4 Tips For Switching From Classical To Jazz

classical music picIn todays lesson we’re going to focus on 4 tips that will help you make the transition from playing classical music to playing jazz.

I recently received a question from a new reader asking me how to make this switch more easily.

I think this is a great question because most instrumentalists initially start with some sort of classical based training.  They don’t know how to take their already existing knowledge and apply it to a new style of music.

There are definitely some differences in the way you approach learning them. So, lets get started discussing some of the differences now!

1. Jazz Is An Oral Tradition Based Music

A lot of the stylistic elements of jazz can’t be accurately written out. Whereas in classical music almost everything is written out for us.

This one fact can make a lot of classical musicians nervous. Don’t worry though we can still learn jazz but we just need to learn in a slightly different way.

To learn jazz properly you can use written lead sheet/chord chart as a starting point but ultimately we learn the style by doing a lot of listening to great jazz and figuring out what we’re hearing. We then apply these “discoveries” to the way we play.

Deep listening is so important!  If we can truly hear than we can truly play.

(related lesson: How to learn from recording yourself)

How Do You Learn To Hear?

Transcribing music is one of the best ways to train your musical ear. You don’t have to notate everything but you should be able to at least play along with the recording.

Try transcribing some of the concepts you hear on recordings. Start simply and just figure out 4 bars of something that appeals to you.

In a perfect world it will be on a jazz tune or a chord progression you are already familiar with.

Figuring out and matching the pitches and rhythms of what you hear will do wonders for your musicianship.

First Jazz Transcription

A great first solo to transcribe would be Miles Davis’ solo on the tune “So What”.  If you need some tips transcribing your first solo you can read this first jazz transcription article.

Just as reminder you’re not just listening for pitches.  We’ve all heard the famous statement, “It don’t mean a thing if ain’t got that swing.” Pitches are only a small part of the story. 🙂

Jazz is a rhythmic based music played with grooves. So, actual rhythms, rhythmic placement within a beat, and articulation of the notes take on an increased role.

Rhythm and articulation are HUGE components in jazz music. Never forget that. It’s not just the pitches it’s how you play them.

If you need more help with rhythm you can check out this lesson where I teach you how to make your jazz tunes swing more.

2. Jazz Theory Concepts

Most of the time when we play jazz we will be improvising on a tune and essentially building our own arrangements.  To do that well we need to have a deep understanding of how harmony works as a whole.  For that reason knowledge of jazz theory is vital.

Spend time familiarizing yourself with some jazz theory concepts. Study some common jazz chord progressions for the piano. Familiarize yourself with the chord voicings that jazz piano players would play over those chords.

There are lots of lessons already on this site featuring this material. For example, you can check out lesson on spread voicings, rootless chords, shell voicings, Bill Evans chords and lots more.

Knowing some theory and chords could help you play classical music as well but nowhere near as much as in jazz. In jazz we are responsible for choosing many of the notes we’d play in a piece whereas in classical all the notes are chosen for us already by the composer.

If you’d like to really sharpen your jazz theory fundamentals I created a program that takes you step by step through everything you need to know.

beginner jazz pianoEssentially, it’s how to go from zero to playing chords and songs you love in 30-60 days. You can check out that program right right here Zero To Jazz Piano Hero.

3. Acquire The Jazz Vocabulary

When you learn jazz it’s similar to learning any new language. In order to speak the “language”, i.e…. playing authentically on jazz tunes…you need to know what “words and sentences” to say.

Studying jazz licks and common jazz patterns are the equivalent of studying words and sentences in our new language.

The most popular chord progression in jazz is the II-V-I (2-5-1). I would recommend you learn and really study as many II-V-I licks as you can.

They are the life source for jazz vocabulary and the licks can be applied almost everywhere.

It would be even better if you analyzed how the licks are built so you could come up with your own variations on the licks. This is a great way to begin developing your own language within the context of the jazz tradition.

To get you started learning licks you can check out this Bill Evans lick lesson, this Charlie Parker lick lesson or this turnaround lick lesson

If you prefer to learn jazz improv in more of a course format there is also my Jazz Masters Method DVD.

4. It’s All About The Jazz Song

Doing musical exercises obviously serve their purpose.  We must never forget though that exercises are really only a means to an end.

The real point of doing any exercise is to improve our playing of real music i.e….. jazz tunes, jazz standards, jazz songs, and jazz repertoire!

You can know all the jazz chords in the world, all the coolest voicings, and all the coolest licks etc. but if you haven’t spent time applying them to jazz repertoire you’re missing the point of the music.

It would be similar to you learning all kinds of interesting vocabulary words in a new language but never being able to throw them together in the context of a real conversation.

The vehicles for our conversation in jazz is the standard jazz repertoire. So, everything we talked about above needs to be applied to jazz tunes!

What Jazz Tunes Should You Learn?

There are hundreds if not thousands of tunes in the standards in the jazz repertoire. (Many of which I teach you inside the Premium Jazz Membership Program.)

Fortunately, though you can just start with learning a few tunes and use those as a springboard to learning other tunes.

You see alot of the same chord changes and harmonic motion happening in many of the famous jazz standards.

You can start learning great tunes like All The Things You Are, Misty, Autumn Leaves, Satin Doll, Girl From Ipanema, Fly Me To The Moon, Summertime, Cherokee etc.  Every time you really learn a jazz song the next one you learn will be easier.  

Need some help finding the right jazz songs to play?  Definitely check out this article on finding the right jazz fake books and sheet music.

I would also recommend reading this article for beginning jazz tune suggestions.


Do you have any additional tips for ways to transition from classical to jazz?  Please leave a comment below.  We would love to hear them!

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Steve Nixon