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Jazz For Classically Trained Pianists

Jazz For Classically Trained: Elena Cobb Article Written For The MusicTeacher Magazine
Elena Cobb, author of Higgledy Piggledy Jazz

Below is my article from the Music Teacher magazine UK, November 2013. I am very grateful to all who took part in the lively discussions on the Facebook piano teachers forums, made suggestions and offered their opinions on this highly interesting and often controversial topic.

in 2016, Improv Exercises for Classically Trained Beginners was published based on my experiences of teaching jazz and improvisation to the classically trained pianists – take a look here >.

Special thank you to Snake Davis (UK)Kay Alexander (Canada)Elissa Milne (Australia)Rami Bar-Niv (Israel)Tom Lydon, the editor of the Music Teacher magazine UK and Paddy Warren. Not everything made it to the press but below you can read it in full and also download the exercises.

Over a hundred years ago musical pioneers created a phenomenally popular musical style – jazz! Exciting, rhythmic, harmonious, colourful, toe-tapping and ear-catching, jazz had it all – and people loved it! It was a massive shaking up of the musical world. And, as well, it had something new – it had a swing!
However, this new creation had come from the poor and disinherited in the world; people who had lost much in their lives and had little; people who understood loss, disinheritance, loneliness, isolation – and for many, the associations of these people who had nothing and had lost an enormous amount (even, in the case of slaves, their freedom) meant that the normal music-loving populace could not give the new musical invention its due. Improvisation was not willingly added to the classical music scene and it is not an element that exists in our current musical exams.  But – why not? Besides watching how excited pupils become playing jazz tunes and how fast they learn to play them, would it be a stretch too far to say they would also be happy to include improvisation in their musical learning?

Judging by the number of children entering the classical exams each year, it’s clear that children can be interested in whatever kind of music their teachers recommend. But, however malleable the pupils might be, teachers tend to believe that you need to be a specialist to teach jazz. They think that children who are eager to focus on it, need to learn sophisticated bass lines and intentional dissonances under the watchful eye of an expert and it isn’t considered to be something that an untutored teacher can offer – disappointing news for the average child.

Of course, classically trained teachers do have the advantage that they can tell pupils how to play each piece appropriately for the chosen composition style to make sure no marks are lost, and this works well for how current exams are structured, but what about the one, very important element of jazz which is different from the elements of classical music – improvisation?

Improvisation is believed to be a spontaneous moment of sudden inventiveness and, in reality, it has been around for as long as music exists. Great composers and performers of all classical styles were very good at improvising. But, somehow, it didn’t make it into the books we use today and it seems that only jazz musicians carry on the tradition.

Here is a quote by Snake Davis“I’m an improvising musician. Yes, I read, yes I learn parts by ear and repeat them, but I am most happy when I “shut my eyes and blow”. But improvising can be very frightening. Nowhere to hide, no safety net, very exposed, like going on stage naked. So it needs to be handled with care, taught with passion and sensitivity. I love teaching it, de-mystifying it, I call it “making stuff up” rather than “improvising”. Should classical students be encouraged to improvise? YES! because it will make them braver, more free, more confident players. Should classical teachers teach improvisation and jazz? Yes, but ONLY if they themselves are confident and proficient improvisers.”

Not wanting my pupils to miss out on such an important musical experience I felt that as a modern classically trained teacher, I should be able to cross boundaries to provide a balanced education to my pupils. So I wrote and published ‘Higgledy Piggledy Jazz’ series for young pianists, (also for sax players and classical guitarists) which, unlike normal jazzy piano books (which don’t have improvisation sections), includes elements for young pianists who have plenty of enthusiasm for improvisation. And I hope that my recommendations will find their way into your lessons so the journey into the world of Jazz for you and your pupils can begin.

The main benefits I have found that jazz improvisation brings to classically trained children include:

–       an increase in confidence and self-esteem

–       a more positive attitude to home practice

–       improved sight reading and eye-hand coordination

–       improvements in the ability to maintain the beat and think on the go

–       greater creativity in the lesson with increased development in independent thinking

–       a sense of achievement for something that is considered difficult by others

–       and last (but not least) let’s not forget the ‘cool factor’ – with lots and lots of fun!

If you’re a classically trained teacher and you find yourself confused as to whether to introduce improvisation to your pupils or not, you could find the following improvisation exercises very useful as a start. There are both rhythm and notation exercises and you could practice them with your pupils from memory or by looking at the sheets associated with this magazine with this article.  Hopefully, you’ll find the exercises logical and easy to remember – and it will be fun for both you and your pupils.

1  Rhythm exercises Tip – Count aloud

Remembering that every crotchet consists of two quavers and we are getting ready to ‘swing’ them, tap the rhythm on your thighs and count aloud one and, two and, three and, four and.  Get your pupil to start slowly and repeat each exercise until they are ready to move on to playing. Note that the left hand always taps crotchets.

