I am a classically trained pianist who was invited to perform at the Montreux Jazz Festival and decided to move to jazz soon after this unique experience.
I was 23 years old and had finished my piano studies in Paris before travelling to Switzerland to hone my skills. I was preparing for a number of international piano competitions when I realised I had reached a plateau. Finding performing chances was difficult, and I wasn’t sure which door to open next. I was still rehearsing various pieces of classical repertoire on a regular basis, but I didn’t have anything to look forward to. In other terms, I was at a crossroads.
Claude Nobs, the director of the Montreux Jazz Festival, reached me in the spring of 2002. He intended to build a Jazz Club within the event, with an intriguing concept. It would begin at 20:00 with classical piano performances, progress to jazz jam sessions later in the evening, and conclude with a DJ performance. The plan was to spend the evening travelling through music history.
I was asked to perform different works on thirteen consecutive evenings, and I couldn’t play the same piece twice. Furthermore, the pieces had to be amusing. This meant that in the two months leading up to the festival’s start, I had to master a plethora of pieces. I was practising ten to twelve hours a day to guarantee that I had enough material and that my performances were enjoyable for the audience.
The first evening was fantastic. I played Pink Panther, Mozart, and Ginastera. People enjoyed it, and I was already planning the next evening. Unfortunately, the crowd did not respond favorably. I was feeling completely alone on stage, and I was not receiving any feedback. The attendees were excited to hear the jazz performers who were set to perform later in the evening.
I assumed it was unusual and that the attention others showed in my performances would return. Unfortunately, this was not the case. They were completely uninterested in classical piano. Looking back, I realise that the concept was flawed and that the audience was unprepared to listen to the style of music I was presenting; at the time, as a young adult, I believed that classical music was obsolete. I thought I needed to stop and switch to jazz to pique people’s interest again.
By the end of the festival, I had also met a big number of jazz musicians who appeared to be very cool people. I made up my mind and signed up for jazz piano lessons to begin the following September; I was extraordinarily fortunate since the wonderful jazz pianist Thierry Lang was coaching at the Montreux Conservatoire. I was living in Lausanne at the time, so it was simple for me to catch the train to my jazz piano lessons on a weekly basis.
It started off quite well. I was ecstatic to embark on a jazz journey to study and perfect the jazz swing. Thierry Lang asked me to memorise the II-V-I progression in all keys during my first lesson. I finished it in one week and got it to him without making a single error. He was really amazed and even said that I might be a genius. I felt fantastic. I knew I’d made the proper decision and that I was on the right track. For a few weeks, I continued to attend my classes with great success, learning how to harmonise a few jazz standards. I was overjoyed since I liked my jazz piano classes! While Thierry Lang was accompanying me on the drums, I was also learning how to play these chords using different rhythms. It was amazing!
He decided to expose me to improvisation because I was doing so well. “Choose three notes and compose a tune with them,” he said to begin the class. I had no idea what he was saying. “What three notes?” I asked. “It makes no difference. Select any three notes.” I froze, believe it or not. I was powerless to act. I couldn’t even think and was on the verge of having a panic attack.
I was classically trained and could play the most difficult piano pieces of the repertoire, but when I had to construct my own little melody, I couldn’t press a key… It may sound absurd, yet it is true. It goes without saying that it marked the end of my jazz piano lessons…
I had no idea how different classical and jazz were because I had never been in such a situation. The skills required are diametrically opposed, and transitioning from one to the other is not easy.
Adults who have been playing classical piano for years and want to move into jazz frequently contact The London Piano Institute. It’s wonderful, and I can only advise you to try it! Only a few pianists are capable of mastering both genres, therefore it will be fantastic if you can!
But be prepared and don’t give up. Do not follow my route and stay on it unless you realise it is not for you. There is no shame. We are all unique, and not all of us were born to play like Count Basie!
Prepare to spend a lot of time studying chord progressions and honing your improvisation skills. You’ll also learn several licks that will come in handy during your solos.
Jazz piano takes a special set of skills, so don’t expect to be able to play like Herbie Hancock or Keith Jarrett after just a few lessons. Your knowledge of classical music will undoubtedly be beneficial, but it will not be sufficient. In fact, I would encourage you to forget everything you know and approach the instrument in a whole new way. Get into a new attitude by listening to as much jazz music as you can. It will undoubtedly aid your understanding of this new language!
I hope my personal tale did not deter you, as it was not my purpose. On the contrary, I intended to demonstrate that my superior classical piano skills did not help me and that anyone can learn to play jazz as long as they do not freeze when they hear the word “improvisation”!