Today as part of Improv Month we’re speaking with Brenden Lowe, the man behind JazzPianoSchool.com and the Jazz Piano School Podcast. Jazz and piano can both be intimidating things for aspiring musicians and they put front and center their belief that “Anyone can learn”, as well as encouraging self-expression from the outset – so clearly a good match for our philosophy here at Musical U!
Jazz Piano School has a unique approach to teaching and we were keen to hear more about how it works and how improvisation factors in.
In this conversation we talk about:
- The astonishing number of jazz tunes Brenden could play after $12,000 of traditional jazz piano lessons and why he was completely unsure how to improvise or be creative.
- The “lego bricks” approach to improvising that makes it easy to learn, step by step.
- The unique 4-step system they use at Jazz Piano School to connect theory, technique, improv and repertoire at every stage of learning.
This was a really fun conversation and Brenden has a great way of explaining things that cuts straight through that intimidation factor. Whether you have any interest in jazz or piano, we think you’re gonna dig this.
Listen to the episode:
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Christopher: Welcome to the show Brenden. Thank you for joining us today.
Brenden: Thanks for having me.
Christopher: So I’d love to start at the very beginning and understand where you came from as a musician. Where did you first start learning music and what was that like for you?
Brenden: Yeah. So my family’s big into music. My Dad’s a musician so we always had a piano around and I would just go and sit down at the piano and start playing and so they thought, “Well, why don’t we just give him piano lessons?” So I started taking piano lessons when I was a kid and I took classical lessons, obviously, just A Daily Dozen or A Dozen a Day, I can’t remember the name of the exercises but just beginner piano and so then I was about, I think I was, like, ten or so. I took classical lessons all the way up until then and I kept taking classical lessons but when I was ten, you know, I was always trying to change my, change the music, like, change my Bach, change the Bach I was playing, change the Mozart. My teachers would always yell at me, you know and I’d be, like, “Oh, it sounds better when I play it like this, though.” They’re like — (laughs) — like, I thought I could change Bach, you know, and so eventually I heard my first jazz album. That was an album with Oscar Petersen and Itzak Perlman, a classical violinist, like, not the best jazz album to start off with but, I mean, you know, hearing classical people make transitions is funny, but I, just, something changed me, you know, it was like it clicked when I heard that jazz album and I was, like, “This is what I need,” right? I just needed to learn how to get that feeling, to re-create the feeling that I felt and I wanted to self-express myself, you know, through the music of improvisation like Oscar Petersen was doing so at that point I continued to study classical music theory but then I started taking jazz and so that’s really where my, kind of, jazz and improv journey started, at that point and I eventually just kind of made the leap. I stopped taking classical music. I’d taken about 15 years of classical and then I just solely dedicated myself to taking jazz.
Christopher: Very cool. And roughly how old were you when you heard that album, do you think?
Brenden: I think I was about ten so it must have been, like, fifth or sixth grade, because I’d been looking for something —
Brenden: — yeah. I’d been looking for something besides classical. Like, I liked classical but it was, just, like I said, I was always sitting down at the piano playing my own stuff , like, I wanted to do my own thing. (Laughs) So I would put new notes in, like, Bach, minuets and things like that. Finally I heard that album and I was like, “This is what I need.”
Christopher: Interesting, because I think to the average ten-year-old jazz, and particularly jazz harmony is not the most accessible sound, you know, I think a lot of people find they need to get a lot more experienced in music before jazz really becomes accessible to them.
Brenden: Right. Yeah, yeah.
Christopher: That wasn’t the case for you?
