From Mechanics to Organics, with Bradley Sowash

Today we’re joined by Bradley Sowash, an educator specialising in creativity and improvisation who we’ve long admired in the world of online music education.

Bradley is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, recording artist and educator. He’s the author of That’s Jazz, a nine-volume jazz piano method and is also known for his live online group jazz piano classes. He runs 88 Creative Keys along with Leila Viss, who’s a past guest on this show. They host webinars and workshops helping music teachers bring more creativity into their lessons.

In this interview we talk about,

  • The one piece of advice from a restaurant pianist that changed Bradley’s trajectory from a sheet-music reader to a primarily by-ear player
  • How the piano can be seen as an orchestra with four distinct layers
  • How customising a melody can be an easy first step in improvisation, and 3 specific embellishments you can try right now on any melody you know how to play

You’re going to love hearing about Bradley’s own musical journey and how that’s all fed into the educator he is today, as well as the examples and demonstrations he provides along the way to illustrate what it means to bring creativity and musicality to your playing.

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Christopher: Welcome to the show Bradley. Thank you for joining us today.

Bradley: Every time I hear somebody say that, and the correct response is “Thank you for being here” or “Thank you for having me.” I often think that my mother was actually a radio … She had her own radio show and a local radio station and I just think it would be so wonderful if she had been able to welcome me to her show. And I could say to my mom, “Thank you for having me.”

Christopher: Absolutely.

Christopher: I always knew I liked you Bradley, I was telling you by email I’ve admired you from afar for last several years, and it’s clearly a love of puns that brought us together underneath it all. Speaking of things we have in common, you are someone who also really appreciates the importance of musicality or musicianship for being a musician and becoming all we can be in music. And so I really wanted to start off this conversation by asking you: what is musicality? What does musicality mean to you? 

Bradley: I can answer that in a lot of ways. We can talk about the psychology that goes into being a musician, that sort of inner mindset that I know you touch on. We could talk about technique and experience, but the way I use the word musicality is that point where you move from mechanics to organics. So if I’m learning a tune, I often tell my students it’s in this style of Jazz, pop and improvisation. You need to make it your own at some point and stop thinking and stop being mechanical. Let me see if I can give a little demonstration here. If suppose I learned this little “Five foot two, eyes of blue”.

Bradley: Everything is square, everything is there, everything is nice and clean, but it doesn’t … I don’t own it yet. It’s not musical, it’s accurate. It’s not musical. So maybe now I feel it. I’m bringing myself into it. So I use musicality to describe becoming what I said from mechanical to organic.

Christopher: Wonderful. Well, I definitely want to unpack some of that later in the conversation and help our listeners understand what just happened in that before and after you demonstrated.

Christopher: These days you are very well known among piano teachers in particular for helping them understand how to bring more creativity into their piano teaching, and I’d love to understand how you came to be such an expert in that area. Were you someone who grew up finding themselves easily creative on the keyboard? Were you someone who felt like a natural or got told they were talented? What did your early music education look like? 

Bradley: My music education was a requirement in my house. There were three brothers of which I’m the youngest and we all had to study piano lessons. And as it turns out, my piano teacher was the same piano teacher who taught my mother when she was a young girl. So my piano teacher was ancient and to a sensitive eight year old boys’ nose her mothball sweaters and coffee stained breath was intimidating and strange and I also used my mother’s own method books, cause she hadn’t changed to any new resources. And so had the same circles on it that she had made in corrections for her. And I asked her at one point how that this was all very nice, playing, but what about, could I write my own music? And as I recall, and sometimes memories and myths blend, I believe she said, “Why would you want to write music? All the good music’s already been written.” I said, “Well, what about just improvising my own music?” And she said, “Well, that improvisers use a lot of patterns, so we’re going to study hand exercises” and you’re learning patterns – and 20 exercises later, I’m still not improvising. And I was just discouraged. I took the logical step of deciding instead of being a dedicated musician, I became a dedicated skier.

Christopher: The obvious plan B.

Bradley: Enough of this, but at the same time during all of that, my family had Friday night jam sessions, not sort of in any regular scheduled way, but we just goofed around. There was a lot of instruments in the den and My mother and father had met my playing in a very local, not big deal, but a local big band called the Joe Hoff Orchestra who was my uncle. And so we had trombones and trumpets and my mother was a singer, but she could also play that sort of pumping piano.

Bradley: And it was around that and then my older brother went off to Indiana University to be a composition major. And when he came home that summer, he’s kind of intellectual and geeky and most of his friends were away , and he was kind of bored I think. Because he decided to teach me freshman college theory, even though I was only eight years old and then he did the second year theory the next summer.

Bradley: I guess I had this advantage of being around music a lot and having an early take on, on theory. In fact, a lot of the way I got to college was tutoring other students in music theory and even trading theory help for math help with which I’m terrible at math. I forgot the original question, but along the whole way there, nobody ever told me I was talented. 

Bradley: Nobody ever said “you have a special gift”. I’ve got short fingers. I just liked it and I just imagined that I would make my own music in spite of not liking my teacher, including those lessons. And then when I was around 12 years old and had been composing and messing around with my brothers music theory instruction, we heard a guy in a restaurant playing piano with no music. and it had a little bass and drums and piano. His name was Louis Mendez. And I went up naively and pulled on his pant leg on the path to the stage and said, “How do you do that? How can you play with no music?” And he said, all without skipping a beat, “Learn your chords kid.” And he was right. 

Bradley: Later I told my parents I wanted to get to know him and he became my teacher. I learned some jazz from him and the whole improvisation approach. And then I just think a little further, when I went to music school, I applied to several music schools and I couldn’t get in because I flunked all the sight reading exams. Because from there on out I was playing mostly by ear, looking at the chord symbols, not so much on jazz tunes, but on like Elton John Books, looking at the guitar symbols above and making my own voicings and singing and jamming and being a rock and roll loving teenager. 

