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I have started playing piano just recently. Although I have some understanding in music theory and played various instruments before (a bit), I am a total beginner in piano.

My ultimate goal is to learn to improvise and play jazz piano. So far I have bought "The Jazz Theory Book" by Mark Levine and "Jazz Exercises" by Oscar Peterson.

I'm doing a very slow progress on Levine's book (but I absolutely enjoy the theory). I'm using exercises in Peterson's book as:

  • a warm up
  • to apply knowledge from Levine's book to add some improvisation
  • to apply knowledge from Levine's book to identify chords and jazz progressions

I can play the first few pieces in Peterson's book with 1-2 minor mistakes. But they don't sound "jazzy" and I would like to play something more advanced from that book.

Given my goal and my background, should I focus on perfecting those trivial pieces before I move on? Or is it acceptable that once you get a grip you move on to more advanced but interesting pieces (and work on polishing them)?

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Also, in terms of getting a teacher, I will get someone in the nearest future. –  Mark A Jun 9 at 10:36
    
Um, you never stop polishing... do you? Work on the stuff that needs the most improvement. If it's a trivial piece, would you keep it in your long term repertoire? Why work on it if not? –  Lee Kowalkowski Jun 10 at 8:38
    
"Why work on it" - what I like about Peterson's book is that it describes the purpose of the exercise first and then it gives you a Minuet to apply the knowledge (you can look inside the book in the link above). I practise those pieces until I reach a satisfactory level. However, I'm yet to find a piece in that book that I would keep for my long term repertoire. –  Mark A Jun 10 at 9:00

6 Answers 6

up vote 5 down vote accepted

My personal rule is to have one or two pieces that I’m working on polishing, and everything else that I’m just getting to ‘Good enough’ before moving on. I’m generally working on the polishing piece for at least a month or two, for tunes that last about 1 minute per repeat. I find benefits from both polishing and moving on quickly. And when I’m done polishing, the song isn’t perfect. I may still have a note that I flub some of the time, or a phrase where I’ve worked out an easier variation to the original. It’s just better than it would be without the polish, and at a point where I feel like more time spent will get me very little improvement.

By learning a new piece quickly, I get the benefit of picking up new skills and techniques, and learning where to apply them, and if I don’t like something, I don’t have to keep playing it. But it takes a lot longer to master things. By focusing on a piece for months, I make the skills used in that piece really, really solid. I can then apply them to other pieces, including when I’m coming up with variations on the fly. These pieces also become a base that I can use when new techniques come up, and I want to apply a new skill. By choosing a song or tune I can play without much thought, I can think about the new skill, or the new variation, rather than concentrating on the basic tune. They also make tunes that I can lead when I’m playing with a group.

Just starting out, it can be hard to recognize when it’s time to move on. As a rule of thumb, if you’re frustrated by a piece that you’ve mostly learned, its time to move on. The last few mistakes are probably due to an overall lack of skill, and you’ll fix them without even trying as you learn more music. You’ll get more benefit from moving on to the next piece, and coming back to the troublesome one in a month or two. A teacher is great for helping with this.

I didn’t address improvisation in this answer because I don’t think it makes a difference in whether you should focus on a song or move on quickly. Improvising around songs you know backwards, forwards, and upside down is a whole lot easier than trying to fit an improvisation around something you don’t really know at all. So to start with, use the pieces you decide to polish as a base for learning improvisation.

To summarize: If you’ve got only 1-2 minor mistakes, its time to move on. Revisit the pieces later, to check your progress. Don't try to polish anything until you run into a song you like well enough to play for a month or two.

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As you noted, get a teacher. He/She can help you decide when you've reached a reasonable plateau. Roughly speaking, there comes a point at which the "improvement vs. time" curve gets very flat and a lot of work yields little gain. Switching to other pieces or other studies helps you learn different skills, different chord patterns, etc.

Then 6 months or a year later, when you go back to the previous pieces, you'll have a whole new set of goals to achieve (interpretations, e.g.) .

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The purpose of playing jazz (for me at least) is not to play a piece verbatim. If it sounds exactly the same every time it's played, it may be brilliant, but it's not jazz. Work on getting a piece sounding good, but vary it, so that a different feel, melody, rhythm comes out each time. Once the tune has been stated, then do something different with it. If you learn it note-for-note and reproduce that every time, you're not learning about jazz playing.

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I believe this is an excellent advice. But personally I don't feel I'm at that level yet. –  Mark A Jun 10 at 9:03

I have voted up your question, because it is one that every inexperienced performer should answer for themselves.

My advice is do both, polish up the old while attempting the new. I have had students that came to me having never moved on from some tiny set of exercises, because they weren't "quite perfect", and I have had others that never focussed on anything long enough to master it.

Practice a lot, vary what you practice, and enjoy even the smallest amount of progress, because that will be the motor that keeps you going.

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In order to make things sound jazzy, the concept of swing comes into play. The Jazz Theory Book should take up this, but it's a somewhat slippery subject. There should be jazz method books (or other media) for piano, where one can listen to examples. I would start with that. Then you can make any scale exercise sound jazzy...

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maybe you should concentrate on scales first. do them slowly but surely. cuz, jazz musicians plays all over the scale (patterns, rhythms etc. ) do finger exercises e.g czerny, hanon. the two practices i mentioned above may not make u "swing", but they help loads where your finger's strength and dexterity are concerned. Fyi, Oscar Peterson played on the piano from sunrise till sundown. He started with scales, finger exercises and the like, going on the classical pieces. After that, he would do rhythm exercises ( just go wild ) and play with a metronome. that' where he got his "swing". One can never learn anything "fast" in music. It will come together with practice, which takes time even for the very best of us. Unless you're Mozart lol. hey, hope this helps. cheers.

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Thanks for mentioning Czerny and Hanon. It seems that Peterson attributed his success mostly to Czerny. (Unverified source) –  Mark A Jun 10 at 9:18

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