Practicing a jazz tune

Arpeggiate every chord in all inversions.

Play the modes relative to each chord, including possible ‘alternate’ modes.

– Improvise on chord tones only.
– Add scale/mode tones as *passing* notes (always resolve on chord notes)
– Add chromatic passing notes in the same fashion.
– Play the ‘big scale’. This means, play a continuous stream of quarter-notes up and down the instrument, diatonically, following the harmonic structure of the tune, and changing scale/mode as the chords go on, using the closest available note of the new scale/mode, in a diatonic fashion. Go up and down the instrument (for pianists, this could mean from middle C from the highest notes and back) for many choruses, at a steady tempo. Staying on *chord* tones doesn’t matter for this exercise. Don’t worry about speed.
Repeat with eight-notes and eight-note triplets.

– For every chord in the tune, play four possible chromatic (semitone) approaches to every chord note:
a) from below
b) from above
c) double from below, then above
d) double from above, then below

There are other possible chromatic approaches, but this one will give you a good start!

Now, at a relaxed tempo, try an improvisation on the entire tune, or some portion of it, made entirely, or at least mainly, of chromatic approaches. An excellent brain-twister!

You’re now ready to attempt some bebop phrasing. Do just that for a while, trying to improve your mastering of the harmonic structure.

On to the ’60s: Now try to play the tune using Bill Evans-style 4-note left hand voicings. Play with a bassist or a play-along if possible. Notice how the left hand voicings influence the melodic phrasing. Start landing your phrases on extensions.
When using alternate modes, adapt your left hand extensions (ninths, thirteenths) to the mode you’re playing.

Next, do the same with Chick Corea-style three-note voicings. Usually, you’ll play more rhythmically this time, with a more sparse use of the left hand.

Time for some McCoy. for every chord, extract the possible fourths and their inversions, then the possible pentatonic scale. Play over every single chord for a long time, experimenting the combinations of the various fourths and inversions in the left hand with the various pentatonic scales in the right. Try the semitone shifts Tyner is famous for.

Now, at a relaxed tempo, try playing the entire tune, or big chunks of it, in that fashion.

Obviously, the fun starts when you begin to mix *all* the above techniques, following the feel of the moment. This is where freedom begins, one could say!

Many more techniques are possible (intervallic playing, key center approach, upper structures, blah, blah), but I would stop it here for now.
Of course, there’s also the essential factor of rhythm (rhythmic placement of notes and phrases, rhythmic feel, and much more), and the matter of ‘building’ a solo… but I feel these things can only by explained by an human teacher sitting near you, and actually *listening* to your playing. \:D

And needless to say, these are just a few reflections on the ‘techniques’ of improvisation… the ‘meaning’ of what one plays, on the other hand, is another matter altogether.

: Piano Lessons in Berkeley (East Bay)

Practice Time

The questions that often comes up from parents and students are “how often, and how for how long” should one practice between lessons. As I often remark to parents and older students, that practice is not the issue. It is when one does decide to practice, whether it is in an everyday disciplined routine, or on occasion – it is being mindful and fully engaged in the activity in the dedicated time frame. So, I do agree that opening up into the experience in the present moments is what will tap into a heightened sense of creativity. Clarity is also achieved to provide a better understanding of all musical concepts that will result in a very artistic and convincing performance; if that is the goal.

Berkeley CA

Transitioning from classical piano to jazz piano

Many classically trained pianists are interested in learning jazz piano. Classical training will help physically but not a lot mentally. Your ability to play notes, chords, runs, etc, will all be very useful and put you ahead of the learning curve.

That said, jazz is mentally a fundamentally different way of approaching music. Some classical people think that just like Bach sounds different than Debussy, jazz is just a different sounding kind of music. It isn’t. It’s a different way of approaching music, primarily focusing on chord progressions and how to improvise over them.

I could not have come as far as I have given the given time I’ve spent without the classical training. So you will benefit from all of that training. But be prepared to learn a new method of making music. For me it’s been one of the most rewarding journeys I’ve undertaken.

Learning Jazz Piano: The Process

What skills are required to play jazz piano? What should you expect to learn from a jazz piano teacher?

Improvisation: The element that defines jazz, improvisation is in large part about self-confidence, risk-taking, and the will to explore and experiment. But jazz piano improvisation also involves tools that can be studied both theoretically and practically: a knowledge of harmony (chords), melody (scales), jazz rhythms and phrasing, and the general vocabulary of the jazz language.

Comping, short for “accompanying,” is what a jazz pianist does when another instrumentalist or vocalist is playing or singing the melody. Comping is improvised, and involves all of the basic elements of improvisation; but it relies more heavily on a knowledge of harmony — and more specifically, chord voicing. The more options you have for voicing a C7 chord, for instance, the more creative and supportive your comping can be.