Bradley: I went to a music … Very small school that didn’t have a particularly good reputation, my first of college because that’s all I could get into. My piano teacher there said, “You know what, you’re only 18 years old. You can still learn to read. It’s easier than what you do know how to do.” So I kind of did a lot of catch up on that. And now in fact, let me show you this, my whole teaching philosophy is based on the experience of wanting more teachers to not do the damage that the classical training did to me, which was inhibit creativity.

Bradley: I’m so glad I broke out of it, when I broke out of it I was never proud of it. I was ashamed of it. I kind of secretly improvised on the side and I secretly figured out songs by ear and joined a rock band and wore spandex and … all that. But I know that this is audio too, but I have this piece of paper here. This is my teaching philosophy in a nutshell is that scales here with an ear on one side and an eye on the other.

Bradley: The eye reads and the ear plays by ear. And those are in a perfect world, are equally taught and equally practiced. In fact, I would argue that every musician should do 50% of reading and 50% of off-page playing every day because they aren’t separate. They make, they join together and inform each other to develop… (you’re gonna like this!)… musicality!

Christopher: Terrific! Well I want to continue with your story in a moment, but first I want to unpack that a little bit because I had the pleasure of interviewing your partner from 88 Creative Keys, Leila Viss, a little while back, and she was telling the story of how it was an encounter with you that really unlocked the whole creative side of piano playing in piano teaching for her. And in that context, I think in a different interview, you were talking about how she and you had different musical backgrounds and for you the creative, the playing by ear had always been a part of who you are as a musician, and I think we understand now how that kind of developed over time, but it’s really interesting because I hadn’t realized it was something that developed over time. 

Christopher: It wasn’t that you were one of these kids at the age of three figuring out melodies by ear note-by-note and after that it was all just instinctive. Clearly there was a methodical learning process going on here, and I wonder if we could just pause on that particular example because I think there’s a lot bound up in it. You said something like from then on I was, playing by ear and going from the chord charts or the guitar chords and doing it that way, and I’m sure to some of our listeners and viewers, that’s clear, and they get what you’re talking about there, but if they haven’t explored this idea of improvising your own arrangement or playing from chord symbols or playing by ear is actually quite a lot in there.

Christopher: And so I wonder if we can just unpack a little bit. What do you mean – if we take that moment when you are starting to explore this stuff, you haven’t really been figuring stuff out by ear. You maybe didn’t understand chords, you hadn’t asked that guy who told you to, “learn your chords”, yet. What did the process look like if you picked up an Elton John Book or something, how did you go about that and how does that relate to being creative or playing by ear?

Bradley: Great. Well there’s another brother, the middle brother, at this time had a band called “Livin the Blues” who’s playing around local. who lived in a small steel industry town in Central Ohio and he had gigs around town and was playing around with cool saxophone players. You know what I mean? It was like those big guys, and he even plays sax and closes his eyes when he plays. “Oh that’s so cool.” And I want to do something like that. I had the typical, if you’re lucky, admiration for both of my older brothers and I just wanted to be like them because I was that little.

Bradley: “The little haymaker” was my nickname by them and I wanted to be the big guys. any way, and so it was the middle brother who actually broke down the chord symbols for me because the older brother teaching music theory, that gets pretty quickly into like counterpoint in parallel fifths and kind of hard stuff that classical music theory is kind of misses in some ways, some basic skills like, what in the heck is an E flat major seven. So my first experience with chords was actually not the Elton John Books, that followed pretty soon afterwards because he was the big name then. But I have on my piano growing up, somewhere we’d got to a great big poster of diagrams of all the normal chords on the piano. Not just triads, but seventh chords as well. 

Bradley: And I remember laboriously going through and learning to play “Misty” by Hoagy Carmichael one chord at a time. It was like this. Look at the poster. B flat minor stuff. I didn’t know what inversions where. I didn’t know how the chords went together. but I’d just imprint the chords to that tune. And in retrospect, I might have started with a little bit easier tune because it’s got some pretty strange harmonic shifts in it, although maybe not, because it’s nothing like learning a tune you want to learn to motivate. But it shows that my weird routes when everybody else was listening to Led Zeppelin, I’m trying to learn a Hoagie Carmichael tune on my own steam, since I want to. You know, it’s just a very lot of jazz playing on the Hi-Fi and a lot of music around like that.

Bradley: I don’t know if I unpacked that enough, but it just came from absolute monkey see monkey do off that diagram. And I didn’t know how to even name the notes in the chords. I didn’t know that C minor, instead of being C E flat G, I might very honestly call it C D sharp G. I didn’t understand the reason for the note names. Then started playing in rock bands and listening to the recordings that give you and then the guitar player to help you. Hey there this is A and G.

Bradley: Okay. I can do that on the organ and so I’m just holding a lot of organ wearing a bunch of rings on my fingers for some reason and playing in bowling alleys. Bowling alley lounges, with my mother being the supervisor because minors aren’t allowed. I’m playing with these hairy guys that are calling out chords and it’s all about chords. The guy was right, learn your chords kid. Does that answer?

Christopher: It does, and I’m sure we’ll talk more about the specifics of piano in due course, but I think it’s a really special case, playing by ear on piano. And is there are other instruments that may be similar, but you know if we’re talking about saxophone and learning to play by ear on saxophone, it’s very cut and dry in the mind of the saxophone player. I need to play these notes in this order. I need to figure out these notes. With piano, and to some extent guitar, you’ve got this whole world of arranging. Not just playing a melody by ear, but playing a whole arrangement, as it were, by ear, which can come from just the bare bones of a chord chart or something.

Christopher: And I think a lot of what you just said kind of takes for granted how exciting a playground that can be, compared to, “I’m on saxophone, I better play the right melody notes or I’m getting it wrong”. And I just want to pick up on that because I think for anyone in the audience who isn’t a piano player or has some explored this on piano, I think it’s worth just noting that it’s an instrument of way of playing by ear and improvising and arranging are all beautifully blended together in a way that doesn’t often happen on other instruments.

