While there’s a growing number of good published resources for the keen jazz student these days, most are aimed at the serious adult player, and in many cases too-quickly get embroiled in complicated jazz theory. Meanwhile, for young players who enjoy “jazzy pieces” and want to explore the style, there’s long been a gap in the market.
Jazz Piano for Kids, new from ace jazz educator Richard Michael and published by Hal Leonard, aims to fill that gap. Introducing his book, Michael writes,
“Welcome to Jazz Piano for Kids and your very first steps in making up your own solos. What do you need? Apart from a piano or keyboard, just two hands, two wide-open ears, and the ability to have a go without fear of making mistakes. This beginner’s course will give you the building blocks of playing jazz on the piano… Before you know it, you will be improvising your own solos and starting a lifetime’s discovery in the wonderful world of jazz.”
Let’s get started right away…
The first, undoubtedly most important, thing to understand here is that Jazz Piano for Kids is as much a video lesson package as it is a supporting book. A total of 45 videos is included in the reasonable price, and offer the vital core learning that the text and notation accompany.
Richard Michael explains why this is (and must be) so in his introduction:
“At the heart of an authentic jazz education is listening and playing, copying and creating. The focus in most piano methods is on notation, which is learning to read and perform music accurately from a written score. Here, the focus is on improvisation (although notation is also covered). This is the art of making up music as you play.
How do you do that then? This book is packed with videos specifically designed to get you listening, copying and improvising.”
Thus we soon discover that, once past the introduction, the first two-page spread includes step by step instructions leading the student through 9 videos, each developing an experiential understanding of groove. Another 8 follow on the next page. From the start, jazz is introduced as a fundamentally musical, aural tradition, “caught not taught”.
According to the cover, “the method can be used in combination with a teacher or parent”, which is an interesting choice of words…
The video content here is so strong that in many respects it replaces the motivated student’s need for a teacher; the material could easily be used alone, and indeed many teachers may themselves wish to work through it if they aren’t confident jazzers. Equally, I still think that the supervision of a good teacher would be an asset in terms of monitoring progress and giving personalised feedback.
As the book progresses, notation becomes a more important feature, and jazz theory very steadily makes it’s way into the picture, albeit in a steady, gentle manner that is not only age-appropriate for younger players, but in my view equally important for more mature ones.
As learning unfolds…
Here’s a list of the topics covered in Jazz Piano for Kids.
Note that for the first half of the book, the student is basically using just their right hand, learning about groove, rhythm, and improvisation along with the video backings.
- Singing a Groove
- How we hear the chords change
- Strengthening the fingers
- Playing tunes and solos
- Scale tones and transposition
- Chord tones and the sequence
and then including both hands playing together:
- Guide tones and hand shifting
- Augmentation and the blues scale
- Jazz harmony and space
- Putting it all together
If any of this is starting to sound a little complex… well, it isn’t.
Certainly the book isn’t a “beginner piano method”, but an elementary (around Grade 2) player/reader would find the material clear, approachable, and easy to understand. And where theory terminology is used, it is introduced in an enticing way which would set any alert, curious child’s mind buzzing with enthusiasm, rather than feeling overwhelmed by abstruse words.
Easing us along, Michael’s videos are a model of clarity, with superb pacing and musically on-point content, all delivered in the trademark genial manner that has propelled their author to a reputation as leading jazz educationalist in the UK today.
In addition to the explanations and demonstrations that lead each video, there are practical and musical activities aplenty here, including play-along sections for all the pieces, accompanied by Michael himself, with full backings.
I have to admit that I had an improbable amount of fun playing along to these backings. This really is jazz education of the very highest order, and as it should be done!
As for the pieces included, it’s perhaps no surprise to find GoTell Aunt Rhody, Jingle Bells, She’ll be Coming’ ‘Round the Mountain, Michael Row the Boat Ashore and the ubiquitous When the Saints Go Marching in, perfect choices one and all, not only because of their significant heritage, but because children are likely to have previously played them in beginner books, and can now adapt their playing to incorporate jazz grooves and improvising.
Less expected but equally welcome, La Cucaracha is of course enormous fun, Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen may never escape its Lion King associations, and Michael’s jazz adaptations of the March from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Paganini’s 24th Caprice are between them an unexpected blast.
Included along the way, Michael contributes a dozen original pieces through which the student learns easy jazz tropes and develops their confidence playing and improvising in standard swing and blues styles. This again, in my view, is the most appropriate vantage point from which to launch a wider exploration of jazz after completing this superb introduction.
In terms of the 72-page book itself, my feelings are a little more mixed. The publication is attractively presented and well produced, but I don’t think the designers have necessarily quite hit the spot in terms of a target audience.
Judging from the cover and black-and-white content, “kids” here are aged ten upwards, and Michael’s careful use of language would also suit this age group and above. For younger children I would favour a more colourful presentation.
Jazz Piano for Kids is perhaps most particularly ideal for those in their early teens, although they might not like being called “kids”. And for that matter, I think the strength of educational content here makes this resource a great starting point for adult learners too, presentation aside.
The notation is engraved in a suitably clear, and larger than average font size, which I think at this level is ideal regardless of age. Ample fingering is included, and from an editorial perspective the scores are great.
The large black-and-white images are perhaps less essential however, and the oversized diagrams of keyboard and chords are in my view unnecessarily large, and use up too much space. On balance, I think the designers could have produced a more concise and attractive book.
Leaving aside any doubts about the presentation, or questions as to who Jazz Piano for Kids is most suitable for, I think that it is easy to summarise this publication simply by hailing it as one of the very best jazz introductions I’ve yet seen.
Richard Michael has delivered the beginner jazz book that as a teacher I’ve been waiting for, seemingly, for decades.
Thank you so much, Richard!
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