Mike Nelson's practice tips for jazz pianists


azz piano is a life long committment. There are so many "systems" to master that sometimes we become overwhelmned by the task and just give up. Most jazz text books discuss the various scales, harmonic systems and voicings but seldom do we come across a practice method which will successfully navigate us through all the data allowing us to accumulate knowledge in a systematic and usable manner.

Good technique is vitally important but some of us, at least in the initial stages of development, pursue this worthwhile goal using traditional "Classical" methods. We practice scales, sonatas and fugues day in and day out but find ourselves troubled by our inability to improvise satisfactorily over a simple blues.

The answer lies in the fact that "Classical" music is a re-created art form while "Jazz" is a spontaneous art form. This is not meant to imply that jazz musicians should ignore "classical" music. On the contrary, it is an act of folly to dismiss centuries of great repertoire. Jazz borrows freely from western classical music, particularly 20th century music.

When we try to compare classical and jazz forms many of us think of classical music as composed music and jazz as improvised music. It may be more helpful to think of "Composition" as step time improvisation and "Improvisation" as real time composition. Traditionally, composition and improvisation were regarded as one and the same thing.

The "great" composers were renowned for their skills as improvisers. Debussey would improvise for hours over chords. Chopin struggled with the task of writing down his compositions; (the next variation might be "the one"). Beethoven delighted and amazed audiences with his formidable improvisation skills. Bach improvised 4 part counterpoint.

The great composers were great improvisers because they were prolific composers! Any skill practiced repetitively and creatively over time will become second nature. The secret is to find a balance between repetition and creativity. Perhaps our quest for a "jazz practice method" might be helped by looking beyond music to the training methods employed in other spontaneous activities. Learning a foreign language for example.

The usual purpose of learning another language is to enable us to converse freely in that language. Free conversation is a spontaneous (improvised) activity. A typical learning session would involve exposure to the new language on 3 levels.

  • 1. BASICS: The language teacher would give the student a list of verbs, nouns and adjectives.
  • 2. COMBINATIONS: The teacher would take 2 or 3 words from the BASICS list and join them together into a short phrase.
  • 3. CREATIVE USAGE: (Perhaps not during the first lesson!) The teacher would engage the student in free conversation (the joining together and exchanges of phrases).

Other spontaneous activities (most sports for example) seem to use this 3 stage training approach. The first task is to define the basics or individual techniques of the activity in question.

A good example of these principles applied to sport can be found in a martial arts training centre. Watch a training session and you will see the 3 stages quite clearly.

  • 1. BASICS: The teacher will direct the class to repetitively practice each individual technique (kicks, blocks & punches).
  • COMBINATIONS: The teacher will direct the class to piece together a 3 step movement (perhaps kick - block - punch). The class will then practice the combination repetitively. The class would practice several of these combinations in a typical training session.
  • CREATIVE USAGE: For a short time (usually at the end of the session) the class will pair off and engage in supervised free sparring.

Having observed the general training principles being applied to the above and many other spontaneous or improvised activites (check out football or tennis training methods), we now face the challenge of translating these principles and applying them to the task of mastering the skill of music improvisation.

The first thing to realise is that you can't do everything. One lifetime is probably not enough to develop into a jazz pianist with a left hand like Art Tatum, thundering blues lines like Oscar Peterson, the harmonic complexity of Bill Evans and the modal mastery of McCoy Tynor all under your fingertips! Let's make the task achievable by focusing on some of the basic techniques used by many "modern" jazz pianists.

Our first task is to define the BASICS by breaking down the activity of improvisation into its' individual techniques. To do this we need to analyse the activity of improvisation itself.

Jazz pianists often improvise according to the following format: The left hand uses prelearned voicings to "express" the underlying harmony while the right hand uses fragments of various scales strung together into phrases or "lines" to melodically "express" the harmony. Generally speaking there is a scale for every chord.

A melodic phrase often flows across a number of different chords. Hence the need for any scale fragment in the line to be drawn from the particular scale which best expresses the particular chord the line is flowing across at that moment.

Most of the tunes in the jazz "standard" repertoire are constructed using a short list of harmonic building blocks. By far the most common of these is the II - V - I chord sequence drawn from both major and minor keys. Often we encounter shortened versions like II - V or V - I sequences and even individual II, V or I chords.

A variety of Turnarounds are used to approach various target chords. Tritone substitution turns our II - V - I into a II - bII7 - I. Individual V chords using various chromatically altered extensions are also encountered.

And so the list of "common harmonic environments" grows. As we move through these environments in performance we need to seamlessly select and join fragments of the appropriate scales into lines or phrases which relate to and develop out of previous lines giving our "solo" performance form and relevance. At the same time our left hand is on automatic pilot selecting voicings to express the harmony.

The BASICS section of our practice regime should initially consist of scales and left hand voicings.

COMBINATIONS for the jazz pianist translates into "Pattern Sequencing".

  • Select one of the common harmonic environments for treatment.
  • Select left hand voicings to express the environment.
  • Compose a short melody using fragments of the scales relevant to the chords in the environment.
  • Practice the "pattern" (right hand melody over left hand voicings) in all keys.

IMPORTANT: Don't try to master and maintain patterns. Pattern sequencing should not be an excercise in building a personal list of "hot licks". Pattern sequencing should be used as an excercise in composition. What you are trying to acheive is to shorten the time between first composing a pattern and being able to play it competantly in all keys. As that time shortens your "window of focus" will widen. The "window of focus" is your capacity to concentrate effectively during improvisation. It includes:

  • 1. Awareness of scales and voicings you are using "at this moment". ("Present")
  • 2. Prehearing and selecting phrases you intend to join to the current phrase. ("Future")
  • 3. Memory of what you have already played ("Past") to guide your choice of future phrases.

As the time between pattern composition (step time) and its' competant execution in all keys (real time) reduces towards zero your improvisation skills are becoming stronger. Keep composing new patterns. Transcriptions of famous solos are a valuable tool to provide material for sequencing or to act as an example.

CREATIVE USAGE: For the jazz pianist this means development of repertoire. Pick 2 or 3 tunes and practice them daily (head and solos) until you are comfortable with them then move on to a new selection of tunes.

Points to remember:

  • Always practice with a metronome. In 4/4 time have the metronome click on beats 2 & 4 only. this will develop a strong swing orientation.
  • Always set the metronome within your comfort zone. (Take a hint from classical musicians: slow practice is almost always more beneficial than fast practice).
  • Practice all patterns in both hands to develop equal dexterity. Eventually, COMBINATIONS may replace much of BASICS. (Patterns are a more advanced form of scale practice).
  • Sleep has a tendency to degrade new knowledge. Because of this it is better to practice 1 hour every day than 7 hours on one day of the week.
  • Plan your practice sessions and stick to the schedule. Stopping when the time is up will provide the sense of accomplishment that accompanies achieving your goals.
  • Divide each practice session into BASICS, COMBINATIONS & CREATIVE USAGE.

Copyright © Mike Nelson May 12, 1999

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©Mike Nelson 2001