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A little jazz piano: exploring the building blocks of music

Soon after the COVID-19 lockdown started, I began doing combined piano and theory lessons with my daughter, who is eleven, and her friend, who is a year or two older, using Skype. I tried to show them a little about some different functions that help to build a piece of music, and in the end I decided to write a set of three short jazz-style pieces for the piano, to highlight a few things I had learned, and help make it fun for them.

When I was their age, I was a boy chorister in King’s College Choir in Cambridge. We learned music within that context by developing our musical instincts to a very high degree. I found I had a very good concept of sound and musical shape but it took a while for me to be able to identify how all this related to the technical building blocks of music and how they were made to function together. The discovery of the modes of construction of music with all their different dimensions was a thrilling thing for me, and gave me seeds of confidence to imagine that I might one day be able to write music myself.

So I tried to show some simple concepts to my daughter and her friend. The first thing I focused on was harmony, and for this I chose to feature quartal harmony – harmony that is built on perfect fourths. Quartal harmony does not only have quite a contemporary sound but also a mobile and fluid function within the harmonic language of a piece. And, within a build up of fourths, there is an inevitable seventh which is a key interval in jazz harmony.

We also learned about root position chords, and first and second inversions of chords. It is always exciting to see how a different inversion of a chord changes the colour and the feel of the sound of the chord and how the inversions end up relating to the root they come from.

I also taught them about the 60 chords in jazz, something I learned years ago from an Oscar Peterson tutorial. This is a sequence of five chords, C Major 7, C 7 (add B flat), C Minor 7 (add E flat,) C half diminished (add G flat), C diminished (change the B flat to A). You can play this sequence in every key (hence the 60 chords) and there was a time when I could play these chords quite quickly and without mistakes. Not now!

I also tried to show the importance of understanding and building musical line. Line and shape help us not only to understand the building blocks of a piece, but also the breath shape of a piece, and for performers good line can be a hard thing to achieve. The second piece I wrote has a melody where both the hands move largely in parallel and it requires a good sense of where the fingers are to make a good line.

And lastly, I wrote a very simple piece with a walking bass line with the intention of helping a pianist to learn independence of the right and left hands (jazz is really good for this), and also to maintain a good and constant sense of pulse. As musicians we need to not only learn to internalize pulse and rhythm, but also learn to coordinate reaction of thought with the motor function of the hands and know where they are and where they have to go on your instrument. I suggested to my daughter’s friend that he should watch a video of the pianist Yuja Wang playing the Toccata by Prokofiev, which is a spectacular example of this kind of function.

As someone who writes choral music nearly all of the time, I loved writing these little pieces for piano. I had to think a lot about style, articulation, and how to identify and project the character of each of the pieces. It has been such a lovely process trying to communicate these thoughts to my daughter and her friend. I hope they have learned something. I certainly have.

Featured image: Piano Colorful rainbow paint vector background image by Superbeam, via Shutterstock.

Recent Comments

  1. Averill Summer

    I look forward to ordering these new pieces. As you know, I love your music. Funny you mention Yuja’s Prok. Toccata – we listened to it just yesterday! Amazing!

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