One Note Improv

Asked to improvise, the first thing that comes to mind is, “What notes should I play?”  if you are a teacher, be careful about offering an overly pedantic explanation. Launching into a discussion of scale structures, chord tones, and the like risks discouraging the student. Here’s another approach: Eliminate the problem of pitch choices by improvising a solo using just one note. Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim did just this with his popular song, “One Note Samba.” The title refers to a repeating passage of eight measures consisting only of the note D.  Having set himself the challenge of writing for just one pitch, Jobim nevertheless creates a fascinating melody by utilizing inventive Bossa nova rhythms. Keeping in mind the power of limitations to stimulate creativity, ask yourself or your student, “What besides pitch makes music sound interesting?”  Now sit still. Let the question soak in. Think about the sorts … Read more…

Same and Different

One fun and important area of playing and teaching music that sometimes gets overlooked is creativity. While most of us would agree that improvising, composing, arranging, and playing by ear are necessary ingredients for developing comprehensive musicianship, somehow we don’t get around to teaching and learning these skills as much as we’d like. If you are a piano teacher or a piano student struggling to play “off page,” I want to help you. That’s why I write books on this topic, write a bi-monthly Clavier Companion column, present at music conferences, do webinars, podcasts, and log countless hours with co-founder Leila Viss into making 88 Creative Keys the best piano improv pedagogy workshop in the universe. Please take advantage of these resources, share, and comment so I don’t feel like I’m shouting into an abyss. Okay, enough preaching. Now onto the teaching. Here’s a an easy way to start beginners down the road toward personalizing the music they play with … Read more…

How to Play Christmas Tunes by Ear

The holiday season is a great time for learning tunes by ear because: Tunes that are this familiar are the easiest to pick out by ear. Knowing a few seasonal favorites are likely to come in handy for festivities wherever there’s a piano nearby. Learning tunes by ear tends to fix them in your long-term memory, so you’ll be able to easily recover them for future holiday seasons. Steps to Playing by Ear 1. Work Out the Melody Find the first note – Many tunes begin on the tonic note but you can’t count on it. For example, “Mary Had a Little Lamb” starts on the third note of a major scale. Sing the first note of the Christmas melody while playing up the scale until you find a match. For example, playing the C scale while singing the first note of Silent Night reveals that G is the first … Read more…

Online Lessons Make a Merry Little Christmas – Leila Viss

Guest Writer: Leila Viss Originally posted at 88pianokeys A while back I announced the onset of my online lessons with master improv teacher Bradley Sowash. I had my doubts but they were vaporized when our first lesson worked like a charm thanks to Facetime. My initial progress was measurable as reflected in this video. Although I did not record it, my left hand walking bass was top-notch thanks to Bradley’s tips and tricks. I was even able to improvise freely in my RH while my LH strutted with style between chord tones. Due to a flakey Wi-Fi, the next couple of lessons were not so rosy and what promised to be an hour of enlightenment turned into an hour of trouble shooting. Coupled with the flailing internet was the fact that my available practice time was sparse. Yes, I suffered through the typical plateau and even a valley as all piano … Read more…

Bach Festival for Strings

It was an honor to teach with distinguished educators last weekend at the Bach Festival organized by Suzuki Music Columbus.  All afternoon, students circulated through four classes: Baroque dance, repertoire, history and harmony (mine) and then performed a culminating all Bach concert including the Brandenburg #3 (one of my favorites). Ask Questions 1. I began by asking students to name Bach’s many jobs: composer, organist, violinist, teacher…  We discussed how Bach was a real person — who like anyone, ate cheese, got headaches, had good days and bad days, etc. — and not some semi-God high up on a mountain throwing down immortal music on bronze plaques. The point being that Bach was a creative musician albeit a very good one, but that if he could make his own music, then so can we. 2. Next, I asked them to imagine what if one of them had been Bach’s student … Read more…

Talk to the Hand

One of the most consistent challenges beginning improvisers face is keeping track of the form while playing creatively.  If you’ve ever watched a middle school jazz ensemble, it is common for a young soloist improvising over, say a 12 bar blues, to stop playing in measure 10 or 14.  The solo may be compelling but then it fizzles out without a satisfying ending usually because the soloist is completely unaware of where they are in the chord progression. For solo piano players learning to improvise, playing with both hands further compounds this problem.  Often, the role of the right hand is to be free and easy, spinning out creative melodies and acting on impulse (right brain).  Meanwhile, the left hand’s job is to adhere to a given chord progression or accompaniment pattern (left brain).  It’s a little like writing one’s name with one hand while drawing a picture with the … Read more…

12-Year-Old Blues Player

Watch my 12-year-old student tear up a classic blues tune. Notice how he throws in riffs, kicks, an improvised solo, and even a key change along the way without reading music (the music on the stand is a different piece).  Now, some would assume this kid is exceptionally gifted or that his teacher is a miracle worker.  As much as flattery is hard to deny, I insist that talent is overrated when it comes to playing or teaching creatively. My student is a well-rounded regular kid with normal musical aptitude and a lot of other interests as his uniform attests (soccer practice follows the lesson). What he does have on his side however is: – A genuine love for playing the piano – A more or less regular practice routine – Parents who support his interest in a variety of musical styles – Parents who embrace my teaching philosophy, which … Read more…

