This is a bit hard to remember now. It's been 7.5 years since I started. But I recall how daunting it was to know NOTHING. How do you even start?
I remember my first frustration was the lack of hand independence. So I figured that the way to solve this was hours upon hours of scale practice HT. HS first to get the pattern, then putting it together. In retrospect, I may have overdone this. I easily did 3-4 hours of scales a day the first few months.
But the secondary benefit of scales was understanding theory. I understood a little bit of the diatonic cycle of fifths (degrees of the scale) and worked out on paper all the relationships between each scale and chords. This was my first intro into theory. I started seeing mathematical connections between scales and it really helped me see some of the logic that exists in music.
Since the ii-V-I was the most fundamental concept in playing jazz, I figured I would just stick to one tune as a Pedagogic device and learn how to improvise on that. So just like I did in the Jazz Thread on Pianoworld, I played Autumn Leaves constantly since it's a major ii-V-I and a relative minor ii-V-i in one tune.
With such limited knowledge, I just learned (memorized) a rootless voicing on the LH and did the melody on the RH. Part of this was the challenge of hand independence.
I didn't have good instruction the first year since my first teacher was just a student himself so my direction was haphazard.
I remember playing a fixed pattern of Walking Bass on the LH. I just did this over and over without thought and then would insert a few notes on the RH to see if I didn't lose the beat. After a year, I could semi do this. But maybe it was too early for it.
I memorized the rootless voicings and then practiced ii-V-I's in all keys. This was tedious and at the beginning, I had no real understanding of the notes my hands were on. I just memorized. I would later have to undo this by actually understanding what was in the voicing and not just doing it blindly.
Most of all, even from day 1, I just improvised. I pretty much played diatonically since that's all I know and tried to do it more by ear. I'm sure it sounded awful but as I later learned, the first thing that has to happen is to "Let Go". Apparently improvising is tied to a part of the brain the releases inhibitions and you have to let go. Many people start playing jazz by going to method books and practicing etudes. I wonder though how much they they spent just letting go. I think withholding this step will prevent development. I realize now that it doesn't matter what you play. Play from the heart and that'll train the brain.
Now if I'm to do this again, I'd probably give a limitation of playing only 1-2-3-5 of the chord. That probably give more structure and follow vocabulary.
If I had to go back, I need to have mastered voicings more clearly and to get an early start on identifying each of the 12 tones in relation to the root of the chord.
I should have practiced visualizing:
Comes pretty easy now but it took years and it would have been important that first year.
Visualizing the layout of the keyboard quickly is essential in two handed voicings. This is probably why teachers always start out with shell voicings on the LH (1-7). this really gives a good base for a good hand shape. Again this was not something I did the first year. Wasted time.
Practicing rhythms slowly was not something I did. The most important thing to a musician is to have good time/rhythm and one has to build this pulse in the body. I didn't practice with a metronome early on. I tried to play things as fast as I can rather than slow it down. It's harder to play slowly. There was some years in the middle that I had to focus on this. Big issue that's under-discussed.
Swing - I didn't really learn this properly until I got to my third and long term teacher. I wished I understood this from the beginning. My tip to new students, FORGET ABOUT LONG-SHORT-LONG-SHORT eighths or "Triplet Feel". Just play it Straight and accent the upbeats. The swing feel will develop from that. I can't believe the amount of research I did on this, including slowing down recordings to understand what was going on. At a Bill Cunliffe Master Class recently, this was one of the first things he said too. It is NOT COOL to play with triplet feel with real jazz players.
Jazz Vocabulary - this eludes me to this day because it's supposed to be something that early jazzers are supposed to learn but my teacher did not teach me this at all. He taught me the correct notes, the phrasing, the feel, but left the actual choice of notes to me. At first, people commented that my playing was stilted because it was unrecognizable from traditional jazz. I'm listening to traditional jazz now and mixing it more in but in a way, I'm glad I didn't get too influenced because my "voice" is unique though rough on the edges. So the way to get jazz vocabulary is to transcribe. In retrospect, transcribing Freddie the Freeloader and So What would have been a good thing.
Reading Music - I played some classical pieces the first year like Fur Elise and Chopin's Raindrop Prelude but I was a poor sight reader. I had to memorize. I could have spent more time reading but I just hated it. But in jazz, this isn't so much of a problem when learned later. I read a little better now. I still avoid it though. What was important was learning Classical music. I think playing a few Classical pieces well is essential. I learned quite a bit from Chopin's Raindrop Prelude and also Em Prelude.
In my 3rd year, I went to a Classical Teacher to learn technique. Again in retrospect, I should have done this in the first year. I got tendonitis from lack of understanding of technique. Reading about technique from books only makes sense in retrospect. When you don't know what the right way is, you can misinterpret. My classical teacher spent months on finger-drops. Hands collapse on the keys. Relaxation. Then you eventually realize that the hand structure itself will provide the force. But then it was later in my playing that I realized even this instruction wasn't sufficient. Fingers have to be involved too at times. One answer is never that simple.
So what was UNimportant to practice back then (which appears to be true in retrospect)? First, I didn't do much Hanon the first year. Scales yes. Hanon no. In retrospect, good deal. I realized later on that without proper technique, I would have to unlearn everything I did with Hanon. I did Hanon later (maybe 3-4 years in) but only for a few months at a time.
Learning a zillion tunes. I did not do this. This was good. At first it was Autumn Leaves. My longer term teacher focused on All the Things You Are. At first, I thought I was not getting a good grounding in tunes because we only hit the most difficult tunes and some I worked on for a year. In retrospect, not a big deal. When you learn to improvise, learning a new tune is the least of your concerns. Chord progressions are so repetitive. Looking back, even playing Autumn Leaves in many keys would have worked too. I know hundreds of tunes now. I learned them all in one year. Maybe I don't have them completely memorized yet but I don't doubt it will happen normally. Good thing I didn't waste my time on this.