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)

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

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.

Swing Analyzed

From: New Scientist vol 168 issue 2270 – 23 December 2000, page 48

“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. But what is swing?

Whenthe musical West Side Story opened in London in 1958 the producers had a real problem. They didn’t know who should occupy the drum stool. Leonard Bernstein’s score was hard. And it was jazzy. At the time most of Britain’s jazz drummers wouldn’t do because they simply couldn’t read music well enough. The classical percussionists, though flawless readers, also had an irredeemable failing. These “straight” musicians, as the jazz world calls them, just couldn’t swing.
Swing is at the heart of jazz. It’s what makes the difference between music you can’t resist tapping your feet to and a tune that leaves you unmoved. Only now are scientists beginning to unravel the subtle secrets of swing. Even today, many drum instruction manuals lay down a rigid formula for swing, based on alternately lengthening and shortening certain notes according to a strict ratio, says Anders Friberg, a physicist at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, who’s also a pianist. But these rules are misleading. “If you took them literally you would never learn to swing,” says Friberg.
The fundamental rhythmic unit in jazz is the quarter note. When you tap your feet to the music you are marking out quarter notes—or crotchets as they are called in Britain. Superimposed on this basic beat are melodies. Often melody lines consist of eighth notes, which last half as long on average as a quarter note.
But no one plays music exactly as it is written, just as no two people would read a passage from a book the same way. If you want to hear music played exactly as written there are thousands of Midi files on the Net which are direct translations of sheet music. And very tedious they are too—convincing proof that computers don’t have a soul. Real musicians shorten one note, lengthen another, delay a third and accent notes. It is all part of creating an individual style.
In jazz this interpretation is taken to extremes—and the way jazz musicians play their eighth notes is one of the keys to swing. Faced with a row of eighth notes on a sheet of music a straight musician plays a series of more or less equal notes. A jazz musician plays the eighth notes alternately long and short. The long note coincides with the basic beat, the note clipped short is off the beat. There is a similar but less pronounced tendency to play notes long and short in folk and baroque music as well as in popular music.
Many drum instruction books say that the long eighth note should be twice as long as the short one. But you simply can’t lay down a rigid formula for swing, says Friberg. It all depends on the tempo of the piece you are playing. Although professional musicians are largely aware of these complexities—or can at least feel how to swing—inexperienced musicians may not be so lucky. Friberg points out that many contemporary rock drummers may pick up bad habits because they practice keeping time by playing with drum machines, which may rely on the simplistic swing formula.
Friberg measured the ratio between the long and short notes, the swing ratio, of four drummers on a series of commercial recordings. They included some of the best drummers in jazz, such as Tony Williams who played with Miles Davis on the My Funny Valentine album, Jack DeJohnette, part of Keith Jarrett’s trio and Jeff Watts, who played with Wynton Marsalis.
Friberg used a frequency analysis program to pick out the distinctive audio signal of the drummer’s ride cymbal from a series of 10-second samples from the records. In modern jazz, drummers normally play a pattern of quarter notes and eighth notes on this cymbal with their right hand. He found the drummers varied their swing ratio according to the tempo of the piece. At slow tempos the long eighth notes were played extremely long and the short notes clipped so short that they were virtually sixteenth notes. But at faster tempos the eighth notes were practically even. The received wisdom of a 2 to 1 swing ratio was only true at a medium-fast tempo of about 200 quarter-note beats per minute. “The swing ratio has a more or less linear relationship with tempo,” says Friberg.
Although this relationship between the swing ratio and tempo held true for every drummer, there were some notable stylistic differences. “Tony Williams, for example, has the longest swing ratios,” says Friberg. This is partly his style. But jazz is also a cooperative style of music—you have to fit in with those around you. “It’s partly a matter of who he is playing with,” says Friberg.
Friberg backed up his findings by creating a computer-generated version of a jazz trio playing the Yardbird Suite, a theme written by Charlie Parker. He then played the piece back to a panel of 34 people at different tempos and asked them to adjust the swing ratio. He found that the listeners also preferred larger swing ratios at slow tempos while at fast tempos the ratio was closer to 1.
The results are impressively consistent—and they also give a clue to the split-second accuracy that jazz musicians have to achieve if they are going to keep the listeners tapping their feet. At a relatively slow tempo of 120 beats per minute most listeners prefer a swing ratio somewhere between 2.3 and 2.6.
Part of the reason for this relationship between the swing ratio and tempo, says Friberg, may be that there is a limit to how fast musicians can play a note—and how easily listeners can distinguish individual notes. At medium tempos and above, the duration of the short eighth notes remained more or less constant at slightly under one-tenth of a second. The shortest melody notes in jazz have a similar minimum duration. Friberg thinks this should set a maximum practical tempo for jazz of around 320 beats per minute, and very few jazz recordings approach this speed.
He points out that there’s a limit to the speed listeners can process notes. When the tenor saxophonist John Coltrane made his first solo recordings in the late 1950s jazz critics began referring to his fast succession of notes as “sheets of sound”. “This is what you hear if you don’t hear the individual notes,” says Friberg.
Just as jazz musicians have a standard repertoire of tunes, so there is a similar repertoire of jokes. One has a member of the audience asking: “How late does the band play?” to which the answer is: “About half a beat behind the drummer.” That joke turns out to have more than a grain of truth in it.
In his latest research, Friberg went back to the same recordings and looked at the timing of soloists, such as Miles Davis, to see if they used the same swing ratios as the drummers. He found that the soloists’ swing ratios also dropped as the tempo increased. More surprising was the fact that the drummer always played larger swing ratios than the soloist they were playing with. Even at slow tempos soloists rarely had swing ratios greater than 2 to 1.
The difference helps to explain why a soloist can seem to be so laid back on a particularly toe-tapping number. When playing a note that nominally coincides with the basic quarter-note beat, the soloist hangs back slightly. “The delay can be as much as 100 milliseconds at medium tempo,” says Friberg.
This tendency to hang behind the beat goes back to the musical ancestors of jazz. In the introduction to the 1867 book Slave Songs of the United States Charles Ware, one of the editors, observed that when they were rowing a boat, the oars laid down the basic beat for the slaves’ singing. “One noticeable thing about their boat songs was that they seemed often to be sung just a trifle behind time,” he said.
Members of the audience synchronise with the band by tapping their feet to the basic beat. But musicians have a more subtle strategy. “If you generate a solo line with a computer and delay every note relative to the cymbal it sounds awful,” says Friberg. “The funny thing,” he adds, “is that there is a distinctive pattern that most musicians are not aware of. They synchronize on the short eighth note.”
He says that this off-the-beat synchronization of the soloist and the rhythm section is crucial in keeping the band from falling apart. Effectively the musicians synchronize their internal clocks every few beats throughout the piece. When the off-the-beat notes are synchronized, says Friberg, “you often don’t realize the soloist is lagging”.

