A Solo Jazz Piano Learning Path

Here's how I'm rekindling my focus on jazz piano practice after learning from my failures with a new learning path.

by Tarun

Creator, tuneUPGRADE

As a hobbyist musician, jazz has always felt like the most unattainable style for me. Even just glancing at a lead sheet and seeing the chord symbols made my brain overload, and hearing live jazz musicians improvise felt like complete and total magic. But this is how I used to feel about rock, and blues, and other genres - and I've dug in and understood those, so a few years ago, I set out to try to understand how to play jazz piano. I had been visiting a lot of jazz bars, and hearing bands play and wanted to understand how to create that sound, how to improvise on top of standards with beautiful, long form rich harmonies and jazzy melodies - and I felt like I had a good foundation based on my comfortability with playing off rock and pop chord charts, and making my own basic arrangements.

Remembering one of my fatal past mistakes of finding a classical-oriented teacher when what I really wanted to learn was rock and pop piano, I sought out a jazz piano teacher who started me off.

But, even after a few months, it just didn't click with me. I just couldn't connect the dots from what my teacher was having me practice each week to the performances that I would hear, or make things sound jazzy. Years later now, I realize I had made a few mistakes:

  • First, I wasn't vocal about my goals - that I didn't want to become someone who would play in a jazz band - I just wanted to make cocktail-style sounding arrangements of standards with some improvisation. This might have shifted my learning path with my teacher.

  • Second, even when I was a few months in, and I struggled to connect the dots, I wasn't vocal with my teacher about that. I just trusted the process, and thought it would all click one day - but as time went on, I couldn't connect the dots, got more disillusioned, and stopped. I should have spoken up and asked for the examples and step-by-step build I needed to understand how to make things sound the way I wanted to.

  • Third, my practice habits were poor. This was before I created tuneUPGRADE, and when my practice was erratic and unfocused. This really hurt with jazz, where drilling the right exercises and mindfully thinking about making the connections I should have been making with focused practice just didn't happen. Even if I had the right instructions and the right books - I wasn't practicing well enough.

Regardless, my goal was (and still is!) to be able to play solo, cocktail-style jazz piano, and I struggled with getting there at all, even 6 months in of taking lessons. So I took a break for a while - went back to my familiar world of pop and rock piano, dug into guitar playing.

But, lately, I got that itch again. Now with better practice habits and a learning from my past mistakes, I've set a simpler goal that should be more attainable with jazz - within a few months, I want to be able to play some holiday jazz tunes in time for December, and be able to lightly improvise a bit within them in a cocktail piano style.

And a month or so in, I've made a lot more progress this time around with the new learning path I'm on. In this post, I'm going to share with you how I'm tackling learning with a few books and a new practice routine.

What You Should Know Before You Start

First, I'll say, if you are a total piano beginner, this is likely going to be a little advanced for you. If you want to go down this path though, there are just a few things you should be familiar with before you start.

  • You should be able to read sheet music, and play comfortably hands together.

  • You should be familiar with how to identify and play basic chords (i.e. if you see "C major", you should know that's made up of the notes C, E, and G), and be able to play different voicings of C major on your keyboard (i.e. inversions and other voicings - knowing that any combination of C, E, and G across the keyboard is still a C major chord), as well as feel like you can transition between chords easily (i.e. C major chord to a G major chord).

  • You should understand interval basics (i.e. E is the major 3rd of C, G is the perfect fifth of C), in context with chords - so knowing the intervals a major and minor chord comprise of.

Studying these basics on simple chords before you dive into jazz, which tends to have more complex chords, will give you a solid building block to playing off lead sheets and understanding more complex voicings with extended chords (i.e. chords that include the 7th, 9th, 13th, etc. intervals).

All that being said - as long as you pass the first item - you can certainly dive straight in - your learning curve might just be a little steeper - but you can still go for it!

The Resources I'm Using

As I embarked on resetting my learning path, I knew I was missing some material that would help me accelerate learning the way I wanted to. The two key books that my jazz teacher had me focused on initially were The Real Book - a mandatory book for any jazz pianist, which has all the jazz standards to play notated in lead sheet form (more on that below), and Jazz Keyboard Harmony, which has copious amounts of exercises focused on different chord voicings, typically in 2-5-1 progressions (again, more on that below) as well as some extra common progressions like turnarounds.

My teacher's intent was to have me learn a harmonic voicing (i.e. Shell Voicings, covered in chapter 1 of Jazz Keyboard Harmony, which are just the root and 3rd or root and 7th in the left hand) with the melodies provided in the real book in the right hand.

