Improvising Easy Introductions

A good musical introduction creates anticipation for the listener by suggesting the key and style of a tune about to be played. Ready? Set, Go! The easiest way to set up a tune is to play a V7 intro chord. This works because it takes advantage of our expectations about functional harmony. Since most tunes begin with a I chord, a V7 chord played just before leads our ears right into the melody through its natural resolution. Listen to how the C7 in the Birthday Song seems to say, “Here we go.” Drum Roll Please… Stretch the V7 intro chord “Liberace” style with hand-over-hand arpeggios to pump up the audience. Corny and overstated? Yes. Effective? Absolutely. Students love it because it sounds impressive without being difficult. This example adds drama suggesting, “Ladies and gentleman, the show is about to begin.” The Following Preview… State the last few measures of a tune … 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…

The Best Place to Start

I get a lot of questions from teachers about my That’s Jazz piano method regarding ability levels.  They usually fall into three categories: 1. Beginner Students I have a first year student who I think would enjoy your books.  What level of technique is required to begin? 2. Play by Ear Students My student reads a little but would rather noodle around than play written music.  I think he might like jazz. Do you think Book 2 is right for him?  3. Good Readers I have an advanced student who reads and plays written music very well but is new to improvisation.  What book do you suggest? To all these questions, I always suggest everyone start with Book 1 – Getting Into It regardless of their technical ability.   For beginners, Book 1 is an obvious fit as soon as they have the very basics down. The first tune, Spare … 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…

The Eye Ear Revolution Has Begun

I’ve just returned from the Music Teacher’s National Association conference in CA where I was fortunate to serve as chair of the jazz/pop track along with project manager Leila Viss.  I’ve been swimming upstream on the subject of teaching creativity as a necessary ingredient to comprehensive musicianship at music teacher meetings all over the country for several years.  So it was with particular delight to find that we could attract a packed room of teachers for nine hours of sessions with experts on the subject of teaching popular music styles, improvisation and creativity. It seems the old model of only teaching the “masters” using only the written page is finally giving way to a more balanced approach or as someone at the conference quipped, “the Queen Mary (of music education) is slowly turning.”  I can get even more dramatic by declaring, “The eye/ear revolution has begun!”   If you are a … 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…

Keeping Track of Time

Using Tracks To Teach Timing Unlike band or orchestra musicians who learn to play with others from the get-go, piano students usually only ever practice alone.  A not-so-great consequence of this kind of solitary learning is that many pianists fail to develop a strong sense of time.  The usual remedy that is prescribed for this problem is to practice with a metronome, which, let’s face it, can be pretty boring.  This is where automated accompaniment (aka backing tracks) come to the rescue.  If you are not familiar with backing tracks, imagine a pre-recorded or computer-generated band laying down a steady groove as an underpinning for practice.  The value of this kind of work is that the beat is experienced as a kind of steady conveyor belt that keeps moving forward.  There’s no time for pauses to fix mistakes nor can the practicing musician zoom ahead without consequences. As the technology … Read more…

Twelve Bars for Ten Fingers

One of the most popular chord progressions in American music is the 12-bar blues. Like a coloring book, it provides an outline or picture frame for 10 (or less) fingers to fill with colorful chords and melodies.  There’s nothing quite like using this standard to teach the three primary chords and encourage creativity. This is definitely a two-pronged assignment worth incorporating into your curriculum. Usually, I’m in a hurry to get the potential improvisers on board so I tend to throw them into the 12-bar blues as soon as possible using this 12-bar blues “cheat sheet”. I begin (regardless of age or experience) by coaxing them to play along with me accompanied by a Clavinova style, the iReal b “band” or at least a metronome.  Here are specific steps I use to get them comfortable with the pattern. 1) Ask the improviser to choose one hand or both (depending on ability) … 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…

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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