2  Notation exercises Tip – Know your notes and fingers

The blues scale is very special and if you play the notes from it you create a ‘blues sound’. The exercises below are based on the blues scale on C and for your pupils to play them effectively, make sure they find the notes on the keyboard first and then stick to the fingering for the right hand of:

– 1st finger for C

– 2nd finger for Eb

– 3rd finger for F

– 4th finger for F#

Transpose the exercises into any key and let your pupils use them for different pieces or just for enjoyable practice.

Putting it together using ‘Super Duck’ Tip – Count the bars

Take a look at the preview of the piece and you’ll see that there is colour in the bass clef notes. C is in the usual black ink, but F is green and G is red. Make sure your pupils memorise this colour usage and when they’re playing, make sure they count the bars (as below).

(4 x C) + (2 x F) + (2 x C) + (1 x F) + (1 x G) + (1 x C) + (1 x G) = 12 bar blues

‘Super Duck’, one of the tunes in the ‘Higgledy Piggledy Jazz’ book, is a twelve bar blues and we can use that tune to start off with. It would be most suitable for a pupil already working on Grade 1 (and above) classical piano. From bar 15 you’ll notice that your pupil has the chance to play what they’d like with their right hands – they can play it as it is or they can use that space to improvise and make it into a solo.

Get your pupil to start practising by playing the entire solo, repeating one bar from the notation exercise in the right hand. When they’re feeling confident, tell them to try mixing the notation exercises up. When they’re feeling very confident and ready to go – let them use their own ideas. Tell them to remember that they are improvising and what they thought was a mistake could well be a real gem of a find! And finally, like a pro, get them to create a fantastic ending by adding the pedal to the last chord and playing it on the tremolo.

Certainly, jazz improvisation can be a little tricky initially and not everything will come easily. But it will be invigorating and rewarding to watch your pupils turn dreams into reality.

All Material Is Copyright 2013

 And for even more enjoyable experience, please take a look at my play-along tracks here >

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Recipients of the Elena Cobb Star Prize Awards at Carmel Klavier Piano Competition 2017

Carmel Klavier 2017

Many congratulations to the winners of the Elena Cobb Star Prize at the Carmel Klavier International Piano Competition 2017 in the United States and I am looking forward to welcoming you all at the Winners Recital at the Royal Albert Hall in London on April 5th, 2018.

Minerva Cao (USA)
Deva Sengun (Germany)
Victor Perez (USA)
Jude Fradillada (USA)
Julian Rodriguez (Colombia)
Lauren Lo (USA)
Christina Peng (USA)

A heartfelt thank you to their piano teachers who worked tirelessly on preparing the programmes, also organisers of the Carmel Klavier International Piano Competition 2017 and especially to Irina Gorin.

 

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Alanna Crouch Steinway Hall Piano Recital September 27th, Wednesday

http://steinway.co.uk/latest-news/concert-schedule/

Please make a note of this piano event if you are in London on September 27th, Wednesday, 1.10 pm as Alanna Crouch, a 10 years old pianist with the exceptional musical talent will be giving a solo recital at Steinway Hall London. The programme will feature works by Bach, Schumann, Chopin, Bill Evans and also premiere several piano pieces by British composer Elena Cobb. 
 
Alanna Crouch lives in Romford, UK and began playing the piano when she was 3. Alanna is quick to let people know that she shares her December 16th birthday with Beethoven who, along with Gershwin is one of her favourite composers. Alanna performed her first Mozart piano concerto in Barbados when she was 5 and enjoyed the experience so much that she has jumped at the opportunity to perform ever since: from impromptu performances at local hospitals and the Street Pianos around London to more planned performances at competitions, music festivals and concerts at venues including Frank Collymore Hall in Barbados, Steinway Hall UK, Carnegie Hall. 

 

Alanna studies classical piano under Christine Croshaw of Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and jazz under Tom Donald of the London Contemporary School of Piano and is a Youth Member and Protegee of the Chopin Society UK. When she was 7, Alanna sat the ABRSM Grade 5 Jazz and ABRSM Grade 8 exams and attained high distinctions in both and she became the youngest person to pass the DipABRSM when she sat it at age 8. When she is not playing music on the piano or violin Alanna enjoys Science, making figurines out of clay and drawing.
 
There will be no tickets for this recital but we recommend to book your seat as places are limited. Please email team@elenacobb.com now.
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EVC Music Release Presented at the United Nations in Geneva

EVC-Music-Jevdet-Hajiyev-UN
Pervin Muradov (left), Pervin Muradov and Alisa Stoleshnikova (pianist).
A proud moment for EVC Music as the Piano Collection, book 1 by Jevdet Hajiyev view>, commissioned by Muradov Family Archive, was presented at the United Nations in Geneva on May 17th, 2017 and one copy of the book will be kept in the library of the UN.
 
