More specifically, what I do is:
1. Rhythm. Make sure everybody is comfortable with rhythm and keeping time. As soon as you have confidence about counting time and where to place notes in a rhythm, you can do so much more musically. We apply rhythm to the AMBIDEXTROUS NATURE OF PIANO PLAYING. Pianos aren’t ambidextrous, but you have to have a little of that to play it, and surprise! almost nothing else we do prepares us for this, other than drums. I help the student with working out the interconnecting patterns of the two hands. Pop, Rock and Roll, Blues/Boogie Woogie, Jazz and R&B keyboards are often highly integrated two hand rhythms that only feel good when both hands are keeping time TOGETHER. So we do lots of good pop/rock/blues/r&b/latin rhythms to tune you up and get the grooves happening.
2. Technique: Playing scales and exercises always sounds like it is the big huge bore-a-rama….and it is! No, wait. It is an easy way to play something you don’t think about too much and just let your hands go. Stop that thinking. I do show students scales (including blues) and ‘etudes’- short studies that focus on some finger moves. Things to warm up with.
IMPORTANT! No matter how sharp you are intellectually, it is your HANDS that are the interface between you and the piano, and whatever your hands know is what they will do. You can think of any cool idea you want, but your hands will make the moves they’ve learned and blow off all other signals. That’s why you pick up the moves you need for the style you are interested in. You have to find a way in. Everyone is different this way.
I always connect the scales you learn with melodies that use them. Scales are not just exercises but about learning the palette for a melody. Playing the piano is a physical thing that asks for your emotional input, but you have to be patient about getting your hands moving, loose and coordinated. I stress HAND INDEPENDENCE from the very beginning because I believe in freedom of expression and on the piano this is the path that gives you freedom to play anything.
[Watch out for so-called short cut methods and such, as most of them are all about not telling you about this business of having to use your HANDS to play.]
3. Improvising! Lots of it. Teaching improvisation is not an oxymoron because I give you the tools to do it. And we do it together, trading riffs in lessons in a non-judgmental atmosphere that helps everyone loosen up. See the Improvising section for more on this. You CAN learn to improvise, you just have to be willing to take risks and experiment
(some folks call that making mistakes, but it’s not. Mistakes are when you clearly miss something you have practiced specifically to be executed at that moment. In improvisation, you are under no such constraint).
4. Harmony, Chords and reading chord charts (lead sheets).* Students are shown the most well known chords, TRIADS, immediately. They just aren’t that hard to get down. Chords are so full of color and sense of place- the set up for telling a good story in music- that you just gotta dive in as soon as you can. And, on the piano it is all about learning the shapes and moves from one chord to the next, etc. I show students how to interpret a chart right away. I show them how to change the chords (‘substitution’ in jazz speak) that accompany a melody (this is fun). I also show them the most commonly used chords and how to shift through the patterns they make on the piano. We read easy songs and apply these ‘voicings’ of chords. We add more chords by grouping them in KEYS**.
Typical early pieces can be:12 bar blues; classic rock verse/chorus song (like say, Imagine by John Lennon),;folk tunes (Amazing Grace, Midnight Special); R&B grooves (Memphis Underground, Green Onions, Trouble Man), and easy melodic classical pieces. Note that I cover FORMS of music. How the structure is put together. If you want to improvise, or at least vary things, you have to have the music memorized by the CHANGES (chords) and the FORM (not just by the melody). That way you can add new riffs and melodic ideas on top of them as you confidently zip through the changes. Yow!
*[Chords are when you play a group of notes all together at once. Doesn’t matter which ones. As long as there are more than 2 (just two notes is called an interval and I’m not explaining that now). ]
**[A key is the note a song keeps coming ‘home’ to. Almost all music is in a key- the song has a home. If a song is in the key of A, the melody will keep coming home to A at the end of it’s story, and the chords will make an A harmony (notes that sound nice with the A note and help us feel comfy and at HOME).
5. Reading music. Being able to read music puts you in touch with a huge lexicon of information that is unavailable to you if you don’t read. I like to use gradated books that aren’t childish for my adults, and books that are not too hard for kids and that they can feel a sense of accomplishment for completing. I write a lot of short easy pieces. They aren’t stupid old style things that don’t resonate with the tastes of today. They are…hip cool things that resonate with the tastes of today!! Also, there are some great books for learning sight reading for all different ages. My favorite basic adult book currently is the Joy Of First Year Piano. It ain’t flashy, but I’ve seen it work many times.
6. FREEDOM and BEING IN THE MOMENT: Freedom is not necessarily about doing anything you want, but also includes taking someone else’s directions, or ideas, and having your own way with them. “I will do what you ask, but I’m going to mess with it a bit, just to remind you that I am free.” To a degree, this is the essence of jazz. Getting to where you play “in the moment” is a matter of the balance of your technical facility, your emotional disposition, and your understanding, through your “ear”, of theory [your ‘trained’ intuition of hearing music and knowing what it is without having to see written notes. That’s all theory is. The written code of what the ear already knows. Trust your ear, train it, and rely on it. I work this way with every student who wishes to explore their freedom through the keys.]
THE DIRTY WORK
Working on chords and working on rhythm are the dirty work in practice. Many people tend to find scales and finger exercises to be a comfort zone thing. I do not say that rhythm or chords aren’t fun, because they are, but I just don’t want to pull any punches here. You have to work at it with some focus to get over the hump, especially chords. It is just plain old repetition involved. So, pour yourself a cup of coffee and turn on the timer and bang through those changes 20 times. Just to warm up.