Playing in a group and playing solo piano: A jazz pianist must know how to do both. The first concern when playing in a jazz ensemble is a pianist’s left hand — it must not clash with the bass player; it performs different, non-bass-like functions. Ensemble playing also involves close interaction between all players. When others are improvising, the pianist has to be a keen listener, able to react in the moment.

Knowing the jazz standard repertoire: Performing with musicians you have never met, let alone rehearsed with, is a fact of life in the jazz world. Jazz musicians do this easily when they are familiar with the standard repertoire. Because jazz musicians know the same tunes, they can use this knowledge as a starting point and go on to improvise from there.

Solo jazz piano is a special challenge, because you have to emulate the rhythmic intensity of a jazz ensemble without the support of bass and drums. The jazz piano soloist must provide the bass notes, harmony, melody, and groove — essentially the job of three or four instruments.

Creative interpretations: Knowing the tunes is not enough. Jazz is a creative art, and the essence of jazz lies in experimenting. If you want to create your own jazz piano arrangement of Autumn Leaves, you will have to be comfortable with the basic elements of music — harmony, melody, rhythm, and form — and able to make choices: combining different sounds in different ways, and deciding how far to alter any of these elements from how they have been done before.

Piano Lessons in Berkeley CA

Wise Quotes

“The mind wanders here and there.
It’s thoughts are persuasive.
It’s ramblings seem impressive.
But when one’s mind becomes still, ah, then the music begins!”


“Our only defense in this world, which features seemingly random barriers and cruelties is to develop self love and determination from within. This is difficult, to be sure, but possible to the one who earnestly seeks it. If one practices without the mania of needing to be good, but with patience and a self love that’s not dependent on how good you play, one can steadily upgrade their playing in all areas.
Enjoy the progress but never forget to enjoy your playing now. Don’t hold your joy hostage to future growth.”

Kenny Werner – pianist

Relaxed Playing

If you are not using the proper technique you will get sore. The entire playing mechanism which includes the wrists, forearms, elbows and the shoulders should be relaxed. It should never be tense. How do you relax while playing a difficult piece in mind,say a Liszt Etude?
One answer to that would be a sigh. Yes,a sigh. A sigh effectively relaxes muscles and reduces tension in areas where you might not even realize you are tensing.

: Piano Lessons in Berkeley (East Bay)

Jazz theory of improvisation

Jazz theory of improvising over melody, chords and structure.
Some improv styles may combine elements of all three areas
Improvise on the Melody
Paraphrasing
Adding to the Melody
Changing the Rhythmic content
Ornamenting or Embellishing
Improvising on the Harmony
Harmonic Generalization
Tonic Triad
Diatonic
Major Blues Scale
Minor Blues Scale
Cliches & Quotes
Harmonically Specific
Arpeggios (1-3-5-7 & 3-5-7-9)
Scales (tone center, chord)
Guide Tones (3rds & 7ths)
Chordal Alternatives
Motivic Development (from melody or newly formed)
Repetition
Transpose
Mode Change
Fragment
Add to (start, middle, end)
Sequence
Embellish or Ornament
Augmentation (pitch, rhythmic)
Diminution (pitch, rhythmic)
Invert (upside down)
Retrograde (backwards)
Retrograde inversion (upside down & backwards)
Displacement (pitch, rhythmic)

: Piano Lessons in Berkeley CA

Jazz improvisation at fast tempos

When playing over a fast tune, don’t get caught up in the chord progression that much. Just keep in mind key centers. If you try to play each individual chord/scale association , then it will just sound like you are playing chord by chord instead of thinking of the tune as a whole.

Often when people play really fast lines they are thinking of a shape to their improv, not necessarily all the notes. Sometimes you do think of all the notes, but the thing to remember is this, and Dizzy said it best: “I may not play all the right notes, but I play my notes in all the right places.” That means that your rhythm, inflections, and placement of the notes you play is so much more important than what notes you actually play.

When analyzing a transcription of a fast song, try also look more at the rhythmic aspect of the solo rather than the melodic aspect. Same with bebop heads- look at they are built rhythmically. Once you figure out that the pyramid of improv importance is heavily weighted on the rhythmic end, your fast solos will all of a sudden, and I mean immediately, transform into great solos. It’s all about the rhythm.

Once your rhythm and timing and placement are correct, you can start worrying about making sure you’re hitting your flat 9’s and stuff like that. One thing you can do is to treat all ii Vs as just dominant Vs or ii7s.

Tip: Don’t tap your foot in 4 on a fast tempo, tap on the half notes and play with a relaxed lighter touch.

Beethoven on dynamic markings

There is a story I read (can’t remember which book) where some famous pianist/composer sent Beethoven a letter asking him about dynamic markings for a piano piece. He received no answer so he wrote again and again a 3rd time. Finally Ludwig answered him scathingly with words to the effect of “Do you think I’m such an idiot that I would play it twice the same way? Play it how you feel it!” So much for purism.