Here is an edited version of a letter I wrote to my former Jazz piano teacher. Some of the letter makes more sense if you know that he is half-Japanese and that I practice Japanese Soto Zen.

Exercises are tedius and songs are hard

A while back I bought "A-Z of Classical Music: Over 60 of the most famous pieces in classical music specially arranged for Easy Piano" by Amsco publications. It is easier than the Hal Leonard Easy Piano books, which I mistakenly told you it was one of at Jupiter, but it is still hard for me to learn from it: still can't play one song. I was thinking about why it is so frustrating and if something better was possible. I think that the reason is that there are only two kinds of things I have tried: exercises and songs.

A "groove" is just right

So what I thought would work would be to have a book of what you demonstrated to me one time in lessons using F, C and G plus rhythm: a "groove". I think it should have the following basic properties.

Idiomatic and Composable

By "idiomatic" I mean that they shouldn't be so weird they don't "sound like something": you might re-us it building a more complex piece.

By "composable" I mean there is no reason that these grooves couldn't work to not only repeat, but also work to continue one from the other. That way, as a beginner you learn one, then another then you can repeat going back and forth between them and it sounds like a more complex groove.


Further, we might want groves to "span the space": Note that these can also have similar benefits to playing scales: F, C, G is just another way of playing the C Major scale, but if you add some rhythm, it is less tedious. If these rhythms and chord progressions could "span the idiom space" that the student needs to learn it would be even more helpful: standard chord progressions and rhythms.

A way to get them to span the space would be to do what software engineers call "factor" them into independent aspects: After giving several examples, you can point out that a rhythm from one and a chord progression from another can be combined if you can just work out the voicing. Give some examples of doing the combination to illustrate some of the voicing challenges and how to overcome them. Then as homework the student has to voice other combinations not given.


Importantly they should be interesting enough to listen to and play even for others. That demo you did for me with F, C, and G was great because you had some interesting rhythm and you kept changing it every few bars. (Note: what he did was he just took the F, C, and G triads and arpeggioed them with different rhythms; it was amazing: chordally simple, yet very interesting to listen to due to the complex rhythm; his point was that rhythm is the most important aspect of music; he convinced me.) Then they aren't tedious to practice and if the student learns enough of them that fit together, they almost have a piece they can play for others.

This property reminds me a little of what men in four part harmony groups do at the end of practice, called "tag singing": they just take the last two or four bars of a harmony song and just sing them. It is like mainlining harmony and is quite addictive. Yet the tags are short, they are like little haikus of harmony. I suppose I want a groove to be a repeatable, composable, haiku of chord progressions voiced across rhythm.

A chant is a groove

Anyway, I was partly inspired to this idea the last time I was chanting in a Soto Buddhist temple; you might want to try it :-). They do lots of chants that are in languages you don't know: Pali, some dialect of Chinese, Japanese (you might know that one). As you can imagine, you are just chanting syllables.

Some of them are short and very rhythmic, such as the "Enmey Jukku Kannon Gyo" below. These are often chanted many times in a row, all on the same note, concluding by dropping the note and slowing the rhythm on the last syllable the last time through. If you try chanting it, you can feel that it is very satisfying and not hard to learn — this is the effect I want.

Other chants in contrast are like a full Jazz piece: nothing really repeats and the rhythm is very complex and altering all the time — much more frustrating to chant and I find that I almost never "drop down" into the groove of the chant. Instead my higher brain remains fully engaged the whole time just trying to not say the wrong syllable. That's too frustrating for a beginner.

Enmey Jukku Kannon Gyo

Kan ze on
Na mu Butsu
Yo Butsu u in
Yo Butsu u en
Bup po so en
Jo raku ga jo
Cho nen Kan ze on
Bo nen Kan ze on
Nen nen ju shin ki
Nen nen fu ri shin