Pentatonic Power Part by Laura Lowe

I’m happy to repost this excellent article from a blog by Laura Lowe.  Since attending our 88 Creative Keys piano improvisation workshop, Laura has become an advocate for fostering creativity alongside traditional music reading skills in the piano studio and that makes me happy. – Bradley Sowash Author: Laura Lowe In my last post, I explained the pentatonic scale and why it’s such a useful tool for for helping students learn to make their own music. I’m discovering that lots of folks aren’t familiar with this scale and its versatility! Carl Orff and Zoltan Kodaly both incorporated pentatony (isn’t that a fun word?) in their widely-used methods for childhood music education, noting that it was a native tongue for the folk songs children already knew and also that the absence of half-steps made it easier for children to sing in tune. In elementary classrooms today, children often play onOrff instruments which their teachers … 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…

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…

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…

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