Bradley: Right. I mean even strictly reading musicians, if you push them, pianist I should say, will admit, that they won’t call the improvisation, but they might call it scuffling. When you’re in choir and you have to buy a piece. You can’t get all those notes the first time they learn to get what they can. But maybe we should demonstrate that … Let me tell you quickly, my concept of piano is that it’s an orchestra and there are layers and there are at least four layers and we have to play them with two hands. So the first from the bottom up, the first layer is the bassline, so maybe it’s a … Make a simple song, right?

Bradley: And then the next layer up the piano as you move up is this area below middle C, where chord sound the best. Those chords up high are kinda tinkly and down too low they’re kinda muddy, so they sound good down there. And then we add that to the melody, but now we’ve run out of limbs. So there are all kinds of strategies to get the bass and the chorus at the same time, such as stride or to play the melody and the chords and the same hand, something like let’s say … Now it frees up our left hand to play even a more elaborate bass. 

Bradley: And then in between there, there’re fills. That is imitating. If you have a bass player, guitar player on chords, maybe a melody player is a singer and we have got say clarinet on the fills. There’s my fill, it’s an in between thing. So you’re right, the arranging is a big part of it. but when you do that stuff, people say, “Oh, you’re so talented” And everything I just played, there was stock accomplishments. It wasn’t even … I didn’t even take it to the musicality.

Bradley: One of the things that piano players don’t learn enough and it’s not talked about enough is what drummers talk about, which is I need a basic rock beat on this. Boom, boom, boom, boom. I need a Latin beat, Dat, Dat, Dat, Dat, Dat, Dah, Dah, Dah. And that’s the same thing for piano players. There’s, stride and walking in Alberti bass and waltz and jazz waltz and just some stock patterns that once you know the chord what you do with that chord becomes part of your arrangement.

Bradley: That’s a lot of the nuts and bolts of what is learnable. If I could take this back to Leila Viss for a minute. Leila Viss works with me at 88 Creative Keys, we’re business partners in webinars and workshops for piano teachers and one of the main reasons I was drawn to working with Leila as a business partner is that her training is totally a classical and she loves pop music but never played it on the piano. And the problem I have as a teacher of teachers, a teacher of teachers. is that there is the underlying assumption that I’m from Mars.

Bradley: You’re one of those guys. You’re one of those guys that can just do that. You’re just born like that “Yeah, yeah., yeah.” And so it’s very important to me that Leila, who now is making beautiful arrangements of hymns and is very comfortable with these skills and has become on fire improviser, is the poster child for that these skills can be learned and furthermore, that can be learned as an adult. And I would argue that these skills are harder to learn. The more classical training you’ve had, the harder it is to recover and rebuild your ear. And that’s not to trash classical music.

Bradley: It’s classical music training is very in depth and very helpful and certainly I benefit from it and I still practice it, but it’s just not complete. It’s all about the eye and you can’t learn to play by ear by reading little black dots. It has to be a combination of reading, closing your eyes and sometimes not reading at all. So that was kind of long-winded but yeah.

Christopher: It was beautiful. Sometimes on the show there are moments where I immediately think “I wish I could travel back in time and just show that two minutes to my younger self, because it could completely change my trajectory”. For me, I studied piano for five or 10 years without any of this stuff and I had to come back to it in my twenties and started kind of piecing together what you just explained in terms of the layers, in terms of relying on patterns, not just making up each and every note.

Christopher: And what had been completely intimidating, like could I sit down and play a whole bunch of notes at once by ear or improvise, couldn’t have done it when I was younger, despite tons of lessons, tons of load reading and this new perspective, I began to explore that and began to understand and with the ear training I began to actually be able to do it. And I love that you shared that and I’m sure we’ve got a lot of people in the audience for whom light bulbs are going off and they’re like, “Oh, that’s how it works.” That’s how somebody could just sit down at a piano and play this kind of thing. And particularly the idea of patterns and that you have a vocabulary or a toolkit that you’re bringing to bear. It’s not, I must decide each and every note of this arrangement that once.

Bradley: Correct. You have to have a certain amount of things you can plug in that are muscle memory or at least mental memory and so only when that’s all secure, can then start improvising over top of things that are being made in the moment. All of this, as you mentioned, the saxophone player is … They have their own huge issues, such as tone production, that piano players don’t have. Cause you can play the piano with a pencil. but still weren’t dealing with one note at a time. We have both the luxury and the misery of having a lot to do. But really had nobody pays money to go hear a solo saxophone player on a gig. I mean it’s the ability to simulate a band that makes the piano lovely to listen to it by itself.

Christopher: I think we’ve talked a little bit there about playing by ear and improvising an arrangement. I do want to definitely focus on improvisation in its own right because that’s obviously a core specialty of yours. But let’s return if we may to your story and where you took things from there. You are beginning to understand how to play from chord charts or play a bit more by ear. You were discovering this world of jazz. What happened next in your own story?

Bradley: Okay. That’s, I’m about in high school and I was moving into that kind of music, which combines jazz and rock and my heroes were like Chick Corea, and on the jazz side, and people like Emerson Lake and Palmer and the band Yes on the rock side. This sort of art rock. Because of growing around a lot of jazz in the house. And let me mention there was a heck of a lot of classical music playing in the house too. There was just a lot of music going on. And my mother singing all the time in the car.

Bradley: As I matured, I wanted more sophisticated music to listen to. It didn’t interest me, on a musical basis, to listen to pop songs. Although it did interest me on a cultural basis. I wanted to know the same tunes my friends liked and things like that. So I got the difference because I was listening for pleasure. I wanted to hear a sophisticated music and then electric instruments, had come out. And around that time I had a very bad broken leg from a ski accident because I was getting into trick skiing and jumping and stuff. I did a back flip and landed poorly and I spent about 18-

Christopher: I have to ask at this point, were you assuming skiing would be your career and music would be the hobby or vice versa.

Bradley: For sure, yeah. When you’re a teenager, you can’t decide whether you’d like to be a skier, drive race cars or swim with dolphins for a living. It’s all very practical at that age, right? My mother wisely bought me an electric Fender Rhodes piano and it showed up in our den and I’ve got really involved with that and got excited about electric instruments and being like my heroes.

