This week’s guest blogpost, from The Curious Piano Teachers’ Hannah O’Toole, is a review of Jazz Piano For Kids, a recent best-selling release from Hal Leonard. Hannah explores the book from a teacher’s perspective, giving excellent insight as to how the book can best be used by teachers, exploring its many strengths, and comes away in no doubt that Jazz Piano for Kids will be a firm favourite for years to come!
The Curious Piano Teachers are a community of piano teachers from across the globe, offering a library of great teaching resources, professional development, and the opportunity to interact with supportive, like-minded peers. Hannah O’Toole is their Community and Marketing Manager.
If you are a piano teacher looking for a step-by-step guide to introduce your students to jazz, Richard Michael’s new book, Jazz Piano For Kids, is an absolute must.
WHO IS JAZZ PIANO FOR KIDS FOR?
Jazz Piano For Kids truly can work for any age group or skill level, from super-keen tinies upwards. Despite the title, even teens and adults wanting to brush up on the basics will enjoy this course. I’m currently using it with mostly 9 to 12-year-olds, and it is absolutely perfect for this age group. At first glance, the book doesn’t necessarily look aimed at kids, in that you won’t find the colourful illustrations of some other method books, and the first few lesson pages are fairly text-based. But don’t let that put you off. The accompanying video lessons really bring this book to life, thanks to Richard’s personality, humour, expertise and passion for jazz. Students of all ages will connect with him through the videos, and under the guidance of their piano teacher, they will enjoy exploring the concepts he introduces in more depth. Don’t skip past the videos – they are key to this course – if you watch them along with your students, guaranteed you will both learn plenty. I tested it on my 6-year-old son, and there was immediate buy-in, particularly with the rhythm games. For younger students, though, you will need to simplify some of the activities, take your time, and explain new concepts slowly.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR, RICHARD MICHAEL
Richard is one of the UK’s leading jazz educators. His distinguished career began as a child playing in his father’s Scottish country dance band. He started aged 4, but didn’t read music until he was in his teens. Richard’s strong aural foundation in his early years of musical training is clear in his phenomenal musicianship and teaching style (he is equally at home improvising fugues on the organ as he is playing jazz). If you’re a teacher that already uses rote teaching in your beginner piano lessons, incorporating the Jazz Piano For Kids course into your curriculum for a term to explore jazz will be an easy segue. If not, no problem – Richard will guide you through the process expertly. (You can find out more about how and why rote teaching is a valuable tool in beginner piano lessons inside The Curious Piano Teachers’ membership here).
ONLINE JAZZ COURSES WITH RICHARD
After years in school as a classroom music teacher, Richard left in 2007 to pursue a freelance career, becoming a leading figure in the development of ABRSM’s Jazz Syllabus. He was awarded the British Empire Medal for services to music education in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2012, and he was Jazz Educator of the Year in 2011 in the Parliamentary Jazz Awards. Richard is a regular broadcaster on BBC radio in Scotland, where he loves to unpack the jazz classics with his audience. He also works with the Fife Youth Jazz Orchestra, and I can just imagine how much fun his rehearsals must be! If you are interested in working with him in more depth, I would highly recommend his online courses, which you can find at the Richard Michael Jazz School here.
The book is split into 10 sections; working through each chapter takes roughly one lesson with the piano teacher guiding the student through each video. The course is flexible enough to deliver in face-to-face or online lessons. At the time of reviewing this book, I am teaching both online, and in a face-to-face socially distanced school setting. In person, I share the videos on a large iPad screen in the lesson and take part in the activities along with my students on a second piano. I break down the material and model it in more detail if needed while the student is learning a new concept. With my more advanced 17-year-old student looking for an introduction to jazz post Grade 8, sharing the videos online worked really well; especially the rhythm games, which definitely improved our energy levels!
TEACHING IDEAS FOR ONLINE AND FACE-TO-FACE LESSONS
The Rhythm Song, the first main piece in the book, can be used either as a listening activity, or a piece to play, depending on the skill level of your student. As I have been working with post Grade 1 students, I have opted for the latter. I model the melody in a call-and-response activity with my student, teaching it by rote to start with. Then I duet, adding the bass line. As the piece is highly patterned, and made-up of repetitive phrases, I then teach the harmony part and bass line, before adding the melody back in. All the time, the notation is in front of the student, even though we are working by rote. Finally, when my student looks back at the notation, the patterns jump out and they “get it”. This was a success with my two 10-year-old post Grade 1 students – I might simplify it a little more with a younger student, and have them just pick out either the melody or the bass line.
The book opens with a section on “Groove” – the fundamental ingredient of jazz! Richard recently said at one of his Zoom workshops, “If it doesn’t groove, don’t play it!”. Students learn the importance of groove (and counting on 2 and 4) right from the start of the book, establishing a solid rhythmic foundation. Definitely don’t be tempted to skip past the opening units, even though you will be spending a lot of time off the piano bench. The rhythm games and body percussion activities are fantastic and will have you and your student falling about laughing by the end of the lesson, especially if you are the kind of person that always goes the wrong way in an aerobics class (ahem). They are fantastic ice-breakers for you and your student, as well as allowing your student to connect with Richard in the videos – important if you want them to work independently with the book at home. If you are teaching online, you can screen-share the videos in lessons (provided your student also purchases their own copy of the book), and provide a welcome opportunity to get up and move, restoring your energy levels and lifting the mood.
