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Jazz vs. Classical Instruction: How to Choose

Posted by Mariana Del Rosal on Mar 5, 2020 11:07:15 AM

When teaching your students, the biggest choice you –and them- have to make is whether to opt for jazz vs. classical instruction, the most complex categories of art music. Indeed, few people would dedicate more than a few minutes to consider if they like pop songs over Baroque. However, those students who want to do more with the instrument than just join the school band or have fun playing with their friends may take their time to make a choice. 

We have already discussed some of the major differences between jazz and classical piano, and in this article, we will further explain how jazz instruction differs from a classical one.


Choose your instrument first!

Your basic musical formation, your influences,
your repertoire, most of all depends on your instrument of choice. Classical music is usually played in a large orchestra that includes strings (violin, viola, cello, string basses), or brasses such as the trumpet or the tuba, which are not as prominent as the strings. Jazz music is usually played in smaller ensembles, and instruments such as the saxophone, the clarinet, the guitar, or in more recent periods, electric synthesizers, have found their place. An instrument like the piano is so versatile it plays a huge role both in classical music and in jazz.

The role of the conductor

A major part of the classical instruction is
learning to follow orders from a conductor. With the baton, the conductor has control of everything happening in the musical composition, and the orchestra responds to his or her commands as if it was an instrument he or she plays. On the other hand, conductors rarely take part in jazz bands, with the possible exception of large swing bands. In any given jazz ensemble, the drummer is the one who provides the beat that glues the whole group together, but always
interacting with the soloists during each performance.

So what does this mean for you as a music instructor? If you are teaching jazz style, you should provide your students with a basic rhythm or a loose structure, but let them lead as well. After all, jazz musicians should be able to improvise, that is, compose music as they play it. While a metronome may be really helpful, give them the chance to play with other musicians as much as possible. Alternatively, classical formation is more about following commands, both from the teacher as well as from the sheet.

The importance of active listening

The best way to learn music (any kind of music) is by listening to the great masters, but this especially applies to jazz music. For someone with a classical formation, jazz may be an acquired taste only after they have spent hours figuring out what they are actually hearing. In other words, it is not just about the tones but also about how they are played: rhythm and articulation play a huge part in jazz! Your repertoire of jazz standards should include masters such as John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Miles Davis or Keith Jarrett. As your students listen to their performances, they will get familiarized with each of these masters’ unique style.


Improvise, improvise, and improvise!

Ok, so we’ve stated that you should make your students pay attention to basic jazz chord progressions, but most importantly, you should make sure they apply what they are learning in their performances! They should not be just copying jazz masters, but doing their own versions, showing how they feel each piece and providing something unique as they interpret it: unlike in classical music, where all of the notes have been previously chosen by the composer, jazz musicians have to choose many of the notes they play. 


How about reading and music theory?

Unlike the classical sheet music, the chord chart is just a guide: most of the time, jazz musicians are improvising on a tune and, with knowledge on how harmony works, building their own arrangements.
They should feel the chords, the notes, the progressions, rather than just
doing great transcriptions. If not… you may sound good at first, but you are just losing the whole point of the jazz!

For students who prefer classical instruction, of course, you should dedicate some time to listen to the actual pieces, but sight-reading is a must, their best support, and guide. Music theory, on the other hand, might be useful for a deeper understanding, and undeniably for composing, but is not necessary for performing.

Jazz vs. classical instruction: how to switch?

If you have always played (or taught) classical music, turning to jazz may be difficult. Start by learning (or teaching) well-known jazz standards, such as “So what”, “Autumn leaves”, “All of me”, “Sweet Georgia Brown”, “Misty”, etc. In the first place, tell your students to actually listen to the music, paying attention to what’s happening. Singing along may help. In addition, you should encourage them to play the tunes on their instrument, concentrating on the rhythmic patterns. Also, use a given melody as a frame and try to slowly introduce some variations, this will help you to improvise later on.


Two different languages

Choosing between jazz vs. classical is not just a matter of personal taste, although, certainly, our previous experience in a given musical environment does influence our inclinations towards one style or the other. The truth is that it is very different to learn (or to teach) one way or the other! And this is true no matter which instrument you play. Besides, even professional musicians may find it challenging to learn a new style if they are used to the other one. Some musicians with a classical formation would even compare learning to play jazz with learning to play their instrument for the first time overall!
This is due to the fact that, while classical musicians depend on sheet music and rely on their sight-reading skills, jazz musicians should have a deep understanding of musical theory, together with enough creativity to improvise. It is common saying that it is easier for jazz musicians to turn to classical than the other way round. In any case, the fact that learning jazz is challenging doesn’t mean it can’t be done!

When it comes to jazz vs. classical instruction, where do you stand? Tell us in the comments!


Topics: Music Practice, Tips for Musicians, Routines, Instructors, Jazz Music, Classical Music

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