Brenden: That’s definitely true. Yeah, I don’t think so because we had it playing a lot, like, my parents would play jazz so my ear —
Brenden: — I think a lot of people subconsciously, as you’re growing up, you know, music is in your ear and you are taking it in whether you understand it or not, you’re still listening to it, you know, some people when they’re in the womb, they put the headphones on the, you know, their wife’s belly and stuff like that to play music which I think is awesome. I’m definitely gonna do that with my first child (laughs) but, yeah, so I think I was taking it in and then when I got to that point where I heard the album everything was just, like, clicked, you know? So I think Oscar’s sound was what I had been looking for and he ended up being my first, like, really true inspiration to the jazz piano.
Christopher: So that’s super interesting. We talk about that sometimes at Musical U as passive ear training where you are developing your musical ear but you’re not, you know, doing exercises, you’re not consciously trying to do it but it sounds like you were really immersed in that jazz tradition even before you ever thought to play it yourself.
Brenden: Yeah. Absolutely, definitely listened to a lot of the stuff.
Christopher: And did you find it came easy to you? You clearly had the instinct to create and to experiment in music…
Brenden: (Laughs) Yeah.
Christopher: …but at the same time, you know, jazz isn’t the most, the simplest genre to dive into. Did you find that was an easy transition for you? Did it all come directly?
Brenden: To everyone listening out there, this is my story, and absolutely not. It did not come easy. (Laughs) So it was one of the hard — jazz piano is freakin’ hard and this is what I tell, this is how I tell my story on my website and our jazz piano school and to all of my followers out there, but it, yeah, it’s one of the hardest things that I’ve ever done and so just to give you guys a little teaser, but when I started taking jazz piano I took three years of jazz piano lessons because I wanted to learn jazz piano after I had heard that Oscar album. I took a lesson a week for three years at 50, or, excuse me, 70 bucks, I think it was about 70 to 75 bucks a week. So if you guys do the math on that, it’s about eleven to twelve thousand dollars I’d spent on jazz piano lessons for three years and if I asked you how many tunes I learned, how many tunes would you have guessed I learned?
Christopher: I guess hundreds.
Brenden: Right. I learned three tunes so I’d spent twelve thousand dollars on jazz piano lessons and I learned three tunes. So it was at that point that, obviously, I felt very disappointed, frustrated, you know, embarrassed because I had spent my parent’s money, like, I had barely learned any tunes and the three tunes I did learn, they were all I could play. Like, I couldn’t play any other jazz tunes besides those three tunes because I had copied what my teacher had showed me so my first experience with jazz piano improvisation was I went in to the lesson, this is, like, this would happen a lot, but obviously the first time it was shocking to me so I sat down at the piano. I was trying to learn, he would play. He was showing me the tune, “If I Were a Bell,” so I learned three tunes. I mean, this is burned into my memory. “If I Were a Bell,” “Yesterdays” and “Beautiful Love,” those were the three tunes I could play. So he was showing me “If I Were a Bell.”
He was playing all these cool licks and things like that and I was just, like, amazed, blown away like we all are when we’re trying to learn improv and then finally he stops and it’s about half an hour in, he’s talking and playing, just, forever and I’m just, like, “Yeah, yeah, awesome, I wanna learn how to do this,” you know, “I’m so pumped. I’m excited.” I’m, like, so he stops, and then I’m like, “All right. So when I go home, what should I practice to learn how to do this? Like, how do I learn this?” and he’s, like, “Weren’t you just watching what I showed you?” and I was like, “Uh, yeah, but –” and he’s, like, “Yeah, I just showed you how to do it,” and it was at that point, I was just, like, “This is a mess,” you know?
So I had, the only way I learned those three tunes, I could only play those three tunes was because I had copied his arrangements of what he had played so I could play those three tunes basically based off of what he had played. I didn’t know how to flip it to any other tunes to create what I wanted to self-express in jazz or how I wanted to recreate the sounds that I felt when I heard Oscar. I could only play those three tunes and nowhere was I even close to jazz piano freedom or improvisational freedom and I’d just spent twelve thousand dollars. So it was at that point that I was, like, “Man, something, something is wrong here.” (Laughs) So.
