“Talk to the hand”, “doo bah zee dot”, “squared scales”, “safe notes”. This is a sampling of the lingo I’ve learned thanks to my exposure to and friendship with my colleague Bradley Sowash.
When I attended my first NCKP (National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy) Conference in Chicago years ago, I had the privilege of attending a session led by Bradley featuring his That’s Jazz books. By sheer coincidence, I found myself sitting next to him that evening during a large-group happy hour. Not one to miss a moment to learn something new, I began picking his brain about the 12-bar blues and returned to my hotel room with a bar napkin full of his scribbles providing advice about how to teach the pattern.
Years later we met again at the MTNA (Music Teachers National Association) conference held here in Denver. Again, never one to miss an opportunity, I enjoyed a pizza lunch with Bradley in the exhibit hall and yes, returned home with a napkin full of notes.
Fast forward to 2013. Bradley was appointed the Chair of the MTNA 2013 Conference Saturday Pedagogy Jazz/Pop track (that’s a mouthful) and he invited me to serve alongside him. Details about the day and handouts are available here. The fact that there was standing room only demonstrates that the tide is changing and many are seeing the need to expand piano education beyond the repertoire of European dead guys AND beyond the page–in other words, both current and creative.
While working on this project, Bradley felt the need to carry on with the goal of promoting a balance of eye and ear skills past the MTNA conference. He has coined his goal or movement the Eye Ear Revolution™. As we discovered we worked well together, we developed a branch of the Eye Ear Revolution™ called 88 Creative Keys. This summer in my home town of Denver, will be the first annual (yes, we hope to make it annual) 88 Creative Keys Camp for kids ages 10-18 and clinics for adults and teachers.
To set the stage for the upcoming 88 Creative Keys events, Bradley flew out to Denver and presented at CU Boulder and Rockleys Music Center. As his appointed taxi driver, it was my pleasure to shuttle him to each location and of course listen-in on his savvy tips on promoting creativity beyond the page. What I witnessed (yet again) is that Bradley is not only a sparkling jazz artist but an extremely dedicated educator and author who knows how to teach his craft. While attending both sessions, I also learned that my note taking could be better. Revisiting my notes, I realized that most of my sentences were left uncompleted. With one bright idea after another coming at me faster than I could write, here are just a few nuggets of wisdom I salvaged:
- Bradley’s favorite visual for the eye/eye revolution = a well-balanced teeter totter of eye and ear skills.
- He believes that in order to develop comprehensive musicianship, students need instruction in both.
- Students are crippled by a “read only” curriculum that fails to honor both sides of their brain.
- The number one thing Bradley hears from teachers interested in musical creativity: “I don’t have the tools to improvise or to teach improvisation.”
To demystify the art of improvisation, Bradley discussed the five myths about improvisation. My notes can’t compare to his brief video:
A good portion of his sessions focused on his That’s Jazz books. Bradley explained that many supplementary jazz books on the market are written out–so when reading these pieces you are playing jazzy, but not jazz.
His series of books include original compositions along with:
- A warm-up page before each piece that forewarns the improviser about the “traps” to be found.
- A going-further page after each piece which provides specific improvisation tools to be rehearsed.
- An improv challenge that assigns students to plug in newly acquired improv skills into the piece.
- Plenty of step by step and easily digestible directions.
When using his books in lessons, Bradley suggests the following (among many other things):
- Sell the idea of improvisation as a reward to your students: “You played the written music so well that now you get to play it your way!”
- Accompany students constantly and use a small hand drum or automated accompaniment to keep them on track with a steady pulse.
- Never criticize–remember you are blowing on tiny creative embers that can be easily ignited or snuffed out depending upon your approach.
- Always ask questions when guiding improvisers. For example, instead of saying “That was too loud”, ask , “How would it sound to vary the dynamics?”
- Encourage with these words: “If you don’t like how something sounds, you are always only one note away from a better choice.”
- Take away tip: The two most useful 7th chord positions: the “Bird” (7th chord in 2nd inversion) and root position.
What I’ll save for another blog: his incredibly savvy advice on teaching chords and chord symbols. If you want to know more now, go and purchase his Understanding Chord Symbols booklet. This is worth EVERY penny.
With a full-time church position, I’m always looking for ways to make my job easier and to offer some variety from Sunday to Sunday. So I took advantage of a colleague in town. A colleague who happens to be a concert jazz artist (I’m no dummy!). His prelude ignited the congregation and the choir couldn’t help but swing along while singing Bradley’s anthem. It was thrilling for me to play with him on a couple of numbers as well. With a “power” lesson and some practice under my belt, I kept up with Bradley on the postlude showing some newly developed comping and improv skills.
Taking advantage of face time, Bradley and I spent leftover hours of the short weekend planning for the 88 Creative Keys events. I’ve learned a great deal about his teaching style thanks to his blogging. (NOTE: If you haven’t yet, now’s the time to check out his blog articles as they are jam-packed with tips and demonstrate his stunning success with his students.) As we continue our plans, it appears we balance each other well with our unique backgrounds and teaching styles.
We are extremely grateful for those who have seen the value of what we will offer. Spaces are filling up fast but there is still room, so if you are interested in learning to teach and play more creatively, we’d love to have you participate. Events run from July 29-August 3. Please check the site for exact dates, tuition, etc.
- Learn more about Bradley Sowash and the Eye Ear Revolution at EyeEarRevolution.com.
- Learn more about the 88 Creative Keys Events here.
- Learn more about and purchase Bradley’s #1 best-selling jazz method That’s Jazz here.
- Learn more about and purchase Bradley’s Understanding Chord Symbols here.
- Learn more about the 88 Creative Keys Events here.
I’ll leave you with Bradley’s performance of “In the Moment” one of many favorites featured on his CD In the Moment.
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