And around the same time, the jazz band in my high school, had just had particularly terrific crop of kids that at that time. And we began to win jazz band competitions. The band director asked if I’d be interested in improvising an intro to “La Fiesta”, a Chick Corea standard. And so I did that and began to get attention for that because the piano players tend to get sort of rolled over like a tractor on dead corn in a big band. Five saxophones, four trumpets and trombones, it’s hard. The Piano player can be totally rolled over. 

Bradley: It was neat that I had all this space up front. And so I got a probably a little bit more confidence than I should have had. I got a little cocky about that and I decided since I couldn’t walk very well for a while and I would, frankly just between you and me, I was not good at sports. I can’t catch to this day, because I have some eye troubles. It was very embarrassing for young man to just be terrible at ball sports. Although I enjoy track and soccer I could do.

The point is you’re looking for at that age some identity. You’re looking for something to be proud about and something to wow you’re friends with. And it seemed like music, it was going to be that for me. That takes me up through high school. You want to hear the whole bio?

Christopher: I want to hear the big turning point because I think that paints a really vivid picture of where you’re coming from. But I know that at some point you must have doubled down on jazz or really gone deep there. And I know you had an interesting kind of career. A serious performing career before you really went into education in earnest. I wonder if you could explain how those things happened.

Bradley: Okay, sure. When I went to college after my first year and where it got my reading together and everything, I decided to go to a larger school. I went to Ohio State University, which at the time was the largest school in the world. It’s definitely, it’s 60 000 students, and it was a nice chance for me to rethink who I wanted to be, because you didn’t see the same face every day.

I became a composition major. And it was again stuck. It was again a 19th century approach to music. I was being forced to write fugues and then on the one hand and to be more modern I was forced to write 12 tone music or bump squeak music, and I had no time for that. I had played too many gigs by then to understand that people wanted to, I wanted to relate to listeners. I didn’t want to push for the envelope of the history of music. I want to play for people. So around that time I wandered over to the dance department and took a dance course, a modern dance class and just to see what that was all about.

Bradley: And there was a very lovely teacher there and a piano player and the teacher is now my wife. I met her there and although it was a long trajectory till we hooked up, but that was the beginning of it. But I noticed the piano player was playing on the side there again with no music and that the dancers needed the music too to swoop and play. they’re doing a waltz and they needed like not just … they would jump that like the music mattered. 

Bradley: And I went straight to the head of that department and said, “I need to be a dance accompanist as soon as possible.” And that saved me from the tedium of music school, because it music mattered there. Around the same time I joined the traveling a rock band and so I was playing dance classes in between classes, studying music and on the weekends playing a lot of rock and roll. And eventually I just actually literally physically dropped. I had big backaches and troubles in and went and got my kidneys checked, all that. And the doctor said, “Son, you’re burning the candle at both ends. You got to cut something.” I cut the rock band. But the dance thing went on for years and years. 

Bradley: I moved to New York City after college and I brought all my little compositions in my box I’ve written a lot of music. I wanted to be Aaron Copeland. I have a letter from him on the wall over here. And he was my hero. But I had settled for Leonard Bernstein and I thought that there was a job occupation called American composer. But it wasn’t evident. I had a skyrocketing plummet to obscurity in New York City. But I continued to play for dance classes for years there and a dance class in a ballet class, they often ask for the music of when the ballet was the popular art form, stuff like this, a lot of Chopin or Strauss and so on. But in a modern dance class, they’re just as well as saying, kind of like peanut butter music. And it’s sort of like you, and then you watch the move and you think…

Bradley: Yeah, I like that. Later on now we’re going to do some quick footwork. You just need to come up with it right there and you need to make it square in terms of little phrase lengths so it fit the dance. I did that for at least four hours a day for eight years. It’s how I made my living in New York City and then I’m playing jazz on the weekends at weddings and stuff like that. So just to keep going. We moved to Belgium because my wife was a performing concert dancer, and she was in residence at the Tiatros Dolla Mone, which is the opera company and in Brussels. And I had taken a three week course in French and it wasn’t very successful and I couldn’t speak very well. And so I started doing some gigs as American pianist that, that knew something about jazz. 

Bradley: And people started really listening and asking questions because Europeans tend to value jazz as an import more than Americans where it’s indigenous. And they would say, that’s very nice what you played, but could you please play some Thelonious Monk. And they’re asking for sophisticated, very aficionado type tunes. And I thought, “Oh my gosh, these people are listening, it matters.” So I didn’t have anything to do all day because I didn’t actually have papers to work. I had to just get paid cash and so on. I just spent a whole year of practicing.

Bradley: That was the year I turned it around. I practiced all day long and go out to the fish market. That’s the market, bring home dinner and practice again because she was buried in rehearsals. That was I think at one point in your life to be a professional musician, I think the trajectory goes like this. The best first teacher you can have is almost like a childhood TV show. Isn’t music nice. Look at this. Doesn’t this sound great to have you fall in love.

Bradley: The next teacher you need has a little bit higher expectations and shows you the ropes and was able to actually give you the skills you need. And the last teacher you need is either to be scared out of your pants or have a complete tyrant who, forces you to do the necessary hard work to take it to a professional level. And I have a theory that if any of those teachers are out of order, people quit because they get the tyrant early on, it’ll just break you. And if you’re desperate to learn more and get better at some point that the nice sweetie is not going to give you what you need to take it to a high level.

Bradley: That’s kind of my story. Then I moved back to Columbus, Ohio for the dogs and babies phase where I am now. And for the next 30 years made a living as a concert artists and gigging artists. Do you want me to talk about that? I feel like I’m talking a lot.

Christopher: No. Well let’s pick up in a moment, but just to say I love that model of thinking about the teachers you need to become a serious musician or a professional musician. And those sound like two really transformative phases of your life. I was reminded when you were describing the dance classes of this amazing show I went to Canada once where it was improv comedy, but it was musical improv comedy and I was at a very impressionable age where I had no concept of how someone could improvise singing, let alone improvise an accompaniment for the singers who were improvising singing. And now looking back, I can kind of understand as you’ve been explaining to some extent how that is possible and particularly, like collaboratively, that just blew my mind.