Christopher: Wow, and for the kid who went into jazz because he, you know, found himself experimenting with Bach that sounds incredibly painful.
Brenden: Yes, it was. It was very painful and so that’s, yeah, that’s the pain point I try, I mean, I’m sure that I’ve found to be true with almost 99% of all jazz learners, jazz people trying to learn jazz and that’s why I started Jazz Piano School.
Christopher: So bridge that gap for us, then. You had this terrible experience…
Christopher: …a fairly traditional approach to jazz education…
Christopher: …and now you have a jazz piano school where you teach in a very different way and a much more free and creative way. What were the milestones or epiphanies along the way that lead to you understanding a better way to do this?
Brenden: Yeah. That’s a great question. So basically I was determined. A lot of people would have quit as I’ve seen, you know, in students and I, this was, like, the only thing I wanted in life, so I just kept going. You know, I quit, actually after those first three years, started studying again with a new teacher, took another two lessons, spent a lot of money, quit again, started with a new teacher, just, like, through cycle, you know, and so I actually ended up going to music school just because I loved it. I got my jazz performance degree but even after I graduated from college it was still the same thing. Like, I didn’t feel that I could, I was content about my playing and I could sit down and truly self-express what I was trying to say through the music. I didn’t feel like I had a plan of action. I didn’t feel like I had structure or organization to continually get better and make progress at jazz piano and succeed.
So I started, you know, it was actually one day, like I’d spoken to you about, about language learning blocks because I was in a French class and I was taking French and basically I was thinking about learning languages and so when you’re learning a language, in order, if you are going to France and you want to speak French you want to be able to speak freely, right? You want to be able to just go there and be able to speak and express yourself, like, have a conversation, so I was thinking about how my teacher was teaching me these different sentences and so she was teaching us in a very structured way.
She obviously, when you learn English you’re learning verbs, you’re learning nouns, you’re learning pronouns, you’re learning sentence structure but you’re learning those components so that you can speak freely in a conversation, right? You’re not really copying what she’s saying. So if she said, for example, “I want you to copy this sentence, ‘How do I find the nearest corner store,” right? If you copied that sentence you’re not going to understand all the verbs, the nouns and pronouns that fit into the sentence. If you go to France, the only sentence you’re gonna be able to say is, “How do you get to the nearest corner store?” If you wanted to say, “How do you get to…?” you wouldn’t really understand how to add anything on to the back end because you’ve only copied that one sentence whereas if she’s teaching us the word, “how, to, get, to,” then we can start to replace any nouns on the end of that to make multiple types of sentences leading to freedom in the language.
So, you know, long story short it was from that that I started to create these, what I call, theory sequences where we’re taking a core theory tool and moving it through these building blocks and fitting it into a jazz sentence that basically leads someone to learn a core jazz theory tool like improvisation and things like that to start to create jazz piano freedom and I vowed to teach all my students with this method because it started to help me so much. I actually made more progress with my own developments in, like, the next three to six months after my epiphany than I had had in, like, the past ten years. I just skyrocketed my improvement and it got to the point where I was freely expressing myself due to the work I had put in through the structure and development of these proven language learning blocks, so I vowed to teach all my students with structure, organization and direction, not with generalities, not with the traditional methods of “I’m gonna show you. You copy me. Just listen, go listen to more jazz and you’ll figure it out,” like, these are all the things I would hear when I was a kid, you know, “Just use your ear and you’ll get it,” like, no. That’s, no. (Laughs)
So I just —
Brenden: — just to say some things, a lot of the traditional methods like you brought up before, too, is that those things do obviously come into play. I’m not saying that copying licks and things like that isn’t good for a person’s improvement but when you’re first starting I truly believe nailing down in a structured manner these proven learning language blocks that fit into jazz is going to build your foundation and then lead you to the point where you’re able to use different types of textures and structures that people have in order to fit that into your playing at a later point in your progression.
