Thursday, August 16, 2018

Teaching Jazz Piano Basics


I was excited to find the perfect tool for expanding my students rhythm vocabulary, ear training and improvisation skills in a fun step by step way at every lesson. After attending a workshop by Eric Baumgartner last month, I couldn't resist purchasing his "Jazz Piano Basics" book with its engaging audio features, and I'm loving how I can use it with students of various levels for multiple purposes including improvisation, note reading, ear training, rhythm and group lesson performances and enjoy a little creative outlet myself.
One student eagerly jumped ahead to learn the first "Funkasaurus" piece after hearing the audio track, and another was excited to keep practicing rhythms at lessons because he loved the ability to change the tempo of the backtrack. I personally enjoy improvising for fun with the variety of backing tracks.  My own piano lessons as a child didn't include a thorough exposure to jazz but the fun rhythms of jazzy pieces were definitely appealing to me, and I noted these points about the pedagogical value of jazz that were highlighted at the workshop.

Why include jazz in addition to standard repertoire or method books?
Jazz Swing style facilitates relates to triplets
Syncopation - Dotted Rhythms, Understanding Strong and Weak Beats of Time Signature
Harmony - Jazz goes beyond the "primaries" of I IV and V
Improv - Creativity and imitation lead to more artistic playing
Rhythm - Rich in variety and complexity
After a quick review of the contents of Eric Baumgartner's new book "Jazz Piano Basics" I was sold on this innovative tool that not only teaches the basics of jazz but also provides an organized approach to ear training and improv. with the use of the online audio accessible at home.  I love his 3 step approach in each chapter that sets the student up for success by allowing them to hear, feel and see the music!
1 - Intro exercises for each section focus on rhythm first with short jazzy melodic excerpts and the online audio backing track makes clap backs much more engaging than just echoing rhythms.  The audio player allows you to adjust the tempo.  Rhythms begin with quarters and eighths and gradually increase in complexity to include eighth rest, dotted rhythms, rests on the downbeat, pickup notes, triplets and Latin and Waltz style rhythms.  After the student starts gaining fluency in the "language" of jazz bit by bit through imitation and note reading they are better prepared for the improv. section.

2 - Each chapter next includes a question and answer improvise section where students practice answering using just a few notes.  I love how this strengthens their ear training and imitation skills if they try to "answer" by repeating the question.  But if they make a mistake, it still sounds good and acts as a confidence builder into them creating their own contrasting answers. Typically Question Answer style improv is limited to the lesson environment with the teacher, but the online audio with backtrack allows the student to improvise all week long at home as well. The first improv exercise is limited to just three notes, but by the end of the book, students have gradually been trained to improvise freely on the pentatonic and blues scales in various keys.

3 - After adding various rhythms, vamps and improvs to their toolbox, students are better prepared to play the performance piece at the end of each chapter. Chapters progressively introduce rhythmic and theory concepts of swing, syncopation, eighth rests, walking bass, pickup notes, chromatic scales, Latin and waltz jazz styles, triplets, pentatonic scales, relative minor and blues scales.

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