I’m about to start teaching Jazz Piano. Again.
Now here’s an admission – many, many years ago, I did teach the ABRSM Jazz syllabus. I had a Grade 1, and Grade 2 and a Grade 3 pupil, and at the same time I entered myself for a Grade 4. Why enter myself?
Well, this was completely new territory for me. I had a copy of the ABRSM book “Jazz From Scratch” by Charles Beale which I had a good look at, and then I bought some of the exam material. (Regrettably, I lent my “Jazz from Scratch” to a pupil and it has never come back. Ho Hum. I could do with it now.) I remember starting with Grade 1, happily chuntering through the first page, and then, on page two, the notes in the right hand all disappeared to be replaced by the words “8 bars improvisation”.
You have to remember that I started piano lessons when dinosaurs were still roaming the land, and one played Czerny and Walter Carroll and Mozart and Bach and, maybe, occasionally, something very weird like Bartok.
Yup – this is just how I remember the cover.
So, back to me and page two of Grade 1 Jazz piano. I poured a glass of wine, had a go at interpreting the chord symbols (they didn’t write them like that in my theory classes) and set to work. It took a couple of evenings before I got the rough idea – and a bit longer before I worked out how to “teach” improvisation – a skill I had never explored before.
I can’t have been too bad – we all passed with better or lower scores, reflecting how much practise we had done, how well we had learned our scales and what we were like at sight reading.
I entered myself, because I wanted to know exactly how the exam, especially the aural section, was delivered, and I wanted to have a clear idea of how the comments reflected what the candidate played. I’ve plenty of experience of classical exams as candidate and accompanist. I’ve even taken music exams as an adult of maturer years; my teaching Diploma (LTCL) and Grade 5 singing, and even, in a mad moment, Grade 1 violin!). So I can be confident that I can translate the examiner’s written comments into what happened in the exam room, even when I wasn’t there. It is a different experience. There is a lot of improvising, in all three pieces, and even in the sight reading and aural tests.
The scales are “weird” too; I developed a sort of short-cut to learning them which meant that I could rely on my classical major/minor knowledge to save time in learning them. The fingering can go a bit wild if you aren’t paying attention;
mixolydian means “minus one, or one accidental lower” eg C mixolydian is C-with-B-flat
dorian means “double-delete” eg C dorian is C-with-E-flat-and-B-flat
lydian means “let’s have another accidental” eg C lydian is C-with-F-sharp”
aeolian means “in the minor key-signature” eg C aeolian is C-with-B-flat-and-E-flat-and-A-flat
I admit, I kind of winged it through the syllabus first time around. This time I aim to do better. For starters, as part of developing my skills at reading lead sheets, I am going to mug up on the chord notation properly. Maybe I’ll even attempt Grade 5… More of this to come!