While the foundation of this was sound, when working on standards from The Real Book, using the same voicings across the whole standard just sounded a little boring to me, and didn't give me that jazzy feel - especially when a chord was labeled as something that used extensions (again, more on that below!) beyond the 7th, like the 9th - because shell voicings don't use the 9th.

This led to very slow progress - I spent lots of time drilling one voicing type, and the amount of effort and time I'd spend didn't let me make things sound the way I wanted to, and didn't give me any inkling of what to do in order to incorporate the jazzier sounds of extensions.

So, I realized I needed to augment the resources I was using to build towards what I wanted a little faster and more iteratively than taking it one voicing type painfully at a time. After research a lot of materials and even trying various online courses, I've settled on these books to help me over the next few months:

The Real Book

The Good - Like mentioned above, this is a must purchase for any jazz musician. It lays out tons of jazz standards in lead sheet format, which comprises of just the melody line explicitly notated, and the harmony listed as the chord name alone, letting you build your own arrangement on-the-fly using the harmony voicings you know, and either playing the melody as-is, embellishing it your way, or straight up improvising over the harmony.

The Gap - But, this alone won't cut it. If you don't know your voicing options for a C9 chord or a scary-looking Gb9#11 chord, you're stuck. On top of that, it won't teach you how to embellish the melody, different jazz styles (i.e. bossa nova) or straight-up improvise over those chords. So, while this is a must have to have the lead sheets - it's not a method book, and while it won't teach you anything directly, it gives you the chords and melody you need to play for over 400 standards - real songs to practice your jazz harmony and melody skills with.

How you should use this book - Pairing this with Jazz Keyboard Harmony, Solo Jazz Piano: The Linear Approach, and/or The Jazz Piano Book will give you a huge array of standards to practice the techniques you learn in method books - and you will certainly want to learn jazz standards to be a jazz musician!

The Real Christmas Book

The Good - For me, and my goal of learning a few holiday tunes, I needed a set of lead sheets for the songs I want to learn by December. This is certainly not required, but if you want to just learn holiday tunes - you could choose to purchase this instead of (or alongside) The Real Book.

The Gap - Of course, just like The Real Book, this won't teach you voicing options, how to embellish a melody, different styles, improvisation.

How you should use this book - Exactly the same as The Real Book, but only if you are interested in playing jazzy Christmas songs.

Jazz Keyboard Harmony by Phil DeGreg

The Good - This is a voicing method book - as cited on the cover - "A practical voicing method for all musicians." it starts with the most basic kind of voicing - a shell voicing - and each chapter introduces a new voicing type and builds to richer harmonies. It's filled with exercises that help you get very comfortable looking at a chord symbol and finding a voicing fast, as well as good voice leading (the ability to minimize movement in harmonic playing, and avoiding stark jumps in pitch when shifting between chords). If you're a classical player and have been drilling scales or Hanon or Czerny exercises nonstop, think of this book as the equivalent for jazz harmony.

The Gap - The author follows a pattern of introducing a voicing, then giving you tons of chord progressions to practice it on. While this certainly will lead to instant-recall of a symbol to a voicing and voicing options eventually, it can take a tremendous amount of time in a practice session - especially for a beginner - to get through a single exercise and all suggested permutations. You can easily spend an hour or more just practicing the very first exercise in all recommended ways, which may be acceptable for someone aspiring to be a professional, but can be very slow-going for a hobbyist who may not have that much time to devote weekly.

For example, in Chapter 1's very first exercise, you are told to practice:

  • Shell voicings arranged in 2-5-1 patterns (a minor 7th chord, followed by a dominant 7th chord, followed by a major 7th chord in a progression, such as Dm7, G7, CM7).

  • Following this, you're instructed to practice every individual voicing of a minor 7th chord, dominant 7th chord, and major 7th chord in 5 different patterns.

  • Then, you're asked to play this voicing in 7 additional patterns.

This might not all make sense you in text until you see the examples in the book and the recommended progressions - but the point is, if you try to master the exercises in this book page-by-page, it's a lot of practice on one type of voicing before you can attempt the next. Each voicing does build on the previous, so there's definitely a good reason to attempt mastery on one before jumping to the next - but the downside is, you typically will be using different voicings for chords as you play through a standard - so taking so much time to even get to a second voicing can be discouraging.

How you should use this book - Personally, despite it being a slow process, I think this is a good book to get started on at the outset. While exercises and drills aren't exciting, it will teach you a very basic voicing type right away, and let you get started on playing through any standard once you get the basics of shell voicings down.

