My forays into the periphery of jazz repertoire have made me reconsider and adapt some techniques to suit the mood, nature and simple ability to play the pieces by Gershwin I am learning at present. This issue came up on the piano course in March, when one of the students, who presented the first two Gershwin Preludes for the masterclass, was urged by teacher to put aside all her classical training and thought processes, and to start thinking and playing like a jazz pianist. Thus, in the opening measures of the first Prelude, she was urged to “slap” the keys, literally throwing the hand at the keyboard, to allow the weight of the arm to create tenuto, and to employ heavy, lazy staccato. The difference in the sound of the piece was instant. It was immediately more “cool”. unforced, lazy almost. This kind of playing is very difficult to achieve – and this brief lesson in jazz piano technique proved that even the most improvisatory playing is based on very solid foundations of technique and harmonic awareness.
I’ve been putting some of these teaching “tricks” into practice with my students, a number of whom have expressed interest in learning some jazz, and while I would never ever profess to be a teacher of jazz piano (it’s a whole ‘nother world as far as I’m concerned!), I’m happy to work on some simple pieces with my students.
One student, who joined my studio last summer, was “escaping” from jazz. Her previous teacher was obviously keen on jazz and was teaching the ABRSM jazz syllabus which is very separate and distinct from the ‘classical’ piano syllabus. Like me, Bella was finding the music quite incomprehensible. Together we looked at the score, puzzled by some of the markings. I’ve been playing the piano for a long time (over 35 years), and I pride myself on my excellent sight-reading skills which enable me to pick up most music and gain a reasonable understanding of it on first view. Grade 2 jazz repertoire, however, was a mystery. What did the instruction “straight eights” mean? And what were those dashes where the notes should have been on the stave? (We realised eventually that this was a marking for improvisation.) Some internet research didn’t enlighten me much, and I was relieved when Bella declared she wanted to return to classical repertoire. Indeed, it was a relief to both of us to open the Grade 2 book and see a comforting page of Haydn.
Fortunately, Gershwin’s scores look like ‘traditional’ piano music: there are no weird markings, and he uses standard Italian terms, and places where crossed hands are required are less for virtuoso effect and more for ease of playing. So, by not having to translate the score into a language I understand, I can devote more time to honing technique to suit the music.
My students are growing familiar with my weird and wonderful visualisation techniques. Asking them to “tell the story” of the music has produced some wonderful effects, especially in those students who have been working on exam repertoire, where musicality is as important – if not more so – as playing the notes accurately. Reminding them that the piano can be “orchestrated” or played to mimic a particular instrument is also useful. Another trick I employ is asking a student to “hear” or “sing” the music in their head before playing. My teacher does this with me and it really does work. Another technique, employed at a recent lesson, was asking me to play the opening movement of the Poulenc Suite in C with my eyes closed, thus forcing me to think about touch and quality of sound.
Most of my students now know about the “giant invisible hand” which “lives” in my piano room. This helps them to articulate their hands towards the black keys by moving their elbow, or to push the wrist down to play drop slurs. It also pushes the forearm along to move the hand and wrist fluently when playing scales and arpeggios. It sounds daft, but this, more than anything else, is the visualisation technique which works the best. Even my adult students have come to know it and tell me they find it useful when practising at home.
Something else my teacher does is play on my bare forearm to demonstrate touch. The skin on the forearm is very receptive and it’s amazing how a quick demo of how I should be playing the opening measures of my Chopin Etude can be translated into sound on the keyboard. I have not yet tried this with my students; sadly, these days of child protection and over-cautiousness about touching children have made me wary of doing anything more than occasionally adjusting a child’s hand position.
Little Sam, who is only 8 and is already showing an affinity for jazz after only a year of lessons (he pulled off a characterful performance of ‘The Entertainer’ at my summer concert), proved at his lesson yesterday that he understands about “jazz hands”. He quickly picked up the idea of “slapping” the keys, lifting his hand off the keyboard momentarily before allowing it to fall heavily onto an E flat, thus emphasising the syncopation in the bar (he’s learning a piece called ‘Homework Blues’). Later, when I was looking at the opening of Gershwin’s first Prelude, I found myself doing exactly the same thing, which just goes to prove how one’s teaching can inform one’s own playing: it seems that by teaching a new technique it crystallises it in my mind – and fingers.
And now I really must do some practising…….