Christopher: Mm-hm. Well, I think your four-step framework for teaching jazz piano is definitely one of the most distinctive about Jazz Piano School and I’d love to just unpack that a little bit. You mentioned it in passing there. Can you explain what those four steps are, because I think it’s really elegant the way you link up theory and improv and repertoire and…
Christopher: …you know, that’s not something that a lot of people experience in their music learning. It tends to all be a bit disjointed or scattered.
Brenden: Right. Yeah, so basically the best way to describe this is if you are building a house, right, or you want to build something, so in jazz, classical is a different kind of beast because we have the music in front of us, right? In jazz, our goal is to sit down and freely express ourselves through the music with no music (laughs) if that makes sense, right? We want to express ourselves freely through the music with no music but in classical you put the music in front of you, you read it, you study it, everything’s right there, so with jazz, right, when we’re building our house our blueprint is our final product that we want to get to so that’s the house. The blueprints in jazz are jazz fakebooks, right, the charts. Jazz charts are basically our blueprints. They’re the structure, they’re telling us where we need to go, where we need to play, you know, what we can do, you know, here’s the melody.
Most people start with the blueprint but they have no tools to build the house. So can have a blueprint of a million-dollar mansion but if you go to build that million-dollar mansion without tools it’s absolutely impossible, right? So the tools that I teach in Jazz Piano School get you to look at any blueprint, any jazz chart and you will freely be able to build any jazz chart you want or play, right, you can play any jazz chart you want because you have the tools to do that. So if I break down the theory sequence, I call them, in Jazz Piano School, we take the theory tool, so that can be anything and to give some examples, it could be seventh chords, it could be triads, major triads, minor triads, it could be any sort of scale, any sort of theory tool that has, like, a purpose, right, in music, so, and again, relating this back, I use this analogy a lot, the construction analogy, if we have a hammer, right, if you have a tool that is a hammer, like a seventh chord or something like that, just because I have a hammer doesn’t mean, like, I know how to use it, doesn’t mean I know how to freely use it, doesn’t mean I know what its purpose is for. Like, a lot of people — there’s two sides to a hammer so you know you hit stuff on the one end of the hammer. It doesn’t necessary know what someone knows, or it doesn’t mean that someone knows what the back end of the hammer is for, right?
So the first thing in the theory sequence is that you need to understand the total functionality of a theory tool, so, like, what is its purpose? So a seventh chord, right, you need to understand what the purpose of a seventh chord is or a major seventh chord or a triad, right? Once we understand that then we know the functionality of that tool. Then we progress to our second step in the theory sequence which I call technique. So once I have a hammer and I know what I can do with a hammer I need to practice using my hammer, like, hitting nails, like actually hitting it because I could be terrible at doing that, right? I could miss, I could hit my finger, we don’t want to do that, right?
So I take my theory tool and I start playing major triads and I can practice that a number of different ways. Now, just to let you know, there’s no materials out there for these exercises, right? I’ve created all the exercises that link in to theory sequence, you know, so there are materials out there but they’re just, all jumbled up. It’s not in sequence like I’m teaching. So if we take a major triad on my outline of the major triad, I might outline it going through the circle of fourths, I might play it in a block style, I might play it with my left hand, I might play it hands together so these are all different ways I could use and practice the technique portion of my theory tool so I’m actually learning how to use my tool, I’m actually swinging the hammer, I’m learning how to not hit my finger as I’m nailing something in, right?
The third step we have is improv. Now the improv portion of this theory sequence is meant to freely use your tool so if I have a hammer and I’ve learned how to hit the hammer, you know, hit a nail into the wall, that may be the only thing I know how to do with this tool but I want to be able to use this tool to build a house so I need to be able to use a hammer to do many different things not just hit one nail in one location if that makes sense, like, I want to be able to use a hammer to hit a baseboard in, I want to be able to use the hammer to, you know, pull screws out. I want to freely be able to use this hammer however I want, not just for one purpose, right? So for major triads in improv, right, I want to freely be able to use these major triads however I want and so by practicing specific building blocks or specific improv exercises that relate to the major triad I can start to improvise over the major triads I can use the notes within the major triads to solo with, so this improv exercise is teaching us freedom within the theory tool to give us freedom over that tool, over that one specific tool. That way I can use it however I want.