12-BAR BLUES FOR THE YOUTUBE GENERATION
Your students will be playing a simple 12-Bar Blues pattern on basic triads by lesson 3, in a hand position comfortable for most small stretches. By lesson 4, they will learn some useful warm-ups, that not only teach technique, but also swing patterns for improvising. Richard adds a walking bass, which makes playing along to the technique exercises good fun. I really like the way this book covers all aspects of playing jazz in a very natural, joined-up way; Richard moves effortlessly from teaching rhythm, to harmony, to technique, in a way that is relatable and pedagogically sound. The videos have a helpful split picture-in-picture view showing Richard’s side profile and a view of the keyboard from overhead. Students who love learning pieces from YouTube will like the way this book works.
KEEP IT SIMPLE!
Blues 1 is a great, non-threatening introduction to improvisation. Richard’s suggestion to use finger 2, alternating between the right and left hand will be really comfortable for child beginners, and he leaves room for experimentation (you could just as well use finger 3 if you prefer to start small children in this hand position). Students will be able to explore rhythm and expression on just one or two notes to begin with – my preferred way of introducing improvisation. Richard loves to keep it simple when teaching improvisation – making this clear right at the start of the course. Too much choice can be overwhelming, and it makes sense that he leaves introducing the entire blues scale towards the back end of the book. I love the way Richard models musicianship in the video for Blues 1, even on just one or two notes!
FROM MIDDLE C TO JAZZ MUSICIAN
Go Tell Aunt Rhody introduces improvisation on the C five-finger position, which will be familiar to almost all beginner piano students, whatever method they have started out on. Students will enjoy jamming along to Richard’s backing track and will feel like real jazz musicians from the start. La Cucaracha on a rock groove is also sure to be a favourite. The Rhythm Song is reprised so that students can solo along to it this time – lots of fun!
THE PERFECT LEAD-IN TO THE ABRSM JAZZ SYLLABUS
The book is rich with musical vocabulary and concepts, introduced in a practical way – students will learn ostinato, diminution, augmentation, altered pentatonic, inversion, dissonance, consonance, vamp, sequence…words which often pop up in GCSE Music courses – this would be great supplementary material for a unit on Jazz, and Richard’s expertise as a classroom teacher is evident. The concepts are sequenced in a logical and manageable way, and by the time you get to Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen, it’s easy to see how your student could hop into the ABRSM Jazz Syllabus from here – unsurprising, given Richard’s expertise in this area. The notation and layout will feel really familiar, and it would be a logical progression if your student has caught the bug by now (also highly likely).
My favourite piece in the book has to be Paganini’s Groove – the teaching and listening possibilities for this are really exciting, and it’s just such a cool tune! (Yes, that was a jazz term…) The solos start to get quite complex by this point, with students modulating, using 7th and altered chords and then returning to the home key. And yet, it doesn’t seem a bridge too far (!) as the book leading up to this point is expertly sequenced. I also love that When The Saints Go Marching In appears at the very end of this book, in recognition of its real value as a jazz standard, rather than at the beginning, as it does in so many other methods, as a way of noodling around the C five-finger position.
Jazz Piano For Kids is a master stroke, and I don’t use that term lightly. After attending one of Richard’s online workshops, and trialling this course with my own piano students, it will be a permanent addition to my teaching repertoire. When you begin to delve into the videos, you realise just how engaging and knowledgeable Richard is, and I can guarantee you will learn just as much as your students. Having inspired many children in class lessons, jazz musicians and listeners he is now reaching a whole new audience with his book. Use it as a unit in your piano studio’s curriculum, between grades, as a supplement or jumping-off point for GCSE composition, or even with adult beginner students keen to learn more about jazz. I just wish this book had been around when I was ten!
Hannah O’Toole, Community & Marketing Manager, The Curious Piano Teachers
Hannah has an MA in Music, and a PGCE in Secondary Music from Bristol University, and a background in classroom teaching. She has been teaching the piano for over 10 years, and joined The Curious Piano Teachers as their Community Manager in 2019. She currently teaches the piano in two independent schools in Gloucestershire.
For further ideas on how to use Jazz Piano For Kids in your lessons, read our recent blog How To Teach Improvisation.
Jazz Piano For Kids
Written by Richard Michael, one of the UK’s leading authorities on improvisation, Jazz Piano for Kids is a fun, easy course that teaches children how to improvise and play jazz piano faster than ever before. Kids will stay motivated as they improvise on popular children’s songs arranged in a jazz style, while the opportunity to play alongside video accompaniments will inspire a love for performance. Every song seamlessly integrates a new improvisatory skill, systematically building upon previous learning and enabling the student to progress with confidence. Including exclusive access to video tutorials, Jazz Piano for Kids is the definitive introduction to improvisation and jazz piano. The method can be used in combination with a teacher or parent and is perfect for those with little experience in teaching jazz or improvisation.