How to Transition from Classical Pianist to Jazz Pianist

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Piano music doesn’t have to be all classical, all the time! Here’s what you need to know about getting started with jazz piano chord progressions, courtesy of St. Augustine, FL teacher Heather L...

 

Thelonius Monk, Herbie Hancock, and Duke Ellington are just a few of the great jazz piano players. What beautiful and fascinating sounds fill our ears when their names come to mind! The seemingly illusive progressions and spontaneous elements, like syncopation and improvisation, sound virtually like magic. To those of us who were trained in the classical tradition only, the journey from classical pianist to jazz pianist may seem like a long one. But it’s not be as difficult as it seems. By learning basic blues scales and jazz piano chord progressions, you’ll be taking the first important step in transitioning to jazz piano.

For those of us who’ve learned Hanon exercises, there’s an excellent resource called “Hanon to Jazz” (published by FJH Music Company Inc.). Specifically written for classically trained players, its fun and brilliant exercises and songs are a terrific introduction. They’ll have you playing the blues in no time. It’s a great map for your journey.

For those of you who’ve yet to learn Hanon exercises, Dariusz Terefenko’s created a great workbook, “Jazz Theory: From Basic to Advanced Study”, published by Routledge. I also recommend Tim Richards’ “Exploring Jazz Piano: Volume 1”, published by Schott.

One of the first stretches of road on your journey is learning jazz piano chord progressions.

The two, five, one, and six (ii-V-I-vi) chord progression, is one of the most famous and useful. An example is:

D minor-G major-C major-A minor

Here’s a video of how to play it:

The one, six, two, five, and one (I-VI-II-V-I) chord progression is another that could be tried with an improvised melody in the right hand. An example of the progression is:

C major-A minor-D minor-G major-C major

Here’s a video of how to play it:

Next, take a look at the chord chart below. It shows which keys to play together to create each chord. It’s fun to mix and match to make sounds that appeal to you.

chord chart

The second stretch of road is paved with learning jazz scales. Here’s a picture of several blues scales:

Blues Scale

As with the learning of any genre, listening is so utterly important. This is especially true for those of us who are adopting a new style. The best jazz musicians in the world listen to jazz all of the time. Think of yourself as a hungry traveler and that music is your sole nourishment. You won’t get very far without it.

HeatherLHeather L. teaches singing, piano, acting, and more in St. Augustine, FL, as well as through online lessons. She is a graduate of the prestigious Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, and has performed with the New York and Royal Philharmonics, the New Jersey and Virginia Symphonies, the American Boy Choir, and the internationally renowned opera star Andrea Bocelli. Learn more about Heather here!

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2 replies
  1. Marcus
    Marcus says:

    Hi, Suzy, thanks for sharing this information. It is very useful for the pianist to know this information on the scales and transition. Keep up the good work.

    Reply
  2. Art Retti
    Art Retti says:

    Thanks for all these good tips. Beyond this valuable intro to jazz, I would suggest you start playing standards in your mind, away from the keyboard. If you don’t develop an inner ear, you’ll always be a slave of your fingers. You’ll tend to follow your finger. It should be the other way around. The fingers should follow your mind. Gradually by listening to good musicians, you’ll be able to learn your own jazz vocabulary. Improvisation then becomes the art of spontaneously fishing out of this vocabulary the phrase you think will best express your mood and your inventiveness in a given musical harmonic, rhythmic and melodic context.

    Reply

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