5 Classical Pieces That Helped Me Become A Better Jazz Musician
In today’s jazz lesson I wanted to go in a bit of a unique direction and discuss something I haven’t talked about too much before on this site…classical music.
As I’m sure most of you know, 90% of my gigs these days are in the jazz, blues, and rock genres of music. It’s what I do!
What you may not know though, is that as a young musician I definitely didn’t start out playing jazz.
I actually played classical music for several years before I started playing jazz. Now, I wish I could say this was by design but it really wasn’t.
I always wanted to play like Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Bruce Hornsby, and Page McConnell (from the band Phish).
The reality is that the best piano teacher in my local area was a classical musician so that’s who I went to study with.
Even though it was a different path than I initially envisioned for myself this early education in classical music was immensely helpful in my future development as a jazz musician.
The lessons I learned from studying classical piano really opened the doors for me to greater musicianship, piano practice techniques, better sight-reading, precision, self discipline, and a deep understanding of music theory, jazz improvisation, and jazz harmony.
Also, a large portion of my knowledge of piano technique came from my study of classical music.
Classical Can Help Your Jazz
I know a lot of the members of the freejazzlessons.com community come from a classical piano background.
There are also some of you who are interested in learning more about classical music while you also learn jazz piano.
So, I thought it would be helpful to share 5 classical pieces I learned that helped me become a better jazz musician. (I’ll also include recordings and some resources for you to find some great classical piano sheet music.)
If these pieces are new for you I hope you gather as much enjoyment and insight about music as I did. If you know these pieces already hopefully you’ll be able to look at them in a brand new way!
So, let’s get started checking out some classical pieces. I’ll put them in order of what I feel is the easiest to the hardest.
Chopin Prelude in E minor
The first piece I want to talk about is Chopin’s Prelude in E minor. What a simply mesmerizing piece!
Although this piece isn’t super hard to play from a technical level it is an incredibly deep piece of music and a perfect example of Chopin’s pure genius.
I could talk for hours about the musical discoveries I made while learning this piece. It’s literally that deep. That being said, here are couple takeaways for you to get you started.
1. Moving Inner Voices
Throughout much of the piece Chopin has these intricate moving inner voice harmonies moving mostly by half steps.
The power of a moving half step should not be underestimated! Just by moving one note in a chord you can change the sound and feeling of a chord drastically.
By learning and analyzing this piece I was truly made aware of harmony on a deeper level. It allowed me to understand more about chord progressions and subtle shifts in sounds using chromaticism.
This technique is used all the time by great jazz pianists and jazz composers. For example, you could check out how Bill Evans used this technique all the time in his chords and in his improvisations.
You can hear this type of harmonic motion being used in jazz standards and jazz piano pieces such as One Note Samba, My Funny Valentine, My Romance, and Cry Me A River.
2. Dynamic Control and How To Shape A Piece
By learning this piece I also learned how to truly craft a piece and play it with professional level dynamics.
As you can hear in the video above the piece starts out at whisper soft and then gradually grows bigger and more powerful and then drops back down again.
This is not an easy thing to control and definitely requires skill and practice.
Apparently, I’m not the only jazz musician who loves this piece. McCoy Tyner did a whole arrangement of the E minor prelude. You can listen to it here.
If you like the sound of this piece and want to pick up one of the most authoritative book versions of Chopin’s preludes I recommend you check out the Paderewski version.
Bach Prelude in C
The next piece I want to talk about is Bach’s Prelude in C Major. I really feel like bebop and baroque music have some much in common.
The logic and the symmetry of a well constructed bebop line reminds me so much of the harmonic motion and voice leading you’ll see in music from the baroque era.
In my opinion, Bach is the greatest composer of the baroque time period in music and playing his music is not only fun but super educational.
Once again this is an incredibly well constructed piece of music and there are so many things to learn about music from it. Here are two things I learned that really helped my jazz playing though.
1. The Power Of Secondary Dominants
Secondary dominants are a harmonic technique where a dominant seventh chord resolve to a scale degree that is not the I chord of the song.
After learning this piece as a young musician I learned that dominant chords didn’t always have to be used on V chords.
This was a huge discovery and definitely helped me understand the chord changes to many jazz tunes.
It gave me insight into some of the chord changes in tunes like I Got Rhythm, Perdido, Sweet Georgia Brown, There Will Never Be Another You, All Of Me, Body and Soul, Cherokee, and hundreds of other tunes.
If you want to learn more about secondary dominants and the chord changes to I Got Rhythm I recommend you check out this lesson on a Barry Harris rhythm changes solo.
2. Tension and Release Using Diminished Harmony
Diminished chords, if used properly, can create an incredible amount of tension that needs to be released inside a chord progression.
By analyzing this piece I learned how Bach used diminished chords to create a sense of tension in his music. Bach also masterfully uses diminished sounds as passing chords in this one.
You can see how I use some passing diminished harmony in my Misty solo jazz piano lesson.
If you want to check out a huge collection of Bach’s preludes and fugues I recommend this version by published by Alfred. The fingering in there is really great and the information on the history and interpretation of the piece is worth the price of the book itself.
Chopin Nocturne in Eb
This is still to this date one of my favorite classical pieces of all time. The thing I loved about working on this piece was that not only was the right hand melody incredibly beautiful but the left hand part was equally as beautiful!
Here is a version of the great classical pianist Arthur Rubinstein playing it.
Left Hand Parts Don’t Have To Be Static
Playing this Chopin Nocturne in Eb definitely expanded my concept of how to develop a left hand part. Listen to how even if the chord change remains the same Chopin consistently changes the left hand pattern. There is always a subtle shift.
I later took this same concept and tried to apply it to my jazz piano playing.
