My Jazz Piano Freedom: What’s Helped & Hurt

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I’ve always been fascinated by the education process of jazz piano.

As many of you know, I had a hard time learning jazz piano. It wasn’t until later in my career that I found out that most people actually have a hard time learning jazz piano.

The typical student would follow the same path- or lack there of, I should say. Learning licks, transcriptions, voicings, random topics. Navigating a stormy sea without a map.

If you asked me what my career path looked like, I’d take a piece of paper and draw scribbles all over it like the one below.

This is, no joke, an accurate depiction of my jazz piano learning process over 25+ years.

And no, I never imagined this is what it took to learn jazz.

Did it have to be this way? Absolutely not. But for some reason, this is the “accepted” process most students take.

I never quite understood this. I was frustrated constantly and wanted to quit. I didn’t understand why there wasn’t a plan to follow. Even famous professionals couldn’t offer advice beyond, “listen to albums and transcribe.”

All I wanted was direction- a couple steps to move down the right path.

Couldn’t it be like learning English or a foreign language?

In school there were plenty of structured steps we followed.

We wrote our ABC’s. We learned about verbs, nouns, adjectives, and how to use them in a sentence.

Structure & Organization is gooooooood.

Anyway, I could rant about this forever, but this is exactly why I formed Jazz Piano School.

To provide structured, and organized jazz piano education.

In this post I go over the small lessons that have helped me make the MOST progress in the SHORTEST time possible.
So with that being said…

14 Lessons I’ve Learned Throughout My 25+ Year Career

1. Practice The Boring Stuff

Wait, wait. Don’t tell me. You’re bored already. I know, I know!

But want to know the funny thing? I could tell 10 people this and ONLY 1 person would actually do what I said.

We as humans aren’t wired to purposefully inflict suffering upon ourselves. So for us to sit down, for even 20 minutes, and practice “non-fancy” jazz stuff, like dominant 7th chords, through the circle of fourths is literally painful!

Even though in the back of our brains we KNOW we need it!

We still can’t bring ourselves to do it.

I know you want to learn to play what McCoy played on that one solo, or what Herbie was doing on that one part, but listen to me closely…

This will not help you achieve jazz freedom.

Will it help? Well, of course it will- but barely.

To give an analogy, this is like a 20+ year veteran surgeon explaining to a brand new med student where they should make a certain cut in open heart surgery…

“Check out the Phyrigian substitute Herbie used over this 5/4 bar leading into the b9,b13 Sus Chord!” ” Uhh what?”

Is it helpful? I mean, kinda. Not really…

Is this what the med student needs?

Not at all. They need to build a foundation, to learn the structure of jazz sentences, not learn that cool lick that Herbie played. When you get to a top performing level, that information will actually be useful.

Foundation is goooooood

But until then, stick to practicing the boring stuff. I promise you it will help you improve 10x faster.

2. Learn Jazz Theory

Knowledge is power. This is pretty much true in all instances.

Nothing has helped me MORE than understanding how jazz sentence components work together.

Before I started learning jazz theory, I literally had no idea what jazz was.

Jazz to me was being lost without a map, looking for a needle in a haystack, navigating the- well, you get the picture.

And unfortunately, this is exactly what it’s like for 99% or students!

When I started teaching, I hated this. I hated the way I was taught, so I made a vow to myself to never let my students go home without UNDERSTANDING why we were practicing and learning certain exercises.

I never wanted my students to feel confused because this is how I always felt.

I was confused as all heck throughout most of my learning process.

Later in my career -way later in my career- I realized if I had only learned Jazz Theory sooner, I could have shaved off 10+ years of struggle.

Can you imagine trying to learn the English language without learning the Alphabet?

Exactly! That’s probably all I really need to say.

If you’re learning jazz theory then learn more.

If you are not, then have your teacher start, or I recommend finding a new teacher.

3. Try, Try, & Try Again

I’ll make a couple points in this lesson, but truly, no matter what, you cannot give up.

If you quit, then you have no chance of reaching your dream.

I know, I know, this is a little of my motivational side coming out, but it’s very, very true and important.

I see so many students quit and give up- and for good reasons.

They don’t have a structured plan, they don’t have any of direction, they have no clue what is going on or why they’re learning and practicing certain exercises.

I see it all the time and can relate because this is exactly how I felt.