Christopher: But I remember thinking at the time, I did at least understand, that is hardcore. Like for that guy to do a show every day and have to respond on the fly to what’s happening in a way that resonates with the audience because it’s familiar enough that they get like the joke being made. I could see how intense that would be to change you as a musician. 

Bradley: And he had to do it whether he was in a good mood or not. That’s the other thing about being a pro. Every once in a while, some of my students will say, “I don’t really like this style or I don’t want to learn that tune.” And it’s kind of, “Oh, 80% of the music that I played as a pro performer was picked by someone else.” I didn’t even think of it that way. This is what the set list is. So it’s … I don’t know where I was going with that. But-

Christopher: It sounds like you’ve had a genuine love of jazz. You’re describing it as kind of having to respond to the demand in terms of playing Thelonious Monk rather than Gershwin or whatever you might be instinctively wanting to play as an American aspiring composer. But, tell me a little bit about how you were thinking came out of jazz at that stage, because I know that today if someone walks up to they’re going to see jazz for the rest of us alongside your photo. What did jazz mean to you? Then maybe you could also share what it means to you now if that’s changed.

Bradley: Jamie Aebersold is a wonderful jazz teacher in Louisville, Kentucky here. I went to his camp and he said, Jazz is the freest music you will ever play. And that’s what resonated with me. I heard that and thought, “Yeah, that’s what I’m drawn to.”  Because even though I’d grown up around it and heard a lot, of course most people come, they work backwards in their musical tastes. So they start with whatever’s current and then find out who influenced them and then who influenced them. And the further you go back, you find that there really is nothing new under the sun. It’s just twists on old ideas. And what drove me to it was actually not first the sound, but the approach. So while I’ve come to love swing music and I adore the Brazilian streak in jazz and I still love jazz rock. 

Bradley: It was the idea that you are not only allowed to, but expected, to personalize every moment of your playing. And that just thrilled me. I’m a kind of person that loves to make things when I’m not playing the piano, I’m in my wood shop. Nothing makes me more happy than being in the zone and creating something. And here’s a way that I can do this with music. So to this day, I still describe jazz as an approach, not a style. And that approach involves already knowing that harmony, already knowing the structure and imposing your own ideas on to the top of that. Yes, it’s possible to be free improvisation when you just play whatever comes to mind. But most of the time there’s a structure. So jazz is any kind of music where people are able to leave the moment, close their eyes and improvise. 

Bradley: Let’s look at that. That could involve a hot band, just solo in a bluegrass band. I would say that’s jazz. It could evolve an older style if anybody would still have the guts to do it. Concerto player in a classical orchestra setting who actually does not rehearse the cadenza. The big point right before the end of the concerto where they show off. Over the years that’s been codified and people, I’ve learned it and written it down, but the original intent was that the musician made it all up and show what they could do. 

Bradley: If it’s a hard rock band and the guitar players suddenly in the spotlight in his eyes are closed and he’s wailing away on a beautiful blues lick, that’s Jazz. In other words, when we talk about classical and jazz, we may as well be saying in my book, written and precise and versus deliberately vague to leave room for your own musical input. That’s how I see it.

Christopher: That’s beautiful and really valuable. I think we get so caught up in the way culturally we think about genres and classical is one genre at that means it sounds a bit like this and these are the instruments used in jazz this up the genre and it sounds like this. But I love that perspective that actually is much more about how you approach the music and how you express yourself. And maybe year versus I think that it is about, are you playing seventh chords and blues pentatonic when it comes to the solo.

Bradley: Right. I mean you could play Bach in a jazz approach. You could play. Actually a year ago I taught a course on the Beatles. Beatles on jazz piano so it was, rethinking those pop songs in a jazzy way. There’s also jazz has the vocabulary you just mentioned a lot of seventh chords and ninths and 13th those wonderful … This is great chords and so there’s just a real rich sauce and the normal vocabulary but jazz musician, that is exciting. That’s it.

Christopher: Sorry, maybe a redundant question at this point having just heard that, but were you thinking at that stage and do you think now that jazz is kind of an advanced level of skill or an advanced way of playing music? Because I know a lot of listeners in our audience probably have the same worldview that I did in the past, which is, this kind of classical and rock and then blues is this slightly more advanced creative thing. And then beyond that as jazz. And there were definitely some method books to blame for me having that worldview in terms of basic, intermediate and advanced and mapping that somehow to the genres or the styles. But I imagine your answer is no to both of those questions. 

Bradley: Right. I wrote the best selling jazz piano method in the world. Is it because it’s brilliantly written? I don’t think so. Is it cause it has cool illustrations? No, the reason it’s popular is that it starts simple. It starts easy. It’s called That’s Jazz to nine books series and it’s because I’m a firm believer in if you begin improvising and playing by ear alongside reading early then it is no big deal. And if the teacher doesn’t show their cards and say, now I know this is going to be really scary for you as it is for me because I hate to improvise but we’re going to try this today. You know can steal it. In fact, I use improvisation when I was teaching kids as at the end of the lesson as a reward, “Ah, you played that” You played that so well and I’m going to let you improvise.

Bradley: “Oh really? What are we going to do?” It was a treat. And it builds it actually, it goes back and forth and builds expression when you are playing written music and so on. But the reason historically that jazz is regarded as difficult is that the first jazz educators we’re teaching in a university environment and in a university environment, in order to get tenure, you have to be complex and use hard words that the review committee doesn’t understand kind of joking there.

Bradley: But it’s not uncommon for a jazz text to say something like on page one, in Jazz we use modes. There are seven modes. Here they are, learn them in all keys. Okay, I’ll see you in a year. Geez and that’s not necessary. Improvisation doesn’t even begin with crazy scale records. It begins with simple personalization of a melody. Simple embellishments, phrasing little things that makes the music your own music. Some people are doing it already, and not even knowing it. And they get their hand slapped by overly zealous precise teacher. You can tell I have a chip on my shoulder about that. And then it squashes that creativity. There’s a place for being accurate and there’s a place for being perfect, but it can’t be your whole education or your suffer. 