Scaling the Chords

Here is the third in a series of blogs coupled with videos that focus on specific tunes from my That’s Jazz piano method books that we will be playing in the 88 Creative Keys summer camp this summer. Late Beginner – That’s Jazz Book 1 1. Spare Change 2. Swing Out 3. Burrito Cha Cha Early Intermediate – That’s Jazz Book 2 Flint and Steel Get Up, Get Ready Repeat After Me Intermediate – That’s Jazz Book 3 Fired Up Livin’ the Blues Stepping Stones Burrito Cha Cha from That’s Jazz Book 1 is my focus today but the principles discussed here can be applied to most any tune. Please take a look at the video where I demonstrate how to get the most out of this tune.  Pay particular attention around 2:07 where I explain the concept of playing a prescribed pattern in the left hand while the right hand noodles … Read more…

Melody Mix Up

How to find improvised notes that fit a tune  Here is the second in a series of blogs coupled with videos that focus on specific tunes from my That’s Jazz piano method books that we will be playing in the 88 Creative Keys summer camp this summer. Late Beginner – That’s Jazz Book 1 1. Spare Change 2. Swing Out 3. Burrito Cha Cha Early Intermediate – That’s Jazz Book 2 4. Flint and Steel 5. Get Up, Get Ready 6. Repeat After Me Intermediate – That’s Jazz Book 3 7. Fired Up 8. Livin’ the Blues 9. Stepping Stones Swing Out from That’s Jazz Book 1 is my focus today but the principles discussed here can be applied to most any tune. Please take a look at the video where I demonstrate how to get the most out of this tune.  Pay particular attention around 3:00 where I explain the concept … Read more…

My Three Cents Worth on Enhancing a Melody

This is the first of a series of blogs coupled with videos that focus on specific tunes from my That’s Jazz piano method books that we will be playing in the 88 Creative Keys camp this summer.  The first step in learning to improvise is to get a tune well under your hands (preferably memorized) which is why we are requiring all participants to prepare at least one selection from the list below prior to arriving at camp. Late Beginner – That’s Jazz Book 1 Spare Change Swing Out Burrito Cha Cha Early Intermediate – That’s Jazz Book 2 Flint and Steel Get Up, Get Ready Repeat After Me Intermediate – That’s Jazz Book 3 Fired Up Livin’ the Blues Stepping Stones To begin, take a look at my video explaining how to get the most out of Spare Change, the first tune in Book 1.  Please pay particular attention around 2:15 where I … Read more…

Trading 4’s With the Blues

With it’s roots in the lamentations of slaves, the lyrics and tone of American blues genre is often deliberately grim, “Woke up this morning, blues was fallin’ all around…”  However the degree of “bluesiness” can be regulated by the number of “blue” notes the improvising musician chooses to employ.   In previous posts, I discussed the pentatonic and bright blues scales as collections of “fallback” notes for improvisation.  Here are the formulas for review: Pentatonic Scale Formula: Scale degrees 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6. Bright Blues Formula: Scale degrees 1, 2, b3, 3, 5 and 6 Here’s how they work out in the key of G: G Major Pentatonic Scale = G  A  B  D  E  G (G major scale minus C and F#) G Bright Blues Scale = G  A  Bb  B  D  E  G (pentatonic plus flat 3rd) A stock boogie bass line on the blues progression … Read more…

Bright Blues Scale Improv

In a previous post, I discussed the pentatonic scale as a collection of “fallback” notes for improvisation that will sound good in almost any style or chord progression that stays in one key. Scale degrees 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6 You can also think of it as a major scale minus the 4th and 7th notes. C Major Scale = C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C C Major Pentatonic Scale = C  D  E      G  A      C (major scale minus 4 and 7) Like a painter preparing his or her palette for a new still life, a great way to bring a bit of jazzy color to this “pitch palette” is to add the flat 3rd “blue” note to the pentatonic scale.  The result is a note collection that I like to call the bright blues scale. C Bright Blues Scale = C  D  Eb … Read more…

One Note Improv for Elementary Students

Here’s some extra tips for the improv exercises for weeks 1 and 2. Week #1: One Note Improv Observations (Click One Note Improv  for instructions) * Wow, don’t think I’ll forget this new vamp of C, C7/E, F and G anytime soon. I always began the lesson just playing that over and over and gave students instructions on what to do over my vamping so they began feeling the groove immediately. * Most students inquired “what?” I only get one note in the right hand? However, what they realized is that they could be incredibly creative rhythmically, like a drummer. I encouraged them to avoid playing on beat one, which was a challenge. * After vamping some while they improvised, I stopped and showed them the incredibly nifty app iReal b on my iPad and they again played one note above the virtual “band”.  By the way, I hook up my iPad to my … Read more…

Pentatonic Improv

Imagine a collection of notes that would sound good regardless of when or how you played it. Such a thing exists.  It is called the pentatonic scale and it is one of the great secrets of improvisation. Creative musicians around the world playing many different styles rely on these 5 notes (a “nickels worth”) as a basis for improvisation. For tunes that stay in one key, the pentatonic scale will sound good regardless of how you order the notes or what chords are under your improvisations (5 notes worth their weight in gold). The reason this works is because there are no half steps to create dissonance.  Pentatonic Scale Formula: Scale degrees 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6 The pentatonic scale is similar to a major scale except that the 4th and 7th scale degrees are omitted. For example: C Major Scale = C  D  E  F  G  A  B  … Read more…

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