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. 1. Spare Change
  2. 2. Swing Out
  3. 3. Burrito Cha Cha

Early Intermediate – That’s Jazz Book 2

  1. Flint and Steel
  2. Get Up, Get Ready
  3. Repeat After Me

Intermediate – That’s Jazz Book 3

  1. Fired Up
  2. Livin’ the Blues
  3. 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 around.

This is one of my favorite processes for getting first time improvisers over the hump – a process I call “Scaling the Chords.”  If you or your students are shy about playing spontaneously, follow these steps to get the creative juices flowing.

  1. Just the Scale

Warm up by playing the scale of the key up and down in the right hand repeating the top and bottom notes to make it come out evenly.  Depending on one’s level, the left hand can play the written bass line or accompaniment pattern from the tune at hand or simplify it to basic block chords.  Whichever you choose, it’s important to keep the left hand steady with the chord changes coming in at predictable places.


B. Random changes of direction 

Now, randomize the scale by changing direction anywhere you feel like it.  Don’t worry about fingering and don’t stop!  At this point, it doesn’t even need to sound musical.  You are only working on getting the mechanics down of doing two things at once for this decidedly whole brain activity.


C. Mix in longer note values 

Next, pause now and then while maintaining random direction changes.  The result, if written, would be a mix of long and short notes.


D. Add leaps

Finally add skips and leaps here and there while maintaining random direction changes and a mix of note durations.


E. Make Music

Finally, just go for it.  Throw out all the steps above and just enjoy creating music. Think of it the musical equivalent of drawing pictures on the back of a timed test you’ve finished early or while talking on the phone. You are not trying to create a masterpiece – you are just doodling.  That’s all it is.  Doodling on the piano.  No big deal.  Avoid taking it too seriously, and you’ll find it’s really rather fun.  Do it often and you’ll find you’d rather improvise than eat.  No kidding.  It’s that engaging.

Until next time, enjoy your creative musical journey.



To learn more easy-to-play improvisational tips and tricks like this, pick up one or more of my That’s Jazz piano method books, available at many online and regular music stores.  Also, consider becoming a part of music history by attending the first ever 88 Creative Keys summer camp this summer.  We have tracks for students, adult pianists and a teacher-training workshop.  If you are interested in expanding your ability to play more creatively “off page,” you won’t want to miss it.

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