Bradley: Because I spend half my time putting balm on the burnt wings of recovering classical musicians who are terrified of wrong notes and it’s just not necessary. Music is a blast. And do I play wrong notes all the time? The first thing I say at a concert before I sit down, I sit down and I look at my hand and I say, “I don’t know a lot of people out there, but I have 88 friends in front of me on these keys.”

Bradley: And the second thing I say is, “I’m going to make a lot of mistakes tonight.” I’m going to have a lot of unintended notes. But I know that I have a vast skill-set would allow me to navigate those who keep the music rolling. I just acknowledge it’s like you may as well get a new car and put a scratch in it and stop worrying about it. It’s the same mentality. Yes, of course I’m going to make mistakes. And we’re going to have a blast. In another way to say it is, I think that the jazz approach starts at … Let’s do it this way. 

Bradley: A classical approach starts at perfect and then you take the demerits, of everything you do wrong. And a jazz approach says that right is music doesn’t exist at all in anything that I do is good thing and the causes of music to happen. So I keep earning points by all this stuff that worked out rather than keeping track of the stuff that maybe didn’t come out like I thought. And just to go further with that, half the stuff you play that was terrible, was actually kind of cool. So even though you didn’t mean to play it, if I do this … So was that really sophisticated and neat or wrong? You don’t know. So you go with it. Okay. Maybe he meant that anyway.

Christopher: Love it. Well, I know that there’s a lot of people, in our audience right now feeling a new enthusiasm and passion for the possibility that jazz might be accessible to them and improv might be accessible to them. I’m going to ask you for some practical pointers on both of those things, but I’m going to leave people dangling for a moment because I do want to finish the last stage of your story. If we may, you clearly have strong feelings about the way music is taught and you’ve moved more and more into education, educating piano teachers, teaching students directly online. Tell us a little bit about that phase of things for you and how you took that trajectory. 

Bradley: Okay, yeah. I have a little like in the movie that they make up my life and put in all the museums, they’re going just totally teasing there. There’s going to be a scene called epiphany on Rich Street. The epiphany on Rich Street happened when I reached a point in my career where I was playing more and more concerts. But at the same time, in order to feed my children, I was also playing, cheesy little, society gigs. Maybe you’re the man behind the FICA tree at a corporate bank meeting for their Christmas party or can you just give us a little music here to warm up that provides social lubricant as the party gets going and just racing around doing all these, working blue collar musician gigs that you need to fill in the blanks. 

Bradley: And at the same time I’m doing concerts. So there literally was a night where I played, a Friday night concert, I think in Cleveland. Took vows, sold CDs and signed autographs for 45 minutes, drove home in the next night I went to a house or some kind of party in the … I came to the front door and my Tuxedo with my gear and the woman said, “Oh, you’re a musician. You can’t come in the front door, go around. Back. We don’t let musicians in the front door.” And that was an extreme example, but it began to feel a weird pull between … On the one hand, people actually paying money to hear me do my thing. And on the other hand, being completely ignored on my daily bread gigs as when the music was … I could’ve just sat there and wiggled my hands and played a recording, who cared?

Bradley: And so I hit this point where an awful thing happened where I started not caring how I sounded. And the good side of that was I would give myself challenges to stay awake. Let me see if I can play the melody, my left hand for a change in the chords in my right. I wonder if I could play this. Let me change keys every eight measures. I would do my things like that. But even that got old and I just got literally teary or anxious so I got to where I reached a point where I’d rather flip hamburgers then trash my art form. And I played at a bank party and I brought my rig and it was snowing on Rich Street and I got chewed out by the doorman for coming in the wrong door again with a big case.

Bradley: I set it up. There was a barbershop quartet there who had no singers when we’re out of tune. They insulted me and said, you know how they had to practice and not just roll into gigs and did I practice? Then I was introduced by the wrong name and I just sat behind this ficus tree and my piano thinking this is the last gig I’m ever going to play. I hate this. And I walked out with my rig on like little rig is a big, like a wagon with my big keyboard on an amplifier and all that. And I went across the street, it’s snowing like crazy. And the little wheels in the front went in a pothole and my everything dumped in the street and my keyboard case opened and a microphone rolled out in the snow. And I’m standing there in a Tuxedo in the snow.  And then the light changed and the car started beeping at me. I thought, I’m not going to be a musician anymore. I am done. Literally, that was it. I don’t care what I do and so for about six months, I didn’t play anywhere. And then a guy asked me if I would be interested in playing a jazz worship service and I played in it and I said, “Yeah, put that together” And that people were into it. And I thought, “Wow, here’s one place that people listen is in churches.” 

Bradley: I did a lot of church playing and then I put a sign up down the street and said, jazz piano lessons and my phone number. And then started to build a studio there and maybe I’m going on too long, but let’s see that I eventually couldn’t find books for my students, so I wrote my own and then eventually I sent into a publisher and said, “What do you think of these?”. And they said, “The tunes are great write down how you teach. Write the teaching part too.” And then when you’re published, you get more attention. And then the next thing you know, you’re speaking at conferences and getting asked to do musicality podcasts. And that’s been my route.

Bradley: I still perform and I still play music live all the time. A lot of it is in a jam sessions and just playing with friends and I like to play Irish music and jazz with friends. And I still do maybe 10 performances a year. I played with this professional concert with a string quartet just a week ago. But I don’t rely on that anymore. And that pressure’s off looking for gigs and being ignored and traveling and being alone and lonely on the road. And instead I get to help change people’s musical lives in that and I love it. I’m all in. It’s not something I do wishing I was still out on a stage somewhere. This is what I like doing now.

Christopher: Tremendous. And the world of music education in piano teaching in particular is much richer for that epiphany on Rich Street having happened. No doubt. I know that our audience are hungry for the practicalities, the nitty gritty. We’ve got them excited about Improv and a new perspective on jazz and whether they play piano or not. I know there are some who are like, “But what do I do?” Like what can I try it today or tomorrow? What can I do to explore this? And I wonder if you’d be willing to share. You’ve had such experience teaching. I know you’ll have a real appreciation of both the kind of mental blocks or barriers people might have around improvising or indeed jazz and maybe also some of the exercises or techniques or strategies that can help them get a handle on it and get going.

