February 20, 2023

I Practiced Jazz Piano for a Week

An electric piano.

Alright, I already had some experience going into this one. I played piano for 4 years in high school, but it mostly involved learning how to play songs with very little music theory. When I tried dabbling with jazz it always seemed so daunting and nothing I tried sounded right. My goal this week was to push past these initial barriers, get an idea of what it would really take to learn jazz, and of course see how much better I could get at playing it.

Theory and Exercises

Oh, you’ve never heard of a Z major sussy triad chord? Have fun trying to make music dumbass.

I went into this week scared of theory, and now I don’t think it’s even worth studying that much. I learned most of the theory from YouTube, especially the channel Walk That Bass. The basic idea I was getting from all my sources was that you want to learn scales, and then outside of that just listen to music you like, transpose it, and try to understand what combinations of sounds are making it sound good. Before this week I undervalued how much I had picked up by playing different songs without studying theory. Now I realize how much groundwork it’s done for teaching my hands different rhythms and my ears different sounds.

The one exception that needs direct study and practice is the scales. I’ve been pretty lazy with them before, but now that I know they’re basically the one thing to focus on I feel more motivated to practice them. They have two main functions: they give you a language to understand how notes relate to each other, and they get your hands used to moving around the piano for improvisation. I tried to deviate from scales at one point by following a 30 minute video of Jazz rhythm exercises, only to realize by the end I was literally playing scales but with a little pizzazz.

I will say that when motivation was low, it was easier to watch a YouTube video on theory than to sit at the piano with no idea what I’m going to play. Once I started watching videos I’d inevitably hear some cool chords or new rhythm and try to emulate them.

Jazz Time

I messed around with a few different songs and chord progressions during my practice, but my main focus was to incorporate what I was learning into Autumn Leaves. Here’s where I was at before this week:

I knew basic versions of the chords, could throw in slight changes on the melody, and could spice it up with some rhythm changes. I had to play pretty slowly, but here’s what I was able to get at the end of the week:

I think the biggest improvement is that while the first version only had chords and a melody, here I was able to play chords, melody, and a bass line throughout the entire thing. The foundation provided by that bass then allowed me to spice up the chords to be a little weirder and jazzier. While I don’t think it sounds great, it’s definitely a step in the right direction to make my playing more interesting and expressive. A few more rhythm changes and better connections between ideas and I might be onto something.

Closing Thoughts

Turns out learning how to play jazz piano is actually doable. A lot of the mental blocks I had to learning it were created with my 17 year old brain, so now that I’m 25 it’s easier to see how misinformed those anxieties were. You basically practice some scales, study cool music, then just mess around.

This week I was reminded how easy it is to get so engrossed in playing piano that I lose track of time. The difference between this and other flow-inducing activities is my energy tends to feel better afterwards. My guess is it has something to do with different music expressing different emotions, so allowing myself to really get into the music can take me out of whatever emotional state I’m in and shift me into another one. The same can be said about listening to music, but it feels more palpable when I’m physically getting my body to enact these emotions.

When I was in high school I enjoyed playing piano, but I was also attached to the idea of learning complex songs to impress other people. I care a lot less about that now, which seems healthier but also means I have less motivation to play in general. The good news is after this week I feel more curious about how the songs I like “work”. If this curiosity is enough to get me to pick up a few new ideas here and there, this was a week well spent! 😺

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