For everyone reading this right now and nodding your head I want you to know one thing…

Listen closely…

It’s not your fault (don’t laugh). Seriously…

Goodwill Hunting. One of my favorite movies. But seriously it’s not your fault.

Everyone has the potential to learn jazz piano, BUT you need the proper tools in the proper order.

For the most part, your education consists of throwing you in the ocean in order to teach you how to swim- not teaching you the strokes first.

That is not your fault!

Without the proper planned and structured education you have probably less than a 1% chance of:

1. Feeling motivated.
2. Actually making progress and
3. Finding jazz fun!

So the feeling of wanting to quit is COMPLETELY normal.

I quit 3 times! 3 TIMES!

But listen, you don’t have to.

This is exactly why I’ve built Jazz Piano School.

To provide you with Structure.

To provide you with Direction.

To provide you with Organization.

So that you can feel confident about knowing you’re on the correct path to success.

So there is HOPE. You must believe me!

Okay enough motivation, but seriously… don’t quit. Or else I’ll find you and force lessons on you. 🙂

4. You Need Structure

This is always a funny one. I’ve always wanted to achieve freedom in my playing. I would see these giants of jazz sit down and start to play effortlessly like it was a piece of cake.

Oscar Peterson, Keith Jarrett, Herbie, Chick. It looked like they were expressing their soul with ease with nothing holding them back.

Is he even trying? What the heck?

Now, in my young mind this translated to trying to achieve jazz freedom by using freedom.

This was so far from truth.

And it’s funny ’cause you still hear people say:

“Jazz doesn’t need structure. The less structure you have the better you’ll be.”

Well, yes and no.

You see, the more structure I added to my learning and playing, the more freedom I actually achieved.

Funny how those things work in life, right?

It seems like this would be the complete opposite. Yet every time it held true.

Now what does structure looks like?

It can look like a lot of things.

It can be discipline…

It can be organization…

It can be focus…

But essentially it is a plan.

We need a structured plan!

It’s a plan that helps you learn jazz components and lead you to success.

Now, tell me: does your jazz education contain a PLAN that is going to lead you to success?

Most likely not. Just like I discovered throughout my career.

5. Practice Jazz Tools Instead Of Copying

Let’s do some imagining for a second:

I want you to picture trying to build a house without any tools.

Pretty crazy right? Of course!

Now imagine this:

Imagine trying to spell a word without knowing what letters are.

Imagine trying to put a sentence together without knowing what order the words go in.

Imagine trying to drive a car without knowing how to use the brake, or the gas, or the mirrors…

We need tools to learn a skill or perform functions.

You’re like, “Okaaayyyy, Brenden! I get it!”

Good.

These are all tools that make up skills in life. The tools are NECESSARY to learn the skill as a whole.

Now, in jazz everyone talks about copying essentially.

Transcribe solos, play solos, use licks, play licks, copy the greats.

This is how we usually learn and this is how lots of teachers teach.

Let me ask you this:

If you copy how Michael Phelps swims will you be able to swim like him?

If you copy how Tiger Woods hits a golf ball will you be able to play golf like him?

If you copy how a surgeon performs open heart surgery will you be able to perform open heart surgery?

No, no, and no.

Unfortunately, this is usually what happens in our education.

I was stuck trying to copy through out most of my career, until I discovered improvisation building blocks.

Do you know where the copying got me? Mostly nowhere.

If I had learned improvisation building blocks and jazz tools I would have gotten much, MUCH, better, very, very quickly.

6. Practice Technique That Relates To Jazz

I took classical lessons for a long time.

The technique I learned helped for a couple of things in jazz but mainly just helped my dexterity with runs.

The mistake I made was that I continued to try and practice classical exercises in order to get better at technical jazz motions.

In a nutshell, it does not translate. At least in the beginning when we need help the most.

In order to train our muscle memory to learn jazz movements we need jazz exercises.

What better way to practice jazz exercises than to practice exercises that relate to the theory tools we’re learning.

Doing this will help your hand learn movement much faster than Hanon exercises guaranteed!

If you want better classical movements…use these.

7. Improv can be learned with a system and is more than just licks.

If I had a dime for every time a teacher said “watch me play then you do it,” I’d be a very rich man.

Now, if you’ve studied jazz for a least a year you’ve probably heard something similar.

The fact is, we’re told to transcribe solos, learn licks, and imitate the greats but this does NOT provide us with the building blocks we need to actually improvise ourselves with freedom.