Bradley: Yeah, I can do that. I have a couple of general ways to get started. The first thing I would just say is what we talked about learn your chords. It doesn’t matter if you’re a piano player, not the chords opened the door to so much. You can’t hesitate and sometimes people say, “well, I know my chords, the D chord, let’s see that’s D….. uh..” That’s not knowing your chords. It has to be instant. It can’t be any hesitation and that is a big obstacle, but it opens up so much.

Bradley: Second thing is, do not underestimate the importance of a steady beat. A few minutes ago I demonstrated some deliberately off notes on “Mary Had A Little Lamb”. But the reason you accepted it was because I kept the groove happening. You can get away with murder as a musician if the beat is steady. And so what do we all do? We, make a mistake, we stop and fix it, we pause, we go back and we work and we fix it. And then what we’re actually doing is burning in the pauses and having no group. You can literally play garbage. And if you had a steady beat. All of that was nonsense. But you sort of accepted most of it. 

Bradley: All that stuff and fix it. It’s right notes with no rhythm is not music. If the beat is not steady, the piece is not ready. So those two are general comments. But in order to personalize music, the process is to go ahead and use some cerebral devices to know your have techniques, which you think about and are deliberate sought of in a sense you’re imitating. And then after a while they become your own and they come up by themselves. In other words, intuition doesn’t just happen. You first have to feed in ideas. And they’re specific ideas and you can name them. Maybe I can show you a couple of embellishments that can be used on any tune. They’re generic, they’re devices, they’re tools you can plug in. So does that sound good?

Christopher: Perfect. 

Bradley: Okay. So let’s say we’re going to play, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Without any patterns or anything. And we want to go through a nice process where we decide what left hand pattern we want or what kind of accompaniment we want in there, what kind of backing track we’re going to put on our automated drum machine. We might want to go through that. But right now let’s just look at that melody and there’re three ways that work on any melody to dress that up a little bit, and one of them, the easiest of all is simply to repeat some of the notes.

Bradley: It seems simple but, I got a little bit of that jazz feel going there. So by repeating notes, there’s other things that come with it sort of instinctively like their notes tend to move a little bit to make room for the repeated notes. There might be some rest. Other things actually happen if you keep that steady beat. Another real simple, one of the three is neighbor notes. If you live on a hill as I do and you go up the hill to borrow some sugar for your baking project because you are out of sugar and you come right back, that’s a neighbor note. 

Bradley: If I have a G then I go up to A to borrow my sugar and thanks for that and come home. I played an upper neighbor and then I get down to my baking project and I realized I have no flour, I’m not going to ask twice to the same uphill neighbors. So I goes downhill neighbor and borrow some flour. So the definition of a neighbor note is it always comes back and it can be as quick or slow. He would be an example of of a quick neighbor note. 

Bradley: Quite classical sounding. You could also draw that out. I put both upper neighbors and lower neighbors on there. It’s just in a way in back. And the what note do I go to? It doesn’t matter. As long as you get back to the note, it’s a target note. You can play any note you like and, maybe it’s a half step. Maybe it’s a whole step it. But what if it’s in the key? Just do it. It doesn’t sound good, then change it. The last one I call fill notes and there sometimes they are referred to as passing tones, although I think of them a little bit differently.

Bradley: When the music has a gap in the middle of the a large space or large interval, you have the opportunity to fill that in and twinkle twinkle. And the third note of that has just a point right there, It does. We have the first note of the scale and the third notice the fifth note scale, one, two, three, four, five, right? So you can simply feel that in. Again, what notes do I use? Try things and you can get as interesting as you like. But if we combine those all three now that’s kind of a simple base here. You get the idea. Improvisation in my mind begins with customizing known melodies, working with something that’s already familiar but making it your own.

Christopher: Love it. That’s such an elegant way into improvisation in terms of demystifying it. And I guess removing the intimidation factor a lot because you could have that known starting point and you’re just taking little diversions away from it rather than looking at the blank canvas and panicking because all 12 notes are possible at any given time.

Bradley: Right? Right. And then the other thing about knowing your chords is, if I tell you what terrifies me is eight measures of the same chord. When you actually just get through the chords on a busy song, it takes care of you. There’s a lot going on in there already earlier I did this. We just like running those chords, all chord tones, all notes in the chord.

Now that gives me, an obstacle course, like a skier going down the hill around the gates. Those become chord points where I have to deal with them and that is sort of the next step after embellishing is acknowledging the chords that are there in your playing. But yeah, I can’t teach it all in today.

Christopher: Absolutely. Well, on that front, I’d love if you could share a bit about how you are teaching these days. Obviously you have, I think at least a couple of very popular series of method books that can be used by students, but you’re also doing a lot online and in particular that you’re doing online group piano lessons. Tell us a little bit about that. 

Bradley: Okay. Just to touch on their books. I just saw yesterday, somebody said, I see this all the time. You can’t learn jazz from a book. It’s one of those myths that are out there. And the reason I find that funny is every professional jazz musician who I’ve ever met, and I’ve rehearsed in a lot of basements with getting ready for gigs, has a vast collection of jazz books. So it absolutely use your ear, but you also… There’s nothing wrong with book learning combined with listening. But yeah, what I’m doing now, I was teaching in this very room one on one for many years and I can brag some of my students, I have a student who went to Julliard and various award-winning and things like that.

Bradley: I know that I know how to turn out pro musicians. But that’s not everybody’s goal. And I got too busy. I just had too much going on I came back to Leila Viss, she said, “Why don’t you get into teaching group lessons?” And then I’ll call Debra Perez, um, who’s down in Florida. And she came as a guest to 88 creative keys summer workshop. And she’s a big advocate of group teaching. And I was a little bit nervous about that, because I really hadn’t done it but I thought, well, I present all over the country as a speaker, I’m comfortable in front of people. Why couldn’t I do this here? So I began to teach teenagers four at a time and it worked out really well. So because if I have literally off camera who you are four pianos over here and they could do what I broke down earlier.