And then finally the last step is repertoire where we integrate all the previous work we’ve just done which isn’t much, I mean, you know, it’s a couple of exercises within each step and we integrate that into repertoire so we start to integrate that into tunes, aka we start to build our house with a hammer, right, however we want. We now have the tool at our disposal. We can use it however we want because we’ve practiced the use of it, we’ve practiced the freedom use of it. I know how to do everything I can with this tool. I can now use it in any tune I want rather than being handcuffed by just copying someone using a hammer, which would only allow me to use that hammer in the exact situation that I had just watched them use it in and so that’s a full theory sequence.
Christopher: Very cool, and it’s so strikingly different from the traditional approach which, you know, is typically, “Here’s the piece we’re gonna work on. Let’s learn the technique required to play the notes on the page and then maybe next week or if you’re a bit more advanced, we can take a little bit of this piece and give you the opportunity to improvise completely separate from everything we’ve just been learning.”
Christopher: I love how you build improv into, you know, really into the core of that so that everything that’s taught is taught with the opportunity to use it in a creative way.
Brenden: Yep. Absolutely.
Christopher: So in practical terms what does this like like for the student? How many tools are there to go through? Are they learning one a day, one a week? Do you do all four steps for one tool before moving on? What’s that like?
Brenden: That’s a good question, yeah. Well, so obviously there is lots of jazz information, right? So and there’s lots of musical information out there and I think structuring a way for the student’s progress to make, to get them to their goal the fastest is the most, is the best thing to do. So if someone’s interested in playing, you know, someone might come to me and say, “I want to play jazz piano.” Okay, that’s great. There’s lots of jazz piano out there. You can play in a group, you can play by yourself, you can play modern tunes, swing tunes, slow tunes, fast tunes, so what catches your ear, right?
Then they might say, “Okay I want to play solo piano because I’m at home most of the time. I have a nine-to-five,” right, “and I love,” you know, they may have had an album trigger their love for music just like I did so maybe they heard Bud Powell. Maybe they heard Erroll Garner play for the first time in jazz or even a classical musician, you know, whoever that may be and so they say, “I want to play like Erroll Garner,” and I say, “Okay. Great.”
So we start to take these different paths for their goal because the different tools are going to lead you to build different houses, right? If I want to build a little shed, I don’t need a hundred tools, right? I just need some two-by-fours. I can build it pretty easily. I’m not going to give a hundred to someone who wants to build a little shed so if you just want to play like Erroll Garner, that’s one specific style, right? He’s got a couple techniques that can make him sound like Erroll Garner. He has a certain texture and if you’re playing solo piano that’s gonna be different than playing with a group.
So we try and give these theory sequences or these theory tools to people to get them to their goal the fastest possible so that they can see results but in a structured and directional manner, so, you know, we just kind of lead them down that path because once you figure out your goal and your objective you really don’t need that many tools besides your foundational learning process. Obviously is you don’t know what a seventh chord is you’re going to need to know that, you know. So there’s a bit of a foundation to build there but then after that you can really go in the direction you want with these theory sequences and get exactly what you’re looking for in a much, much quicker time, not fifteen-plus years like I had to go through spending college tuition money, you know, so.
Christopher: Terrific, and that’s something we’re believers in ourselves at Musical U, that, you know, you can’t do a one-size-fits-all course for music in general, you know, it tends to end up fitting nobody and you’re much better off figuring out the combination of topics and approaches that actually suits their background and their goals and what it is they want to accomplish.
Brenden: Right. Absolutely.