Right now, I am leaning more on Solo Jazz Piano as the primary "method" book, and using Jazz Keyboard Harmony to start getting comfortable with any chord symbol I encounter and be able to at least play a voicing for it without stopping dead in my tracks. I see these exercises more as a long-term investment to help me graduate from "I can only play a few standards that I am very familiar with" to "Throw any standard at me, and I can competently get through any chord symbol I see in it." But given I'm still on learning my first few standards/holiday tunes, I'm using this book only occasionally to keep ingraining the knowledge of chord symbol to voicing, and the common transitions between them.

Solo Jazz Piano: The Linear Approach by Neil Olmstead

The Good - This is a method book, which is a type of book anyone learning a new musical genre needs - it's a step-by-step approach with practical advice on how to build up basic solo standard playing to more advanced concepts. Given I knew I needed a method book as a missing link in the materials I had on hand, and I wanted it focused on solo piano, so it seemed like a great fit. And certainly, within the first chapter, I knew this book was going to give me a lot more "lightbulb" moments than I had ever had before, namely due to an immediately explanation of extensions, covering intervals beyond just the 7th, and diving straight into how to use these extensions in detail in chapter 2.

For example, the first page of the 1st chapter lays out a simple set of 4 steps anyone new to jazz can follow to look at a lead sheet and get comfortable with the melody and harmony, with the first step being so basic that anyone comfortable with reading treble clef could sightread through most standards right away, and the subsequent steps building in harmony.

The first chapter also gives you a full notated sample standard - complete with notated harmony - then a lead sheet version for you to build your own harmony on. What made this so magical for me was it directly addressed the very thing I struggled with - immediately being introduced to a variety of voicing and rhythm options for a chord symbol, and when I was trying to build my own harmony based on the lead sheet, I could reference back to the fully notated sample to understand the kind of options I had to voice the harmony.

The Gap - I am still very early on in this book (Chapter 2!), and I noticed immediately that Chapter 2 hits a bit of the same pitfall as Jazz Keyboard Harmony - it gives a tremendous amount of voicing exercises right away. Given there are only 2 chapters on chords (and subsequent chapters cover bass lines and improvisation, and look more broken out) - chapter 2 is very dense. My current plan is to cover it in a cursory way to start, and ensure I understand what each exercise is trying to show me - and then trying to move forward to get introductions to additional concepts, while referencing back to areas that I want to develop. If there's a certain voicing that I want to learn more of, I can lean on the exercises in Jazz Keyboard Harmony to help with that too.

How you should use this book - Like I said, I'm still very early on in this book, but I am currently using this as my primary method book - making forward progress in this book looks very promising to be able to make solo arrangements off lead sheets. Whenever I learn a technique in this book or glean something from a fully notated lead sheet, I apply those learnings to the standards/holiday tunes I am trying to learn. This has led to me being able to play much more harmonically interesting arrangements of lead sheets much faster than just using Jazz Keyboard Harmony.

The Jazz Piano Book by Mark Levine

The Good - This book tends to be highly recommended when you jump into any jazz piano group and ask for a recommended book. Similar to Solo Jazz Piano: A Linear Approach, this book starts off covering chords, then branches into left hand voicings, scales, and improvisations. There are straightforward descriptions of the what something is (i.e. three note voicing), and applicable tips you can use when going through tunes and voicing them, and typically examples of real standards leveraging these techniques. Each end-of-chapter sometimes gives you a basic exercise suggestion, but more importantly identifies common standards that would be good to use to apply the theory covered in the chapter.

The Gap - This was the very first jazz book I bought based on recommendations (see "The Good") - but it was like hitting a brick wall. It felt intimidating, as if it was written for people already familiar with jazz standards and famous players. The chapters are short and dense and can be a lot to digest. Chapter One and Two cover intervals and modes, and if you aren't completely comfortable with intervals and and theory lexicon, every written line can be difficult to parse and understand. The point of chapter 2 is to introduce the concept of ii-V-I progressions, and while building up the explanation of what those are from the modes and interval names is good background, it can be hard for a beginner to understand what the important takeaway from the chapter is to keep moving forward instead of getting lost in the deep theory. I expect this background will pay off when you start improvising over these chords to understand the mode they belong to - but that's not a beginner-level task.

As I read through it today, feeling like I have a bit of a jazz foundation and connecting it with the concepts from other books, I can more easily glean what each chapter is trying to teach me. But when I read lines like, "The Gsus chord resolves smoothly to a CMaj7 chord", I struggle to understand how that helps me play from a lead sheet. Maybe helps me understand why I might see a Gsus chord followed by a CMaj7 chord often - but I don't think that's necessary information for a beginner, and can cause someone to just get "stuck" on information that's probably not critical and digestible when just starting out.

