Jazz 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.
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.
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.
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.
"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
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.
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.
BASICS: The language
teacher would give the student a list of verbs, nouns and
The teacher would take 2 or 3 words from the BASICS list
and join them together into a short phrase.
USAGE: (Perhaps not during the
first lesson!) The teacher would engage the student in
free conversation (the joining together and exchanges of
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
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.
The teacher will direct the class to
repetitively practice each individual
technique (kicks, blocks & punches).
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
USAGE: For a short time
(usually at the end of the session) the class will pair
off and engage in supervised free sparring.
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
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.
first task is to define the
by breaking down the activity of improvisation into its'
individual techniques. To do this we need to analyse the
activity of improvisation itself.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
section of our practice regime should initially consist of
scales and left hand voicings.
for the jazz pianist translates into "Pattern
- Select one of the common harmonic
environments for treatment.
- Select left hand voicings to express
- Compose a short melody using
fragments of the scales relevant to the chords in the
- 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".
- 2. Prehearing and selecting
phrases you intend to join to the current phrase.
- 3. Memory of what you have
already played ("Past") to guide your choice of
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
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
- Always practice with a metronome. In
4/4 time have the metronome click on beats 2 & 4
only. this will develop a strong swing
- Always set the metronome within your
comfort zone. (Take a hint from classical musicians: slow
practice is almost always more beneficial than fast
- 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
- 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
Copyright © Mike Nelson May 12, 1999