Think about it like this:

Improvisation contains lots of small building blocks, kinda like legos.

Because I have lots of legos and know how they fit together, I can pretty much improvise at will.

But take someone else for example who doesn’t have many legos AND doesn’t know how they go together…

Well that’s going to be quite a problem, wouldn’t you say?

If any of you have seen the Lego Movie this will relate.

There are people called “Master Builders.” These lego builders can essentially build anything with legos.

They don’t need instructions or a roadmap. They’re completely free to express themselves how ever they want with the use of legos.

Now in the beginning did they start like that? Absolutely not!

But this is essentially where 99% of students are told to start in jazz.

What if I told you to build the White House lego shown below, simply by looking at it?

Could you build this without instructions?

Do you think you’d be able to do that?

Of course not!

Can we solo with complete freedom by copying licks?

No, we need the improvisation building blocks.

We need instructions to show us how to start to put our legos together.

Can we learn how to improvise with instructions like this? Absolutely!

Just like master builders start to learn.

Eventually, through the use of systematic exercises that teach us how to put the legos together, we can start to express ourselves freely however we wish.

This is how we learn complete freedom with improvisation.

8. Imitate Styles & Feels From The Giants

Now I’m sure by this point you’ve caught on to the vibe.

We need small, organized, and structured building blocks that teach us jazz tools, so we can use these tools as we wish to freely play jazz piano, rather than starting at trying to build an entire house with just our hands, no knowledge of how, and without a blueprint.

Pretty impossible.

But, if you make it to a certain point where you’re feeling comfortable in your playing then you may be ready to start using the textures of the giants.

Now what does this mean exactly?

I found myself asking this question constantly throughout my career…

“I’m playing exactly what the pros are playing, but why don’t I sound like them?”

This problem has many causes but overall you want to explore the texture and atmosphere that the artist is creating and incorporate that into your own playing.

Brad Mehldhau, Keith Jarrett, Wynton Kelly, and others, all possess certain sounds and atmospheres they create by playing specific notes, chords, harmonies, and licks.

These atmospheres are made from formulas. There are specific steps to creating these textures.

Study the formulas that create the textures of all the jazz piano giants.

They include: touch, harmony, duration, frequency of notes, space and much more.

When we study a certain artist and can explain the sound and texture through all of those elements, it makes us able to replicate their sound in our own playing.

Or at least something similar to start with.

I started listening very, very closely, to EXACTLY what certain players were doing to sound like themselves.

What made Brad sound like Brad?

What made Chick sound like Chick?

What made Wynton Kelly sound like Wynton Kelly?

I started studying these questions and documenting the styles and textures of these players.

I was then able to incorporate these same textures into my own playing to generate a better sound much, much, faster then simply copying and playing their transcriptions.

9. Your Left Hand Is More Important Than You Think

From day 1, I was focused on how to make my right hand sound as cool as possible.

It was right hand, right hand, right hand. How fast could I play? How many patterns could I play? What new licks could I learn?

Never once did I stop to think about how my Left hand effected the sound of everything!

It was at about year 10 in my career that I started to focus more on the subtleties of my left hand voicings.

Your left hand harmonies and rhythms have the power to completely change the entire sound of your right hand.

Meaning: if you play a line in your right hand with one set of left hand harmonies, then play that EXACT same line in your right hand but with a different set of harmonies and rhythmic comps

You get a completely different line!

How’s that for power?

Your left hand is controlling harmony which is a very important job.

When we’re just focused on our right hand lines, we miss out on TONS of expression and exploration of sound and moods that can be effected by our left hand.

Take Bill Evans for example.

His right hand lines are of course amazing, but stop to take a look at the rhythmic placement and harmonies he’s using in his left hand and you’ll quickly notice the depth that is contained in his left hand.

Bill Evans’ left hand was brilliant!

Focus on your left hand more and you’ll make much more progress faster.

10. Textures, Making Music, & Self Expression Is The Name Of The Game

This is another one that has helped me make tremendous progress.

Throughout the chaos of jazz education, I always remembered that at the end of the day it is still about making music.

One note played with intention, passion, and soul, outmatches any other notes played without it.

Remember why you’re playing this beautiful music.

To express yourself, share your passion, and move people with your music.

You could be playing for other reasons but you should know what they are.

I’m sure your reason is not to be the best!