How you should use this book - If you are a total jazz beginner, consider skipping this book until you get some foundation under your belt and feel comfortable doing at least shell and guide tone voicings from a lead sheet, or progress a bit into Solo Jazz Piano: The Linear Approach. One nice thing this book does have that I haven't seen in this others, however, is a Suggested Tunes area per chapter to apply those concepts. That would help you narrow down the set of jazz standards in something as massive as The Real Book to a good set of basic ones to tackle in a progressive order (for example, the first set includes tunes such as Tune-Up, All the Things You Are, and Giant Steps, which all have pretty simple melodies and a lot of ii-V-I progressions to practice things on).

It is pretty clear however, that this book is written for more of a serious jazz pianist. Recommendations like "play every standard in every key" sound great, but would be far too consuming for a hobbyist to dig into. If you want to grow to be a professional, well first - this isn't the article for you, and you should get a teacher to help guide that - but this book would be fantastic once you get the basics down to take your learning to the next level.

Still, if your budget stretches, it's nice to have this as a bit of a reference book, as even little tidbits can help, like how the first few paragraphs about sus chords explain the most common voicing for them, giving you a quick way to voice a sus chord when you encounter it.

How to Practice

Now that you might have more materials that you can possibly digest, you need to figure out a good way to practice to make progress.

The end goal here is to be able to play standards. Pick one or two to start. You'll want to find simple ones that use 2-5-1 progressions, since many of the exercises you'll be using practice those. Good standards to start with include Tune Up and Autumn Leaves - but you can search for any recommended beginner tunes. Once you feel comfortable with what a 2-5-1 progression is - look for them in the standards you're working on so you can more easily apply the voicings you learn for jazzy harmony. Find standards that look like they have simple melodies and a chord transition about once a measure.

In tandem with this, start working through a method book (my choice here is Solo Jazz Piano: The Linear Approach) and apply your learnings to your chosen standards. Remember that when you encounter any exercise that shows a fully notated standard, it's not as important to play it note-for-note perfect like a classical piece, but instead try to understand how harmonic voicings are applied under the melody lines - and use that application on the standards you've chosen. Using Jazz Keyboard Harmony, try to timebox yourself based on the available routine time you have to work through a particular voicing based on the instructions in that book (i.e. covering the very first exercise in Chapter 1 for shell voicings will help you understand how to at least basically harmonize any chord you come across).

Don't be afraid to leap ahead once you feel you understand a concept, even if you can't perfectly execute it yet. It will take a long time to apply those concepts freely, and the broader set of concepts you can apply the more variety your playing will have - and the more interesting it will sound. When you are finding yourself having trouble with a certain concept, hone in and dig into deeper exercises and repetition - or find ways to apply them to your chosen standards, killing two birds with one stone.

Be realistic as a hobbyist. Some days I find I can't practice longer than 20 minutes without running out of steam as I'm learning new concepts, so I try to break it up through the day (being a new dad and lack of sleep might also factor in here ;)). Be wary of internet advice that sounds insanely time consuming (i.e. "everything should always be practiced in every key") and pick a real goal to focus on (i.e. "I want to feel comfortable playing 3 standards in 3 months.")

On top of that, with multiple books, you will have some overlap between them. For example, chapter 2 of Solo Jazz Piano: The Linear Approach's exercises are very similar to Jazz Keyboard Harmony exercises - but Jazz Keyboard Harmony's are better spelled out and more detailed.

To be more explicit, a sample practice routine for me one day may look like the below - incorporating new concepts from the method book, standards practice from lead sheets, and harmonic exercises for long-term comfort with all kinds of voicings.

  • 20 minutes of practice from the method book. The focus is less on note-for-note perfection, but understanding the concept the method book is trying to illustrate. This doesn't mean you are always doing something new in the method book every day - concepts can take a few days to settle in and you'll realize new "ah-ha" moments each time you look at it (and especially as you revisit older content in the method book - don't be afraid to look back and revisit as you learn more new things).

  • 20 minutes of practice on standards from The Real Book - from a consistent set you feel comfortable with, applying the concepts you're learning from the method book.

  • 20 minutes of exercises from Jazz Keyboard Harmony to continually get comfortable with harmonic voicings.

Each day my slots might vary a bit based on how challenging a concept is for me to grasp and apply, but each session incorporating concepts, application, and drilling is the mix you want to strive for.

Well, that's about it! Perhaps in a few months I can release some recordings or an update about how this has been working out for me - but in the mean time, I encourage you to get started and see how it works for you! Feel free to drop me any feedback based on how you find good ways to learn!

Hero image provided via Jazz Piano Vectors by Vecteezy

This post is part of the The Beat, a blog by the free music practice tracker tuneUPGRADE. Sign up and start tracking your practice to become a better musician today - totally free!

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