Some reflections on a first year of jazz piano

Hi all,

I just hit my first anniversary for PianoGroove (and really my jazz piano journey as a whole), and I’ve been thinking a lot about how the past year has been for my developing piano skills. I thought I’d share some of these thoughts here. At the very least this allows me to cement my thoughts into writing, but additionally, if anyone wants to comment with notes on their own first experiences, I’d definitely appreciate hearing that.

As a recap from my introductory post a year ago: I’m a 26-year-old graduate student living in California, and I grew up playing a variety of instruments, including viola, drums, guitar, and piano when I was much younger. I was never really able to muster the dedication to really hone any of those skills, though–practicing was just rarely something I wanted to do, and so I never got beyond average, though I did have a great time, especially as a violist in my school orchestras and ensembles. On the contrary, I consider myself a very active consumer of music and all that surrounds it: personalities, histories, influence on society, etc. I always wanted to know more theory, and about a year and a half ago is when I decided to explore that desire in conjunction with my desire to learn more about jazz, and thus I took the plunge into PianoGroove last year around this time. I got myself a brand new digital piano (which I love), and I embarked on my journey with incredible excitement.

The first two months of the year I spent working through the Foundations lessons. I focused on learning Tune Up and Misty (without the extensions), and I was able to play them in that manner fairly comfortably. I have to say, as someone who really appreciates structure, the practice planner was a tremendous help. I followed it religiously, even keeping an Excel log that included a randomizer function to make sure I was really giving every key equal time (maybe a little crazy). I wasn’t practicing every day, but I would say I was practicing more days than not.

Things slowed down in the spring time. I was trying to transition into the extensions and Tenderly, but at the end of February I got a puppy, and focus on the piano drifted. Here’s sort of where my perfectionism/dedication to regimen impeded me, because while I’m pretty sure that any time – 10 minutes even – sitting down and practicing would have helped me improve, I would always rationalize not doing it because it wasn’t a full dedicated session and I couldn’t trust myself to maintain the habit the next day, or the day after.

So I continued to progress, but much more slowly, and in fits and starts. I would go without practicing for a few weeks, then really dedicate myself for a week or two, then lose focus again. I had to take an unexpected month-long trip out of the country in July, and that also took the wind out of my sails. I had my last great stretch of practicing in October, where I think I really started to get a good handle on the extensions material and developed that comfortably into Misty and most of Tenderly. But that’s about where I am right now, and I’m away for my piano for the next 3 weeks for the holidays.

In short, it’s difficult not to be disappointed in myself. I was hoping to have maybe 6 or 7 of the standards down comfortably at this point, but I really only have 2 or 3, and even those are a bit dusty at the moment. And yet, I still have some optimism. Throughout the year, even when I knew my practicing focus was poor, I would always ask myself, “Am I better at piano than I was a month ago?” And truly, nine times out of ten, the answer was yes. And of course, it follows that I’m a better pianist than I was a year ago. I don’t want to discount that progress. It’s still progress.

I’ve signed up for PianoGroove for another year – I didn’t hesitate to do that. I’d like to stress that I never felt let down by the content on this site. I love it to death. It feels perfectly tailored to how I like to learn, and I couldn’t ask for more. The issue for me has been consistently maintaining focus to engage that material and really progress as much as possible. And maybe I need temper my expectations of myself, and be happy with the progress that I have made. I think that’s probably true, but I think it’s also true that I can get better at practicing and keeping the focus.

My hope is that when I’m back in California in the new year, I’ll have some renewed energy that will at least allow me to return to the level of progress and enjoyment I had when 2019 began. But honestly, that’s easy, and almost a given – the trick will be keeping that up as the year goes on. I suppose it’s like any habit.

One final note: 2019 has been an incredible year for listening and learning about jazz. I would say that jazz makes up about half of all my music listening, up from maybe 10-15% last year. I’ve discovered tons of new artists and albums (I should really post more in the What Record Are You Listening Today? topic). Some of my favorite albums I discovered this year: Freddie Hubbard’s First Light, John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things, Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert, Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth, Thelonious Monk’s Monk’s Dream, the London jazz compilation We Out Here, Andrew Cyrille’s Lebroba. On top of all that, I got to see some awesome jazz concerts, including Ahmad Jamal, Vijay Iyer, Herbie Hancock/Kamasi Washington, and Kenny Barron. I definitely did not lack for inspiration. :slight_smile:

Anyway, I’ll wrap it up now. Again, writing this was primarily an exercise for getting my thoughts in order, but if anybody has any comments, suggestions, or experiences they’d like to share, I would love to hear them!

