What is jazz? It is the ultimate freedom in structure. The goal for me in teaching is to teach as if I were playing jazz. But how? First by finding the structure, and allowing myself to be creative and free. Here is what I mean.
Growing up, my piano teacher trained me classically and she always stressed the importance of learning my scales, cadences and arpeggios. It was a chore, but I did it. It built strength in my fingers and made me more agile. It wasn’t until I was turning pages for my high school music teacher that I realized the ultimate freedom those drills would give me. As I watched her fingers fly across the keys of the piano, I discovered she wasn’t playing the notes written at all, but the music poured out of her hands flawlessly. “Why?” I wondered. So I asked her.
“I’m reading the chords and melody line,” she said pointing to the score. I looked carefully at the music and saw what she meant.
During the break in the rehearsal, I quietly sat down at the piano, turned in the book to a song I was familiar with and began to play a little bit. To my amazement, I was able to accompany the melody nearly instantaneously. I wasn’t reading every note, instead I was falling back on all I had learned about scales and cadences, and I was able to improvise the harmonies. It was because I had learned so many forms of music that I was able to predict what was coming. Unbelievable!
From there, I was hooked. Hotel California would play on my tape deck and I would improvise on the piano, because I knew they chord progressions. Runs and trills would come from my fingers because I knew, just instinctively knew the scales within the piece. It was freedom, and it was fun. But it only came about after so much time learning how music is put together.
That is jazz: knowing how something is and putting it into play in your own way. That is true teaching. We know what to do, what to teach, how to teach it. And once we have mastered those skills, it becomes our time to play some jazz!