For example, if a Dm7 chord happens for 2 measures in a row I’ll try also create forward motion by changing the voicings in my left hand. So, I may play Dmin7 for 1 bar and then change to maybe change to Dmin(maj7) for the second measure.
I especially like to use this technique when playing a jazz ballad.
Power of Ornaments
Chopin was a master of using Romantic era ornaments in his playing and this technique is fully in display in this Nocturne.
An ornament is a simple way to decorate a melody or a chord tone. He used ornamental techniques like shakes, turns, double appoggiaturas and many others.
I was fascinated by these chromatic notes and how they could sound so amazing but still be technically out of the key.
By studying the piece I learned how these amazing ornamentations and chromatic passing notes actually worked. This was a huge breakthrough for me in my understanding of chromatic notes.
We actually explore a more modern way of ornamenting chord tones in my jazz improvisation DVD the Jazz Masters Method.
Beethoven Piano Sonata #17 “The Tempest”
Here’s the great pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim playing the first half of it.
I first learned this piece when I was 17 years old. Learning this piece changed my life as a musician. Prior to playing this piece I had worked on other music before but nothing near this hard.
When I was first assigned the piece by my teacher I was really excited to work on it. Many of the great classical pianists I loved had recorded it and I knew that learning it would be a great step in the right direction for me.
So, when I first started working on it I started practicing it in the same way I had practiced all the other pieces before. I was putting in about 1 hour a day on the piece. At that time I thought that by working for 1 hour a day on a piece I was working REALLY hard.
This amount of had been sufficient for all the other pieces I had played before this so I figured this would be the same. Wow was I wrong!
After a month of practice I sounded “better” than the first month but nowhere near ready to even attempt to perform the piece. The sonata was not in good shape at all!
I couldn’t understand why at the time. I expressed my frustration to my piano teacher. I wined, “I’ve worked so hard on this. I’ve even worked up to an hour a day on it. Why can’t I get?”
She literally couldn’t contain herself and laughter erupted from her. “One hour a day?” she said. “Honey, you’ll be 90 years old by the time you get this piece! If you want to sound professional and play great music you need to WORK!”
“You’ve gotten this far musically because of a talent you have but I’ve yet to see you break a real musical sweat yet. I’m actually happy that you’ve come to the edge of what comes naturally for you. It’s good for you to experience struggle.
Now, you’ll finally learn what great artists need to do. Find their boundaries and push past them. Stop being lazy and dig deeper. Put in 3 hours a day on this piece. Live it. Breathe it. Commit to making great music and pushing past your temporary limitations.
You either want to PLAY the piece and be a REAL musician or you want to be a dabbler. You choose. We’re done for today. Lesson over.”
I quickly packed up my sheet music, books, and metronome and exited. At that time I didn’t understand why she spoke to me like that.
Even though my silly little ego was a bit bruised right after our conversation I have to admit that this may have been the greatest piano lesson I’ve ever taken in my life.
I didn’t learn a single thing about notes in that lesson but I learned everything about music and what truly committing yourself to playing great music means.
To this day her words still resonate in my mind every time I struggle with something. It was the motivation speeches of all motivation speeches for me 🙂
So, I learned on that day that in order to make great music you have to be willing to work and push yourself beyond our imagined ‘comfort zone’.
Hopefully you understand now why I say learning ‘The Tempest’ changed my life for ever. 🙂
If you want to pick up an incredible book collection of Beethoven Piano Sonata’s (The Tempest is in there) I recommend the ABRSM edited version. It’s been well researched and includes some extremely helpful fingerings.
You can check out the Beethoven piano sonata book here.
Chopin C Minor Etude
This is piece is a little different for me than all the others I listed before. I actually didn’t learn as a young musician. As a matter of fact I started working on it about 2 years ago and I’m still trying to perfect it to this day!
I was talking with my friend Wael Farouk, (who just had his Carnegie Hall debut) about some of the technical challenges I was having while playing a very fast and difficult Oscar Peterson blues transcription.
(In my opinion, some of Oscar Peterson’s transcriptions are just as hard as many of the top classical piece out there. Oscar was truly a virtuoso!)
So, I played the Oscar Peterson transcription for Wael. Since Wael is an expert on classical music and technique he recommended I work on Chopin Etude In C Minor Op.25 No.12 as to help me improve my technique to play the Oscar transcription.
This piece is still a work in progress for me but literally by studying it for 1 month I was able to play the Oscar transcription cleanly at full tempo. It also gave me huge breakthroughs in keep my hand closer to piano in octave shifts and improved my arpeggios playing a great deal.
Having these additional technical abilities has definitely helped me jazz playing especially at faster tempos.
I’ve been able to move the metronome marking up on all kinds of things. It’s always a great feeling to make technical breakthroughs. If you want to continue to grow your chops on jazz piano pieces this is a killer strategy.
And if you want some more tips to help you play at faster tempos I recommend you check out this article I wrote on 7 tips to play better at faster tempos.
Here’s a recording of the legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz playing an amazing rendition of this Chopin Etude.
Today’s Classical Piano Exploration
I hope you enjoyed this brief lesson on classical mixed with jazz.
As I mentioned before, if you’re new to these pieces I hope you have fun checking them out.
If you want to learn how to become a better musician these pieces are a great place to start.
If you’ve already played them before hopefully you’ll be able to check them out with some fresh ears.
Even if you don’t want to spend the time learning the pieces you could also just pick up the sheet music or a score of the pieces and just listen along to the recording with the score in your hand.
This is an incredible form of ear training and one that I used a lot when I took conducting classes in college.
Have fun with these pieces and see you guys next time!
Did you enjoy today’s lesson? Do you have a question or something to add? Please leave a comment below!
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