Watch my 12-year-old student tear up a classic blues tune.
Notice how he throws in riffs, kicks, an improvised solo, and even a key change along the way without reading music (the music on the stand is a different piece). Now, some would assume this kid is exceptionally gifted or that his teacher is a miracle worker. As much as flattery is hard to deny, I insist that talent is overrated when it comes to playing or teaching creatively. My student is a well-rounded regular kid with normal musical aptitude and a lot of other interests as his uniform attests (soccer practice follows the lesson).
What he does have on his side however is:
– A genuine love for playing the piano
– A more or less regular practice routine
– Parents who support his interest in a variety of musical styles
– Parents who embrace my teaching philosophy, which includes equal parts reading and improvisation.
So if it is not some kind of far-out new age woo-woo that enables someone to play like this, then what is it? The obvious answer is that playing creatively is learned, just like any other aspect of music, by practicing the interim steps.
Here are the steps we took to learn this tune:
- To begin, I asked him to learn the basic “skeleton” by picking out the melody from a piano-based rendition we found on You Tube.
- In the next lesson, I gave him a lead sheet so he could see it written and asked him to include a “stock” boogie accompaniment (previously learned from my That’s Jazz piano method, Book 1, p. 24).
- Next lesson: We added an intro, brass kicks and riffs by imitating a famous band-based rendition of this tune also found on You Tube.
- To prepare for improvising, he practiced the “bright blues” scale in the key of this tune using the exercise below.
- For the next few lessons he “worked” this scale in the right hand while maintaining the left hand boogie accompaniment. Did he just stick to these notes? Not really but they served as “safe notes” for his explorations. I also asked for a key change and showed him how to modulate.
- Because he responds to challenges, at the next lesson I upped the stakes by telling him I wanted it, “good enough to make a video that I will put online so other students and teachers can learn from it.”
- Last lesson: After spending time discussing the form about which I was clear that he was free to choose since it was, “his piece,” his mom recorded it so I was free to accompany on drum set.
Can you do this? Of course you can. My job with this student was to move him gradually from “mechanical” to “artistic” by coaching basic things any teacher could do… things like helping him think about turning run-on notes into phrases, focusing on “less is more,” and considering more interesting rhythms and articulations. I encourage you to give it a try. “Fake it ‘til you make it” if you have to. Be willing to learn alongside your students. They’ll respect you for it and I can guarantee that it will increase your rapport with them.
Until next time, enjoy your creative musical journey!
Want to learn to play or teach like this? Consider using That’s Jazz, America’s top-selling jazz piano method, attending 88 Creative Keys camp, or inviting Bradley to lead a workshop or master class in your area.