Christopher: So we’ve talked about jazz and a bit about piano but I’m curious to know, a lot of what you’ve described I think is relevant beyond both of those two things. How much do you think this approach would be valuable to someone who wants to learn, say, rock improv on guitar?
Brenden: Mm-hm. Yeah. It’s really all the same in my teaching style, right? So jazz is an amazing thing because it really encompasses and holds types of music. The theory and tools you’ve learned in jazz can be used in all types of music, so rock, pop, funk and it’s amazing because so many people are like, “Brenden I just want to play funk,” or “I just want to play rock,” you know, or “I just want to play pop,” but when you’ve learned these things and you walk through the system that I’ve created it basically, it allows you to do that with freedom so you, by achieving, you know, going through the theory sequences you’re actually creating freedom in all these different styles. Now obviously a rock style is much different than a jazz style but when we start to look at it closer, you know, why is it different and I don’t want to take away anything from other styles but, you know, rock and pop only usually contain just, you know, pure fact, a couple of chords. You’re not gonna see many chords or a harmonic or big theory types tools in rock and pop, you know, you may have four triads. A lot of pop stars that we know in this day and age have gotten rich off of four chords, right, this huge hit single.
So jazz is a very, very in-depth process, right, so if you’re learning your jazz tools you’re gonna be able to play any other style that you want. So if you want to learn rock, I’m not necessarily saying you should learn jazz first, but the jazz tools, the jazz theory components will give you access to everything so why not start there and have access to rock, have access to pop, have access to funk, have access to everything else, you know, R&B, gospel, like, it’s gonna give you everything you need to play all the styles rather than just saying, “Okay, I want to play rock,” then that’s all you learn. Like, you’re not going to be able to play jazz, you won’t really necessarily play in any other styles so I guess I’d recommend going towards more of the jazz theory to start with and then learning that and in that way you can express yourself however you want in any other style because a lot of them are great as well, so.
Christopher: It seems like you’ve struck a really nice balance in the way you teach at Jazz Piano School in that you are providing very clear and step-by-step teaching but as we just touched on, it’s also quite flexible so that, you know, students can pick and choose or adapt the path to best suit what they’re into and this was something that jumped out of me from a great blog post you wrote called, “My Jazz Freedom: What’s Helped and Hurt,” and we’ll put a link in the show notes because I think it’s a really great post, but something you mentioned in there was the interplay between structure and freedom when learning. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Brenden: Yes, absolutely. So, right. A lot of people — so jazz, a lot of people will say jazz is just freedom, right, so basically people are improvising and they’re just playing spontaneously whatever comes to mind, and, I don’t know, this is what I hear out there sometimes. People will say this, but it all starts with freedom, it starts with no structure.
But I believe it’s actually the opposite. I think the more structured you start the more freedom you’re gonna have in the long run so starting with the structure and discipline to learn your tools, like I’ve talked about on the podcast today is the best way to get to that freedom point whereas if you’re starting with complete freedom you have no tools and basically you’re guessing, you’re searching through a haystack to find the needle, right, you’re kind of just wandering, you’re lost, you don’t have a direction. Too much freedom can lead being nowhere, right?