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I feel your pain and joy… there are days I feel like the more I play the worse I get… ( usually means I am practicing the sections I am learning TOO FAST… and thus actually practicing mistakes… ).
At other times I lose myself (and time) in :notes: and feel good
Meanwhile other things in life temporarily deter my practice

That cycle won’t end I’m sure.
Keep sharing your journey. I was enriched by your comments

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Hi Christian

I found this article extremely useful as well that is worth reading and remember not to put too much pressure on yourself!

We all have bad days in the practice room…days you just can’t seem to get anything right…days you’re fighting the instrument and all you want to do is scream…

I’m sure you know the feeling of a frustrating day in the practice room.

Your reeds are bad, your chops hurt, your technique is slow, or you can’t concentrate. Exercises that you had down yesterday are suddenly worse. Tunes you thought you knew, sound mechanical and boring. Suddenly your big musical goals feel so out of reach…

Bad practice days are a fact of life as a jazz musician, but the key to continual improvement is knowing how to beat them .

What do you do when your instrument and your brain aren’t cooperating? How do you turn your frustration and musical obstacles into productive practice time??

In today’s lesson we’ll answer those questions and more. Here are 5 techniques for overcoming your worst days in the practice room…

How To Turn Frustration With Your Practice Into Musical Progress

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Christian,
You nailed it when you said, “I need [to] temper my expectations of myself, and be happy with the progress that I have made.” I tend to expect more of myself than is possible at times and that only leads to frustration. Just do what you can do and try to convince yourself that that is enough. (Sometimes I’m not too good at convincing myself. :wink:)

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Christian,

Thanks for sharing. I can’t add much more than Lori, Paul and Scott. It helps to know that our fellow aspiring musicians share common threads. We are not alone. Sometimes, I find it better to take a break and come back refreshed. The journey can be frustrating at times, but the rewards make up for it. Keep playing and posting! Most of all…have fun!

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Thanks for sharing all of this Christian. Nice idea for a thread.

One thing that my first jazz teacher told me that always stuck with me was the importance of learning tunes.

At the time I could play maybe 4 or 5 standards, and he said to me “just imagine how much your knowledge of harmony will improve when you have learnt 30 standards”.

He wasn’t lying!

It’s really just a numbers game. Soon we start to see many similarities between them and with each new tune we learn, it gets easier and easier.

My recommendation would be to set a target of maybe 2 or 3 new tunes each month. Really try to stick to that.

You don’t have to play them perfectly, just attempting to play them and exposing yourself to the different keys, chords, progressions, etc…

I actually picked up jazz harmony pretty quickly but I didn’t spend enough time listening to jazz in the early years of my study. Consequently it took me a lot longer to be able to improvise over tunes because the feel, the groove, the rhythms and patterns were not in my head.

I was always saying to myself “this year I will be able to take an improvised solo” and the year would go by without much progress. It turned out that as soon as I started listening to more jazz and transcribing regularly it slowly but surely came together.

I still have a long way to go but I can say with certainty now that listening, transcribing, and playing along with records is the key to developing our ability to improvise over tunes.

Wishing everyone a productive year of practice ahead!

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Thanks everyone for your comments, my experiences also. Thanks Hayden for the recommendation to take up new tunes each month. On that score: when I get stuck, and feeling that I am not going anywhere, I pick up a new (another) tune and that always gets me unstuck and moving. Then I go back and keep on learning the ‘old’ tunes but to make sure that I get them.
Best, Smole

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Thanks sharing those reflections here Christian !

Good to have such assessment but always not forgetting all the pleasure we took on this journey … and keeping having fun during the journey must be a goal too. And do all what needed to play with other musicians
Having a book of our week or month goals can be good too.
3 pillars of our music practice journey could be :

  1. Having fun ! :rofl:
  2. Having goals :arrow_right:
  3. Sharing :palms_up_together:

could be the same pillars for our life in whatever order :wink:
My assessment of the year need to be done too in between

Merry Christmas too all the team and members !!! :partying_face::christmas_tree::gift::gift::gift:

HaPPy MuSiC and PrActicing all !!! :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye::love_you_gesture::four_leaf_clover::four_leaf_clover::four_leaf_clover:

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Christian:
Thanks for your excellent – and heartening – post. Your experience, including the many frustrations, mirrors mine. Progress comes in fits and starts, but by sticking to it, in the long run we move forward.

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Thank you for sharing Christian and it’s heartening for beginners on this platform to learn this still keeps you motivated enough to renew for another year. Yes, practice is hard and the key (no pun intended!) is finding joy and excitement in sitting at the keyboard everyday, even if it’s only for those 10 minutes. But more often than not, the hardest part is actually sitting down as I find time flies when you actually do start. Completely agree that the resources this platform provides is extensive, to say the least and it falls on us to make the best use of it every day. Cheers and may the new year bring us small successes as we get familiar with the standards we practice as part of a repertoire we hope to grow.