Bradley: I can say, “You play the bass, you play the chords, you play the melody and you do the fills and embellishments.” And then we would switch that so everybody could isolate those skills with a goal towards eventually playing them all themselves. And just really worked well. Plus there’s a subtle competition, if they weren’t prepared to kind of look more embarrassing in front of their buddies. And I eventually phase out all in individual lessons and only offered group lessons. And then I started doing webinars, with 88 creative keys and Leila again said, “Why don’t you teach your lessons online?

Bradley: Today I exclusively teach online live group jazz piano classes, and they are very valuable compared to bouncing around YouTube, looking at a tip here in a tip there because their sequence and well organized and because the participants get to know each other in our private forum group where they share practice videos and give each other support. And I have a detailed resources and handouts and backing tracks will become almost like a college course where you have the lecture, that’s the class, you have a lab, which is what the private group’s all about, putting in practice videos out there, getting the individual feedback. 

And you get the textbook with all the resources and the backing tracks are very, very important to have to practice with a backing track. I just love doing it. Every time one of those ends I’ve just grinning and we have so much fun. I’m never going to go back. It’s where it’s at. 

Christopher: It’s super cool. It’s definitely another kind of time travel moment for me where like I wish I could go back and signed myself up for that because that’s exactly what I would’ve wanted to have someone like yourself actually explain how all of these mysterious things worked in a practical way on the keyboard with all these amazing resources. You’ve mentioned several resources, they’re like backing tracks and the textbook and so on. In the moment for the lesson itself, it’s presumably not four students each playing a layer in sync with each other. What’s the actual group lesson like as it were?

Bradley: There are both students onscreen and some prefer to lurk or just watch only and that is actually evidence that there have had their wings burnt. Um, as a lot of people have performance anxiety and a lot of my teaching is psychological as well as practical just to help people become in touch with the joy of music making again. And so I highly encourage on camera participation and yet don’t force anyone. How does it look? I always start with technique and we just do the scale that day, which would be the same key as the song. And it may not be a normal major scale, it might be like a blue scale or jazz scale.

Bradley: And then I’ll say we have some worksheets and things like that. I’ll say, “Okay, Christopher, can you hold up to the screen the worksheet where we wrote down the chords of this song.” And then “Kathy could you play those? And we can hear each other and see each other, and then we’ll review a tune and somebody will feature it. They’re sharing where they are on it so they get, maybe they’ve got the beginning of it, but they’re having trouble in the bridge. So it’s a more of a lab thing they aren’t perfecting it. 

Bradley: I seen you don’t have trouble right here. Can you explain again how to walk the bass here? When the time comes where everybody’s reasonably competent on a tune, I introduced the new tune a bit by bit and showed to them both by rote and I give something called prep sheets where I highlight target notes, the main notes and a tune the backbone of a tune as a way to memorize it. 

Bradley: So yeah, it’s kind of like that. We usually end up something fun and there’s a lot of laughs and good times. I mean it’s a ball. It goes by like a flash. We have a great time. And then every day on, it’s, this particular group right at the moment is on Facebook. That’s where my private group is. Every day there’s buzzing activity there about, “Hey, what do you think of this a new way that I figured out to play Summertime,” I found this neat chord. “Oh that’s neat. Show it to me.” So they’d becomes a community involvement, which kind of substitutes for the physical distance in between. 

Christopher: Got you. Well, we talk fairly often on this show about the current landscape of online music education and like how difficult it can be for an adult beginner self taught or aspiring to teach themselves to figure out what’s worth pursuing and what’s worth trying and what will help them versus just confuse them. And it can be really challenging. But at the same time, my hopes are lifted by initiatives like this that you’re putting together where it just creates this whole new opportunity for learning in a really exciting way.

Christopher: And like I say, it’s the kind of thing where I think, Wow, if I could travel back and give myself that, it would just change everything. And so I’m so excited to have people like yourself innovating in that way and doing such cool things in online music education because yeah, it’s so empowering for people around the world. It’s fantastic. 

Bradley: One of the things that people are concerned about is there’s always a variety of levels and that’s part of the art of teaching in a group. And listeners might be interested in knowing how to get around that. For every tune I offer multiple options. Here’s an easy accompaniment style. Here’s the more difficult one. For those of you who have a lot of jazz, here’s a neat scale you can try. 

Bradley: There’s always several ways to get at it. And it’s a little like the one room schoolhouse, that my mother talked about going to where there’s all the grades in the same room and then there’s mentorship going on. Because as a teacher I try to move that kid just far enough ahead that it’s attainable for each student, but is still challenging. And that’s the problem with people keep saying, “Why don’t you just prerecord a bunch of videos?”

Bradley: And the reason is because I like teaching people. I know after a while how you learn and what you need, and I listened to those comments carefully and watch the the group and actually structured lesson plan upon how it’s being received and what the progress is like. So it’s not like this preset course that I just opened up in here. Now we do page five. I believe the best teaching happens through personal relationships and that’s, achievable online.

Christopher: Terrific. Well, one of the big challenges for me doing this podcast and doing interviews like this, is that it can be really hard to not just fanboy out and be super effusive all the time about the amazing people I get to interview and particularly with someone like yourself who I have admired from afar and have such respect for – I’ve completely failed at that today.

Christopher: And I apologize to our listeners if they’re like “We get it Christopher, you wish you could go back in time and give yourself Bradley Sowash, we understand.” But I know the point is hitting home if anyone in the audience does want to explore jazz. Explore Improv is a piano player, wants to be a piano player, checkout we’ll have a link in the show notes and I hope whatever instrument you play, whatever style of music you like, you found this conversation inspiring and giving you some new ideas and enthusiasm for pursuing your own creativity and music learning. Bradley, thank you so much for joining us on the show today. It’s been a real honor.

Bradley: It’s been an honor for me to, and it’s lovely to get to know you better, Christopher.

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