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 other. Playing piano is a whole brain activity!
So how, can we, as teachers, help our students keep track of where they are in the music while simultaneously encouraging creativity? The answer is to talk to the left hand. Like an aerobic instructor calling out the next move, the teacher precedes each chord change with a reminder of what’s coming.
Take a look at the young lady in this video. She is already quite comfortable spinning melodic variations on the classic fiddle tune, “Old Joe Clark” in her right hand. The problem is keeping that darn left hand in line. My solution is to just keep gently talking to her left hand while trusting her right hand to just find its own way.
In the next lesson, she’s mastered the first part but finds the second half challenging. Notice how discussing the logic of the progression and talking again to her left hand leads to quick improvement.
Of course, another tried and true way to develop hand coordination is to work on the hands separately. Watch in this sequence as my student demonstrates a novel way to use his head while isolating chord practice in his left hand.
Until next time, enjoy your creative musical journey!
Want to learn to play or teach like this? Consider using That’s Jazz, America’s top-selling jazz piano method, attending 88 Creative Keys camp, or inviting Bradley to lead a workshop or master class in your area.