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Furthering my recommendations above, we have just launched the course “Beginner Jazz Arrangements” which contains 7 accessible jazz standard studies for beginners.

Here is the full course page:

This course is designed for our students to study in tandem with the Jazz Piano Foundations course. The main goal is to expand our repertoires and to get everyone experiencing growth and progression as quickly as possible.

I encourage all of our beginner students to learn these arrangements as a priority this year, and I’m confident it will help springboard your playing and understanding of jazz harmony.

Cheers and any feedback on the lessons let me know here or in the lesson comments.

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Hi everyone,

Thanks so much for all of your responses to this post. :slight_smile: It really helps to know there is a community of us who have experienced the same struggles and have found ways to keep their piano journeys going. I hope all of you are starting your year off with health and happiness!

@Hayden, as always, you and the PianoGroove team never fail to impress me with your dedication and expanding quality content. I’m thrilled to see a solid bunch of jazz arrangement lessons catered towards beginners. I also really appreciate your advice on really keeping up a good pace of learning new standards. My perfectionism last year definitely kept my pace slow, as I felt I had to really, really know a song well before I could learn a new one, and so I never got beyond my small selection. And that definitely hurt my motivation, since I felt like I would never get around to my favorites. But I’ll take that advice to heart and engage with the standards more frequently this year :slight_smile: Thanks!

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Love this Paul … Thanks so much for sharing. Reading it now :upside_down_face: Very helpful to us all ! I just was having the same frustration the other day - so I stopped and stepped back - then when I returned to the practice this morning, it was so much better. :blush:

Really love reading through this thread you started Christian. :blush: Very informative and useful for other players (me! too) Am learning a lot from your post. How is it going? Any new jazz stuff you currently have been working on or probably playing …Take care and keep us posted. This thread gave me a lot of encouragement today! :upside_down_face:

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Hi Kristeta,

Glad to hear that my post provided a little inspiration!

I’m happy to report that the first few months of this year has been a rather refreshing experience for me and my jazz piano studies. I took @Hayden’s advice about really increasing the pace at which I learn standards, and thus far I’ve already learned the seven standards in the Beginner Jazz Piano Arrangements course. By comparison, at this time last year, I had only learned 2 and a half!

My emphasis hasn’t been on absolute perfection, but rather just the exposure and internalizing of the harmony, phrasing, and different ways of voicing chords. Each standard becomes easier to learn than the last just from those subconscious internalizations and muscle memory developments. And I’ve really enjoyed it. Right now I’m actually taking a brief period just to revisit all 7 of them and make sure I can play them cleanly (and maybe record them) before I move on. I’ve consciously backed off practicing chord extensions to focus on holding myself to learning these standards, but I feel I’m ready to pick that material back up and learn some of the associated arrangements. I’ve also been putting off learning transcription for too long, so I’d like to start that soon as well.

I also want to emphasize the importance of maintaining enthusiasm and and motivation outside of practice. I get inspiration just from reading through the forums on PianoGroove, but also from external sources. Of course, there’s just listening to jazz, which I’ve been doing voraciously (my favorite album discoveries of the year: Miles Davis’ My Funny Valentine concert, John Coltrane’s Lush Life, The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album, Jeff Parker’s Suite for Max Brown). I also got to see the great jazz vocalist Cécile McClorin Salvant in concert. But apart from that, I’ve been watching a lot of Adam Neely videos on YouTube, creating my jazz standards Spotify playlist, and even diving into some history of Western music on the side. It’s been fun!

So, long story short, it’s been a much better year for me and my piano, and I’m happy I made this post at the end of last year, because the advice and encouragement I received was invaluable. Hopefully this little update provides others with more inspiration in turn :slight_smile:

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It’s aways nice to read your updates Christian and I’m glad to hear that your year has been productive so far.

7 new standards is very good progress. Congrats! With each new one you learn, the easier it becomes to learn the next which is a nice feeling.

Perhaps I have referenced this lesson for you before, but just incase, here it is:

Memorising and visualising the form of every tune we play is very useful to aid the memorisation process of our repertoire. It might sound simple, but with such a vast repertoire of standards, the more that we can condense and categorise them the better.

In fact, @celia recently posted a nifty spread sheet where she lists the form, the original key of the tune, and the date last practiced. Check it out here:

It’s also good to remember the tunes that have slightly irregular forms, we touch upon some examples in the lesson referenced above.

Cheers and stay safe!
Hayden

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