I don’t know about any other teachers, but I have a shelf dedicated to jazz piano books. Like many of us I’m sure, I enjoy playing jazz, but I definitely don’t consider myself a jazz pianist. Similarly, most of my piano students will play some jazz pieces at one time or another, and these have come increasingly common on exam syllabuses’ over the past 20 years.
Many will recognise the name Richard Michael as one of the UK’s leading jazz educators. His new book, Jazz Piano for Kids, is designed to teach children how to both improvise and play jazz piano, and it is suggested it is used in conjunction with a teacher or parent. Concepts covered include:
- Swing and syncopation
- Echo playing
- Call and response
- Rock and swing grooves
- Improvising on 1-5 notes
- Hearing chord changes
- The 12-bar blues
- Scale tones, chord tones and guide tones
The book begins by introducing the concept of a ‘groove’, and by using the accompanying videos which can be accessed online, students are encouraged to clap along, as well as developing call and response, and echo techniques. This is further developed in both the singing of grooves and the feeling of them in the body. As many of you will be aware from my previous reviews (Get Set! Piano – My First Piano Book and Piano Star Skills Builder), I’m keen that instrumental ability is developed alongside musicianship skills, and this book also does a great job of that.
The book introduces the concepts of melody and harmony by encouraging students to follow a score and watch the accompanying video, identifying the various elements. This segues into students learning the 12-bar blues chord sequence. The author also includes information about standard jazz forms and structures, introducing keywords such as ‘head’, ‘intro’ and ‘chorus’.
Once students can play the 12-bar blues chord sequence in C major, they are encouraged to both play and improvise over the top of it, first using C and D, then C, A and G. A number of tunes are included to help develop these skills including ‘Go tell Aunt Rhody’ and ‘La Cucaracha’. Whether these are ‘popular children’s songs’ is perhaps up for debate.
Introduced next is the altered pentatonic scale, and this is applied to the 12-bar blues chord sequence learnt previously. Students are also introduced to the concept of transposition, learning how to transpose the 12-bar blues into the keys of F and G. Scale tones, augmentation and the blues scale are introduced as the book progresses.
A variety of other pieces are included and students are given the opportunity to improvise as part of these. The author introduces the concept of modulation, unexpectedly through Tchaikovsky’s ‘March’ from The Nutcracker, where students are also given the opportunity to improvise.
The end of the book progresses rather quickly introducing the four chord qualities of the major seventh, minor seventh, dominant seventh and minor seventh flat five.
Jazz Piano for Kids: Summary
To my knowledge, there are few books on the market which seek to introduce children to the rudiments of jazz piano playing. The book is nicely presented, although not necessarily ‘childlike’ in its appearance. I’m sure many adult students would also enjoy this book as an introduction to jazz piano.
This book is perhaps a little text-heavy for its target market; however, this is quickly remedied when it’s used alongside a teacher or parent. The main focus is on the 12-bar blues. Some might argue that this book could be called Blues Piano for Kids, but that’s a can of worms I probably shouldn’t open.
It’s worth noting that I think the accompanying videos available online, are an essential part of the course. They really do bring the music and concepts alive in a way the book alone can’t. The early stages of the book could be tackled by someone with little, if any, knowledge of the piano, although the reading skills required in later pieces progress quite quickly.
What’s good about this book is that it quickly gets students playing. It’s not just about improvising along to accompaniment, it’s about learning that accompaniment too. There is always plenty of scope for students to put their own stamp on the music.
One thing the book doesn’t really tackle is the concept of melody, something I have often found this in books which seek to teach jazz piano. Students are given a selection of notes from which they can improvise, but what do you do with them? I felt that on balance, that was a section missing from this book. Like my students often say to me when they’re improvising, “how do you make it sound like jazz, I’m just going up and down the notes?”
Overall, much to praise here, with a lot of background information, theory, and practical examples and exercises included. I wonder if there’ll be a Book 2? I certainly hope so.
Jazz Piano for Kids by Richard Michael, is published by Hal Leonard, ISBN 9781540067807, priced £12.99.
I was sent a review copy of this book free of charge; however, this review is my honest opinion as a teacher. You can find my Reviews Policy here.
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