Unfortunately, I see this a lot in music. People judging, criticizing, saying rude comments to lesser players. Think how disrespectful that is!

No one likes music bullies. Always be supportive and inspirational to others learning this great music.

No matter what skill level you are, you have a gift and it is important.

We all started in the same spot and are all creating music together.

Remember your “why’s” and you’ll stay closer to music and progress faster because of it.

11. Most Jazz Education Will Not Give You The Structure And Guidance You Need

I remember it like it was yesterday.

I had just heard my first Oscar Peterson album. Boy, was I impressed! I had never heard anything like it.

It was my introduction to jazz.

The only thing I could think of was how badly I wanted to play like him.

It became my dream to be able to sit at a piano and recreate the sounds and feelings I got listening to him!

Obviously, I was all excited.

My parents? Not so much. They wanted me to stay with classical.

But I was ready! I wanted to improvise.

I told my parents I wanted to take jazz lessons.

They were obviously hesitant.

“How do they even teach you how to improvise? It seems very unorganized and unstructured.”

They thought they would be wasting their money.

If I wasn’t making decent progress then I was going to have to pay for the lessons myself or go back to classical piano.

“How could I not improve?” I thought to myself.

“I’ll have a teacher. I’ll simply practice what they tell me and I’ll get better. Easy peazy!”

This is the point in the story you start to feel a pit in your stomach…

I had my first lesson.

During the lesson I was so excited hearing some of the things my teacher was playing.

“So how exactly do I do this?” I asked “What should I practice when I get home?”

A moment of silence fell over my teacher as he stared as me like I was stupid…

After what seemed like an eternity of silence he said,

“Weren’t you just watching what I was doing?”

…. It felt like my body completely deflated. I don’t remember the last time I felt so terrible.

It was at that moment I realized this was not going to go as smoothly as I had planned.

I had this experience through my entire career. After I began teaching, I soon realized that I was not alone.

99% of all the students I taught felt the exact same way and had similar experiences.

I vowed to always provide structure & formulaic methods to learn jazz piano so that students were confident in the plan.

Just know that most the jazz piano education you receive will seem like a smorgasbord of information that leaves YOU to put connect the dots.

I guess this is what a smorgasbord looks like.

And again- this is not the way it has to be. You can learn jazz piano with structure, direction and organization.

You just need to know where to look.

(Hint Hint – Jazz Piano School)

12. Learn Every Chord Tone & Extension To A Chord Meticulously In Every Key

The other simple-yet-powerful tool I never quite comprehended early on was that I needed to learn the harmony to everything on the piano in and out.

What do I mean by this?

Knowing the notes on the piano and how they pertain to the harmonies in every way, shape and form is essential.

You should know all the extensions to every chord, in every key, and be able to play them through any sort of pattern.

If I ask, “what is the 7th degree of all the minor 7th chords?” You should be able to rattle these off while reading a book.

Knowledge of harmony and harmonic tools is greatly underestimated by a student.

The faster you are able to learn as much harmony as possible, the better you’ll become.

13. Jazz Piano Has A LOT of Different Topics. Develop Them All

Developing as a balanced player is crucial to your progress.

All the topics in jazz piano relate and lean on each other.

It’s like a house of cards: remove one and the whole thing goes down.

We need to learn all components of jazz piano in order to progress quickly and efficiently.

This is a lot like the way we work as jazz pianists.

If you’re only focusing on one topic, such as Right Hand Voicings, you may be blocking yourself from making progress.

We need a balanced curriculum of learning that focuses on all topics…

Comping, Improvisation, Theory, Technique, Repertoire, Voicings, etc.

We need to learn it all!

Now, if that seems overwhelming… Well, you’re right. It is.

It’s easy to see why it’s hard to develop a consistent plan to learn jazz piano…

But rest assured; it can be done.

If you’re not focusing on all the components of jazz piano then start now…

If you think two topics may be unrelated, it might be the key component that will propel you through your plateau.

14. Practice What You Don’t Know

Believe it or not, I rarely had any clue of what to practice after lessons.

Most of my practice consisted of my just wasting time noodling around.

The reason for this being I didn’t have any clarity about WHAT to practice and why.

Now because of this I developed a drive to find things to practice.

This led me to practice everything I didn’t know, and let me tell you,

This helped more than I could have ever imagined.

It’s so weird… I’ll give students a practice plan, yet they continue to play the same things we’ve worked on.