Piano Ballade in g moll by famous the Azerbaijani composer was performed by the Russian pianist Alisa Stoleshnikova at the Award ceremony and closing concert by the winners of the 11th Adilia Alieva international Piano Competition (France – Switzerland) view > at the Palais des Nations view> organised by the Permanent Mission of Azerbaijan view>.
 
The Piano Collection, book 1 is a compilation of several works by the composer and it was released to mark the centenary of Jevdet Hajiyev.
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Winners of the Elena Cobb Star Prize Announced

Elena Cobb STar Prize Winners EVC Music
The winners at Richmond upon Thames Music Festival 2017

A huge heartfelt congratulation to the current winners of the Elena Cobb Star Prize and a massive thank you to all who were involved in the events: performers, adjudicators, volunteers and support teams of family and friends,  you are all stars, thank you!

We are delighted to announce the winner of the Elena Cobb Star Prize at February’s Hazel Grove Festival, as nominated by Federation Adjudicator, Caroline Clemmow:

‘Higgledy Piggledy Jazz’ Intermediate Class: Esta Shuttleworth, aged 11, playing ‘Polka Butterfly’.

The winners at Highbridge Festival of the Arts in March, as selected by Federation Adjudicator, Gillian Oswell:

‘My Piano Trip to London’ Beginners’ Class: Florence Pincott, aged 8, playing ‘Pirate Song’.

‘Higgledy Piggledy Jazz’ Intermediate Class: Katie Redford, aged 9, playing ‘I Ate All the Chocolate’.

‘Blue River’ Advanced Class: prize shared between Sophie Newman, aged 13, playing ’Mrs Van Der Blond’ & Penny Sandford-Hughes, aged 16, playing ‘Blue River’.

The winner of the Star Prize at Cornwall Music Festival in March as selected by Federation Adjudicator Timothy Barratt:

‘Higgledy Piggledy Jazz’ Intermediate Class: Amy Brigden, aged 13, playing ‘Nerdy Cat Twist’.

At Don Valley Festival in March, the winners of the Star Prize were chosen by Federation Adjudicator, Richard Deering:

‘My Piano Trip to London’ Beginners’ Class: Sam Barlow, aged 9, playing ‘Pirate Song’.

‘Higgledy Piggledy Jazz’ Intermediate Class: Methnuli Rao, aged 9, playing ‘Take Three Jazz Waltz’.

At Richmond upon Thames in March, the Elena Cobb winners were chosen by Federation Adjudicator Susan Clark:

‘My Piano Trip to London’ Beginners’ Class: Pieter Wepener, aged 6, playing ‘Jingle Bells in London’.

‘Higgledy Piggledy Jazz’ Intermediate Class: Nicolaas Wepener, aged 7, playing ‘I Ate All the Chocolate’.

‘Blue River’ Advanced Class: Mia Wepener, aged 9, playing ‘Star Dust’.

The winners at Perform in Perth were chosen by our Federation Adjudicator Liz Childs:

‘My Piano Trip to London’ Beginners’ Class: Lucy Robertson, aged 10, playing ‘Take the Tuba’ and ‘Morning at St Paul’s’.

‘Higgledy Piggledy Jazz’ Intermediate Class: Archie Sloan, aged 12, playing ‘Peony Pink’.

‘Blue River’ Advanced Class: Ellie Ridley, aged 15, playing ‘Star Dust’.

Read more about Elena Cobb Star Prize, a new and exciting educational initiative here > 

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Improvisation Workshop at Forsyths Music Shop, Manchester

Recently, my colleague Andrew Higgins and I have presented a day of improvisational practical workshops at Forsyth Music Shop in Manchester and we were delighted to discover that even many self-taught adults were keen to try.

WATCH full recording (45 min) of my improvisation workshop.
Books featured:
PIANO ALIENS preview & order the book >>
IMPROV EXERCISES preview & order the book >>
HIGGLEDY PIGGLEDY JAZZ preview & order the book >>

Piano Aliens for piano Elena Cobb
Higgledy Pigledy Jazz for piano by Elena Cobb Impov exerices for Piano by Elena Cobb

Improvisation has become a very popular topic of conversation among classically trained teachers and students and I am often asked whether it can be taught. As somehow who learned how to improvise and taught how to improvise how to improvise over twenty years my own students for and a variety of audiences in the workshops, I can confirm that one can learn this important skill and this is a note we have received from the staff at the Forsyths:

Dear Elena and Andrew,

Thank you so much for coming and delivering such well-received workshops yesterday — twice! Everyone we spoke with yesterday had a great time and left feeling as though improvisation was now within their grasp whereas before many hadn’t thought it possible. I even heard this morning from someone who didn’t come to the workshop but still appreciated the fruits of it.

I wasn’t able to make yesterday, but the rest of the family were there. Instead, I was treated to an evening of improvisation, so I know it was a great session!

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qXsmd0vbar4 Elena Cobb EVC Music

 

Andrew Higgins has presented his workshop using his book SO YOU WANT TO IMPROVISE? available to order on my website, to preview & order click here >>.