So basically that was my journey, that was my path that I took and so I didn’t have any structure. I didn’t have any direction or organization. People were just throwing me things and I had to take the tools and try and connect them myself whereas in Jazz Piano School starting with the structured approach to go through these core tools will give you the freedom you need to self-express yourself, right, and however you want so you could self-express through jazz, through rock, through pop and by learning those core toods you’re going to achieve that freedom much, much faster than starting with freedom and wandering around trying to explore, right, just being out there in the abyss of information on the internet these days about music because there’s so much out there and to assume that you’re going to be — see, the thing is, it’s like I see people go out there and they have access to all this information but what happens is, and you’ll see this with the — you know, I love all jazz piano sites and I support education in all manners but people always say, like, “We have the biggest library. We have the biggest library of jazz piano videos. We have the biggest library of rock guitar,” and the key word there you have to watch out for is library, because when you enter in a library if I were to tell you to go learn history, for example or, you know, like, London’s background, okay, if you walked into the George Washington Library or a big library in London and you were asked to do that would you be able to learn everything you needed to know if you’re just walking to a library with thousands and thousands of books? Probably not, right, because you were putting yourself — essentially you’re not the student anymore. You’re trying to teach yourself. You’re becoming the teacher to inform yourself about how to learn so when there’s these libraries essentially you’re trying to navigate all the information instead of someone saying, “Okay. Go to floor two, pick out, you know, book two on shelf three, read pages 50 through 60 in that book then go to floor five, go to shelf three, pick out book two and then read that whole book.”
With the direction and structure that you’re creating in the beginning you’re actually moving down the specific path to learn exactly what you want in order to achieve freedom, otherwise, again, you’re just wandering, you’re sifting through this information completely lost and for you to expect yourself to expect that you’re gonna learn something because you’re the one charge of all the information to put it all together is almost madness, you know? It’s, like, there’s no way that that’s going to happen because you’re not the teacher. You’re the student. You need someone to give you a plan to get to freedom or achieve whatever your goals are.
Christopher: Absolutely. I think we’re in a really interesting age for education and in particular music education because there is a tradeoff to be made, right? Like we’ve touched on a single, strict path that a teacher forces you down is not going to work out well, as you experienced in your first three years of learning. If it’s not the right path or it’s not suiting the student it’s a disaster but at the same time I think there’s far too many people kind of wandering lost in the wilderness of the internet and feeling like they’re learning something but then actually discovering far too late that it’s all a jumble and they’ve wasted months or years just kind of dabbling and scattered in their learning.
I remember on a previous episode of the podcast I was talking with Matthew Scott Philips and Jeremy Burns from the Music Student 101 podcast and we were talking about this, how it’s a challenge for us as online music educators to find that balance, to give students the freedom to pick their own path while providing enough support and guidance and structure that they’re actually making good progress and learning rather than, just, you know, wandering around the biggest library in the world.
Brenden: Right. Right. Yeah.
Christopher: So I really applaud the work you’re doing at Jazz Piano School. I think you’re finding a good balance there and in particular in this world of jazz and improvisation where I think we inherit a lot of romantic notions about the gifted musician who just, you know, he just was shuttered (phonetic) for a thousand years and then he just picked up his trumpet and he could play anything. I love that you’re helping people get away from that and understand the step-by-step that can be involved.
Brenden: Mm-hm. Yep. Absolutely. So yeah, I mean, the balance, too, is, just to say one quick thing on that is that it’s definitely a hard thing. I struggled with that so much for so long just due to my path because when you’re an outside student the thing you want to do the most isn’t learn scales and learn triads and, like, learn theory tools like I’m talking about, like people’s ears probably started to glaze over when I was talking a little bit, but you just want to play. You just want to play, you know, it’s like you want to play and be happy. That’s all I wanted. Like, I just wanted to feel that happiness sensation. It’s about feeling, really, not, like, the theory terms, like, your ultimate goal is to play and be happy. That’s honestly, like, what I believe, what I try and help my students do because whether you’re playing to the level of Oscar Peterson or you’re a gigging musician or you’re just playing a simple jazz tune at home by yourself, whatever equates to happiness for you, that’s where I want to help you get to but at the same time, you know, it comes from something from within the student that you as a student have to realize there needs to be some sort of discipline involved because if you’re just kind of wandering around trying to just play then you’re not really going to get to that spot you want. So it definitely is a push-and-pull between what the student wants and what I know is best for you to get what you want, right? So it’s definitely a trusting balance between the teacher and the student, so.