If you want to get better you need to CONTINUOUSLY practice the material you DON’T know and CAN’T play.

Now trust me, I get it. Most of the time you don’t know what to practice.

Again, not your fault.

This is exactly why I built JPS to solve these types of problems.

But just remember: when you do get a good practice plan, stick to it consistently, and discipline yourself to work at even though it may not be fun or comfortable.

It will be your greatest tool to making progress and helping you achieve true jazz piano freedom.

Coming Soon: How I Survived 10 Disastrous Jazz Piano Learning Mistakes

As nice as all these tips and improvements sound, the reality is, most of my career was spent being embarrassed, making ginormous mistakes, and being a complete fool about learning this great music.

On Wednesday morning, I’ll be publishing Part II of this story, (which is where “Part 1 of 3” comes in.)

I want to share the bad stuff in jazz piano education so you know exactly what to avoid and how to best plan for success!

The mistakes I made along the way literally cost me $20,000 in private lessons that taught me 3 tunes that I essentially copied from my teacher.

This deserves it’s own post.

Brenden Lowe

Brenden Lowe

17 Responses

  1. I deeply respect the free material you give to jazz enthusiasts who love to take your course but for one reason or another may not be able to do it. I wish you all success in JPS. You are great.

  2. Thank you for this.

    Can you make a list of “the boring stuff” (#1 on the list) to which you refer?

    Great site, great posts. Thank you for the emails!

  3. I think that all of us who have genuinely tried to play Jazz can relate to your story. I have invested in about 70 books on the subject and they all seem to follow the same pattern. There is a section on scales, triads, and the introduction to the Blues that sounds like garbage.
    This is my last attempt at playing authentic Jazz, whatever that means, so I hope that your method is effective.

  4. This was a great posting. And this is why I’m finding Jazz Piano School so helpful. I’m finding that I both know far less than I thought and far more than I thought… Thanks so much for creating this amazing curriculum.

    1. My pleasure William! Thanks for leaving a supportive public comment! Helps others see what an amazing opportunity this is for them! Talk to you on the inside!

    2. Practice practice practice..Learn to write too…love what you do..my father taught me a few basics. Ohhh. I just knew i could play. Lol. Not.really.not like him!!… I took the chords he taught. Played some b flat blues.easy breezy n fun. Lol! He Always!!!! practiced. And he was a master musician.pianist.composer teacher, more importantly, a real human being!!! This is a great blog you’ve created for those interested in learning jazz piano….all the best to you. and Good luck to you in the future!!!!! Technology is the future..

  5. Thank you and I am a disabled elder at 80 this year. Money for lessons is not possible as my meager income does not allow . I have a classical piano background with a year and a half jazz theory lessons to learn reading jazz sheet music better. I always wanted to improv my own freestyle jazz for fun. You are our earth music angel for making this possible.

  6. Hi Brenden, I am currently studying with Steve Nixon at freejazzlessons.com. I just started a few months ago. Before that I studied with Willie Myette at jazzedge. My problem is I get so overwhelmed by studying too many things at once. At this point I can’t even play one song. It’s frustrating because I practice between 3 and 4 hours a day. What can you do that would help me more than these teachers?

    1. Hi Gary,
      Thanks for your comment. The frustrating problem you are explaining is the exact reason I started Jazz Piano School. My story in a couple sentences is I spent over 10k on jazz piano lessons. $75 a week for 3 years. After those 3 years were over I could only play 3 tunes because I had copied my teacher’s arrangements. I still couldn’t play any new tunes.

      After I improved I made it my mission to help as many students as I could learn tools in order to teach freedom, so students could self express instead of copy.

      I highly recommend you check out all of our free content, blog, podcast, etc and if you’re looking for more insight into my teaching system we have a paid membership and courses as well.

      Hope this helps, Best!

  7. Brendan, my piano discoveries began at age 3 and continue now that I am 75. Improvisation has always had held the greatest appeal even though studio playing requires a vast number of styles and and techniques. At present my interest is the exploration of the Barry Harris approach. Thanks for your instructional message. Dr Jazz

  8. It has been my experience that playing lead sheets from jazz standards books like Alfred’s Jazz standards, is a great learning experience. Incorporating the study and application of John Mehegan’ s 60 chord system by at first using left hand block chords and later open voicing. ( 5 chord qualities × 12) can be a great foundation. Keep up the open forum.

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