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It’s hard to decide what is most important for fluency on piano and in music, but I will try to boil it down to a few things.
Especially when it comes to improvised music and jazz, I think the most important factors are going to be technical proficiency / chops, theoretical understanding of music, and time spent listening to and internalizing the musical vocabulary that resonates with you most.
Chops are guaranteed to come with time through focused and appropriate practice. As many hours as you can put into drilling scales, chords, and patterns in 12 keys slowly to a metronome and working up to progressively higher tempos will pay off eventually. The greater your technical proficiency is on the instrument, the more things you will be able to say in your playing.
Theory and understanding of music on a harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic level can (and I think should) be learned both academically / away from your instrument and aurally / with your instrument. Knowing what a ii-V-I progression is is a fundamental aspect of navigating jazz music. Understanding how, why, and when to use a V7b913 chord instead of a V7sus on a theoretical level will help you communicate your musical ideas and more tastefully express yourself. Understanding that difference is important both academically and aurally. Being able to spell out a V7b913 chord on paper is important for communicating your ideas with other musicians, while being able to hear the b9 and 13 and register them as emotional manipulations of the cadence is vital to how you choose to express yourself in the moment.
Listening and internalizing music and musical vocabulary that resonates with you is the third and most important step in the process. If you choose to focus solely on any one of these aspects, this should be the one you choose. Actively listening to the music that speaks to you most will be more beneficial than anything else. If you master your instrument on a technical level but fail to listen and internalize the musical vocabulary that resonates with you most, you will be able to say a great many things on your instrument but you will not be able to really communicate anything personally meaningful or expressive. Listen to recordings you love and attempt to recreate them on your instrument.
The process of developing musical vocabulary follows the steps of listening, imitating, internalizing, and then innovating. You don’t have to accurately transcribe every note exactly as it is played in your favorite recordings, but you should steal every line, chord voicing, progression, melody, and articulation you can. Once you can recreate them, they will become assimilated into your subconscious bank of musical vocabulary and will start to come out in new and original ways through your improvisation.
Beyond of all of that though, I truly believe that playing music authentically is a way of life and means of self expression that transcends what I discussed above. Regardless of your technical proficiency, theoretical understanding, or musical vocabulary, the process of learning, playing, and appreciating music can be an infinitely deep well of joy, gratitude, and self development. Loving and appreciating the things you play and the time you spend playing music does not require any specific level of skill. The act of playing at all within the pursuit of honest self-expression is valuable, and it can be the most challenging part of being a musician regardless of your ability, experience, or style. The goal should always be to love what you are playing, to express yourself creatively, and to learn for the sake of deepening your ability to do both of those things. There is no end game or ultimate level of skill, understanding, or fluency that will guarantee that playing piano is a joyous and meaningful experience. There is also no level of skill or understanding so low that you are unable to have a joyous and meaningful experience playing music. Playing music always has the inherent potential for meaningful self-expression.
The mechanical, academic, and social aspects of playing music are not always intrinsically fun or meaningful though. Drilling scales to a metronome, studying music theory, and trying to prepare for a performance can be draining and stressful both physically and emotionally. That is why I think it is vital to understand that while these things will make you a more proficient, capable, and expressive musician, they are not why we pla…
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