create a ‘blues sound’. The exercises in this Pdf are based on the blues scale on C and for your pupils to play them effectively, make sure they find the notes on the keyboard first and then stick to the fingering for the right hand of:

– 1st finger for C

– 2nd finger for Eb

– 3rd finger for F

– 4th finger for F#.

Transpose the exercises into any key and let your pupils use them for different pieces or just for enjoyable practice.

Putting it Together

 Tip – Count the bars

Take a look at  Super_Duck and you’ll see that there is colour in the bass clef notes. C is in the usual black ink, but F is green and G is red. Make sure your pupils memorize this color usage and when they’re playing, make sure they count the bars (as below).

(4 x C) + (2 x F) + (2 x C) + (1 x F) + (1 x G) (1 x C) + (1 x G) = 12 bar blues

Click this link to view  Super_Duck

‘Super Duck' one of the tunes in the Higgledy Piggledy Jazz book, is a twelve bar blues and we can use that tune to start off with. It jazz-piano-book-coverwould be most suitable for a pupil already working on Grade 1 (and above) classical piano. From bar 15 you’ll notice that your pupil has the chance to play what they’d like with their right hands – they can play it as it is or they can use that space to improvise and make it into a solo.

Get your pupil to start practicing by playing the entire solo, repeating one bar from the notation exercise in the right hand. When they’re feeling confident, tell them to try mixing the notation exercises up. When they’re feeling very confident and ready to go – let them use their own ideas. Tell them to remember that they are improvising and what they thought was a mistake could well be a real gem of a find! And finally, like a pro, get them to create a fantastic ending by adding pedal to the last chord and playing it on tremolo.

Certainly, jazz improvisation can be a little tricky initially and not everything will come easily. But it will be invigorating and rewarding to watch your pupils turn dreams into reality.

Thank you Elena for sharing your approach to teaching jazz here at 88pianokeys.me and in your books. Your students are lucky to have you, Elena!



1) 88PianoKeys.me readers, here's your chance to win one of Elena's books--Higgledy Piggledy or Blue River. If you are in a hurry...order Elena's books here. To enter the drawing, please answer this question below on or before December 8th, 2013.

Do you include any type of improvisation in your lessons? Why or why not?

2) Elena also provided a  lovely review of  The iPad Piano Studio: Keys to Unlocking the Power of AppsVisit Elena's blog  to read her review as well as the details of The iPad Piano Studio giveaway she is offering only until midnight, November 29th. Click here  for more details.

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