I went to two concerts by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra this weekend. They both featured the symphony playing jazz music with professional jazz musicians. It was interesting to hear the symphony playing jazz style. No offence to any of the symphony musicians, who are all phenomenal, but it seemed like some of them struggled more than others to play in such a different genre of music. Well, it turns out that they probably did.
Bianco et al (2018) conducted a study with jazz and classical pianists to see if there were differences in how each group processes and responds to different musical situations. Both groups need to know what they are going to play and how they are going to play it, but classical pianists focused on the how and were therefore able to play more accurately even when faced with unusual fingering patterns. Jazz pianists, on the other hand, what they were going to play and were therefore able to adapt to unexpected cords within standard chord progressions more quickly.
This makes sense when you think about what types of playing each group is asked to do regularly. Classical pianists are playing the notes on the page and adding personal interpretation, but jazz pianists are guided by what is one the page and those who might be playing with them, and are often asked to improvise.
Now don’t get me wrong, the ESO did an excellent job, but it was some of the comments afterwards that got me thinking. PJ Perry, a master jazz saxophonist talked about the flexibility of the orchestra that has been developed through many years of pushing themselves, and being pushed by pianist Tommy Banks, with a very varied repertoire. And Dr. Allan Gilliland (the composer of one of the pieces) talked about the differences in writing for PJ Perry compared to writing for some of the orchestral musicians that he has written for in the past.
The next question to me is are these differences innate or can they be learned, and if learned are they as effective/efficient as someone who might be more innate?