The Wonders Of A Chord

All piano teachers teach students how to read music. By reading we can play the music of the great composers. The music of every era. The music of Bach-the baroque era, Mozart, the classical era, Chopin, the romantic era, 20th and 21st century music. Examples are Debussy, Scott Joplin, Gershwin, Copland, Bartok, Lowell Liebermann.

They have one thing in common—a small musical structure called a Chord. Classical trained Jazz pianists teach you the music of the great composers but also teach you how to use that chord-change it, add to it, enrich it. You make your own arrangement of a Broadway show tune, rock tune, jazz tune-anything. You learn improvised composition as well as playing the music of the great composers.

This is what I do. I teach Chopin and improvised composition. I teach the magic of a three note structure called a Chord.

Chick Corea- A Living Giant in American music

Chick Corea is for the most part seen as a Jazz pianist. He is that -and a lot more. His jazz playing is, to say the least, incredible. He is also a prolific composer, still going strong in his mid 70s.

His composing has been influenced tremendously by classical music, especially the music of Bella Bartok. As a young man in the 70s and 80s he wrote 20 pieces titled: Children’s Songs. These works are sold as a book and a CD of Chick performing them can be purchased as well.

Many classical and perhaps jazz players too, might not see these as Jazz pieces, but they are. They show the wonderful diversity of jazz music and how its blended with classical music.

The influence of Bartok is clear: use of pentatonic scales, cross rhythms- look that up if you are not sure what this is- a variety of feeling and complexity in a short period of time.

This collection is a great way to introduce intermediate level students to non traditional jazz and the genius of a great living composer.

Bill Evans and the Future of Jazz

Bill Evans died in 1980 after more than a 20 year career. He forever changed jazz, especially jazz piano and trio playing. He did this by creating, among other changes. two innovations: 1) Rootless chord voicings. Every modern player learns them and they are in every decent jazz theory book. 2) He made the bass player a near equal to the pianist, eliminating what I call "chunky sounding jazz." Jazz trios became more sophisticated. At its best, there was a sort of improvised counterpoint playing between piano and bass.

This approach has not changed. It is expanding on what Evans accomplished. Even while he was alive, players like Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Clair Fischer and others created their own voicings influenced by Evans.

This continues as new musicians from all over the world come on the scene. Jazz, like European classical music, is worldwide now. Israeli jazz artists incorporate middle eastern and Hebrew structures in their improvisations as one example of the impact of an American invented art form and the impact of Bill Evans. The Evans trio approach is in play everywhere you hear jazz.

Brad Mehldau, now in his forties, is increasingly employing counterpoint in his playing. Others have done this but not to the extent Mehldau has. This lack of counterpoint has been a source of criticism of jazz. Mehldau hopes to change that.

When I teach beginners, they must learn how to read music, along with everything else that lays the foundation for playing classical music. At the same time, I teach them to play chords with simple melodies-the foundation for jazz. It's wonderful when I can teach a student the "heavy stuff" of modern jazz, starting with the rootless left hand voicings of Bill Evans, while at the same time tackle a Chopin Nocturne. You need both to be a complete musician. You can be better at one, but you will be a better and happier musician with both classical and jazz.

The Importance of Teaching Chords to Piano Students

A significant number of my students have had a previous instructor. The teacher may have retired or moved, or the student moved and hired me. I have learned, with 30 years of teaching experience, that the vast majority of teachers are only classical trained. The best trained piano teachers teach what is called "music theory," which includes a foundational understanding of chords.

Understanding chords provides a student with a more foundational knowledge that can help a student understand how music works. It is kind of like learning grammar in an English class, and it allows the student to employ creative use of this knowledge.

When playing a Gershwin song or a modern pop tune, a student follows a published arrangement in much the same way they would approach any written classical work. These arrangements are not written by the song writer, but by a musician hired by the publisher. If you go to a recital and five students play the standard arrangement of a given song, they will be playing the same exact piece, note for note. In contrast, five of my own students playing the same song might play five individual styles drawing on the chord symbols and various musical devices that are not in the written arrangement, which they are not following. In doing this they are developing compositional and improvisational skills.

This is possible because my training and experience is in both classical and in jazz. When choosing a piano teacher, this is something to bear in mind. Jazz and improvisation has its origin in America, but is now all over the world and taught in every major music school. With a grounding not just in reading notes but also in understanding the music theory underlying any given piece, a student is better equipped to learn and grow as a musician. That is what I try to do for my students.

Why Teaching Living Composers Is Just as Important

I am bothered by the lack of teaching and performance of the music of living composers in today's piano teaching. Names such as Lowell Lieberman, Libby Larson-Penta, William Bolcom, Chick Corea... these are composers that you almost never see taught. You might not even see some of the great American composers that everyone knows and loves: Gershwin, Copland, Bernstein, Barber, to name a few. Even some great pop songs have their place in piano teaching, especially the great American standards (there's value in everything from Billy Holiday to Nora Jones).

Don't get me wrong; I love Bach, Chopin, Beethoven, and many of the other baroque, classical, and romantic-era greats. But it's 2013! We can't just maintain the old standards. We also need to present the new.

In my teaching, I do not exclusively use the traditionally-employed classical "educational music" commonly pushed by music publishers. I don't think this music is bad, but I find much of it dated and stale. Students become better musicians when they are exposed to a broader array of musical genres.

A modern song can be as beautiful, as complex, and as brilliant as any classical composition. As teachers we should teach all of it, and our concerts halls should have them performed.