How the written and played music differ

So how did the producers of West Side Story resolve their drumming dilemma? Even after 42 years musicians still tell the story. At the time Britain’s best jazz drummer was Phil Seaman, who was a good reader. But he had a problem. Or to be precise, two problems. One was alcohol and the other heroin. But after some dithering, the producers gave him the job. All went well until one matinee, when the regular conductor took the day off.
Seaman had a habit, half-affected, half-genuine, of appearing to doze when he wasn’t playing—and during one pause in the music, his head began to nod. Fearing that he had dropped off and wary of his reputation, the conductor gestured frantically to the bass player to wake the dozing drummer. The bass player reached across and prodded Seaman with his bow. Startled, Seaman stood up and fell backwards over his drum stool, straight into the Chinese gong—which reverberated around the theater and stopped the show.
Seaman stood up, cleared his throat, and announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, dinner is served.” The management promptly sacked him.”

Performance Anxiety

Different people respond differently to stress as we all know. Some thrive while others worry, deflate… One thing we all have in common however, is the we all need to breath to stay alive. As simple as it may sound, ‘don’t forget to breath’! You have probably heard it from lots of people. Here are a few tips that have worked for me under pressure:

1. Breathe regularly while playing piano
2. Breathe deeply (use your diaphragm)
3. Cycle a pleasant scenario of your piano performance in you mind (example, you enjoying yourself as well as the audience)
4. Rehearse effectively for your performance by mentally placing yourself on stage while following the routine above.(Great confidence builder when time comes for the real thing!)
5. Relax and feed off your own positive energy at least until the audience gets into it. The mind responds very positively as well to self-validation.

An audience is likely to get more enjoyment out of your performance if they see you are fully engrossed in your piano playing swinging. And even if they do not , you know you had a blast!

When you practice piano, don’t just practice the music, practice your state of mind. Always practice in a mode where you can be completely focused, relaxed, and aware of what you’re playing and what comes next. You don’t want to practice panic.

 

 

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