Christopher: So it’s been fantastic to hear more about your approach at Jazz Piano School. I think you’ve got such a great methodology there for teaching a very complex subject in a flexible and step-by-step way. For the listener who’s maybe just getting started in improvising or maybe is just considering getting started and they’re hopefully through this series of podcast episodes feeling a bit more reassured that it’s possible for them do you have any advice or guidance for them as they get started?
Brenden: Absolutely. So, if anyone’s seen the Lego movie out there, I highly recommend you go see it. (Laughs) There’s, like, three of them now the Batman Lego movie, the first one, the second one, anyway, go see the Lego movie because you will learn to improvise from that movie.
So my whole improvisation approach is based off of Legos building blocks, specific improv exercises. Now as I was growing up I would hear a lot of things, like, “Just use your ears. Just watch me and then you do it. Just transcribe. Just copy licks,” right? “Play licks,” and so I heard that a lot. It never, in my opinion, in my case, in my journey, it never helped me get to the point that I wanted to get to so I think a lot of people follow that same path and I love getting my message out there to share with people that I spent 15-plus years doing that, transcribing, copying licks, playing solos. It never really got me to the point I wanted to. So my teaching is based off of Legos.
In the Lego movie, you have people called master builders, right? So these master builders, they can build whatever they want with a pile of Legos. Like, when they see a pile of Legos it’s, like, “Oh, I can build this ship,” or “I can build the White House,” or something like that, so they don’t see a pile of Legos. They see the end result but did they start there? No. Not all Lego people in the world are master builders, right? So when we start, I’m sure, like, most, 99%, did you play with Legos? Have you ever used Legos before?
Christopher: For sure, yes. Absolutely.
Brenden: Everyone’s played with Legos. They know what Legos are. So when you start building with Legos, you’re not starting with, like, the death star. You’re not building a death star Lego thing, you start with, like, a little, tiny boat, right, and then in the instruction manual it shows you three Legos. So you have three Legos. You have three building blocks and you’re putting them together.
Now later down the road when you see those three building blocks are you going to be able to use those to do whatever you want? Yes, absolutely, because you’ve used them before in a step-by-step manner, so you use them all in a step-by-step manner so if you’re learning how to improvise, for example you need to learn the building blocks of improvisation.
So if you want to learn how to improvise, like, whoever, like, a guitar solo, you know, like, AC/DC, Van Halen, it doesn’t even have to be jazz, like, Nora Jones, pop, you know, like, whatever, there’s building blocks that relate to specific exercises in the improv. So if we wanted to take a major triad, right, the building block I would use for improv around a major triad would be just to use those three notes for improv. So I would use, like, for a C major triad, C-E-G, we have three notes. The building block for improv around that would be to improv using three notes, just C, E and G. Now once I’ve learned that I start to learn that building block through all triads so I can improv through an F major triad using F, A and C. So that’s just one Lego. Like, I have one Lego now in my collection, right?
Then I would learn another Lego. So if I get to any major triad I can improvise using those three notes. Now if I put on a seventh on top, right, so maybe I have a dominant seventh on top of the chord, C-E-G-B flat, so now I have four notes. So now I have two Legos, right, and I can put those together so if I see a major triad or I see a seventh chord I’ve learned those Lego improvisation building blocks because I’m practicing small, specific improv exercises related to the theory tool. I’m not just practicing a whole transcription. I’m not just copying a lick. I’m learning improv exercises that are small building blocks that relate to a theory tool and that way it helps me achieve quick, fast freedom within my improvisation and I have Legos at my disposal to use and build like a master builder in the Lego movie.
Christopher: Awesome. I think that’s a terrific analogy for people to keep in mind because, as we’ve talked about, improv can be a huge subject and jazz can be an intimidatingly complex genre but I think that idea of, you know, assembling your tools, assembling your Legos and then bringing those to each improv is a great way to think about it.
Christopher: Fantastic. Thank you so much again for joining us on the show today, Brenden.
Brenden: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure.
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