i thought i would share.  my playing has stagnated since i was in college.  specifically, iíve never had to work very hard to get a nice (if not particularly innovative or jazzy) sound out of the piano.  this particularly applies to my soloing.  iíve always been able to ďhearĒ the right scales to play over chords without having to focus too much on the theory (though i know the theory from majoring in music).  most of my occasional performing in recent years has been either pop/rock solo piano/vocal gigs or playing in bands where iím primarily an accompanist.  as a result, iíve never spent more than the bare minimum amount of time systematically ďworkingĒ on my improvising.  my ďpracticeĒ in that area usually consists of picking a tune and mindlessly soloing over it for 5-10 minutes.  great for relieving stress, but itís only led to years of rambling improvisations that are distinguished solely by being in the correct keys.  this became all too clear when iíve gone to take an occasional solo at recent jam sessions only to sound like iím randomly splurging off notes.  to make things worse, iíve intended to go back to the woodshed for years but was so burnt out from the music degree that iím just now getting around to it 5-6 years later.  (i had to do so much transcribing for my music theses in college that i developed an aversion to it.)

iíve gone back to the basics, transcribing a solo to paper every 1-2 days (or at least a couple choruses if itís long one) followed by extracting some interesting lines and gradually running them through all keys.  iím still assimilating a lot of the melodic language, but itís amazing how the rhythm of my lines has already started to improve from seeing some of the same patterns in the best players over and over again. i've been mixing rock, blues, and jazz solos as well.  it's amazing how simple (but also direct) most rock solos seem now that i've gotten deeper into jazz lines. iíve also attempted to cut out as much of the ďfree formĒ improv as possible unless iím doing it to blow off steam at the end of a practice session.  itís fun, but it only plays towards strengths that i already have and reinforces bad habits in the process.  

also, my left hand is very underdeveloped.  most of the fancy things i can do with it have come from a handful of classical or vince guaraldi pieces over the years.  (i never had the heavy classical piano training, so my left has never gotten worked through the full range of technique.)  the majority of things i play now are all a mix of the same ďoctaves, fifths, bass notesĒ devices to support the right hand.  even doing bop style chording still feels like iím shortchanging my left hand in the process.   so now, painful as it may be, iíve started to practice all of my solo lines in my left hand.  most of them are workable so far except for a downward swooping five note arpeggio (originally played by dexter gordon on ďwatermelon manĒ) that falls very nicely under the right hand (all five notes rolled from pinky to thumb) but is completely awkward for my left.

iíve since lost sight of where i was going with this post, but i just wanted to share that starting mindful, systematic work on improvisation has already yielded noticeable benefits for my playing.  i just wish that i had started earlier.  another step in my journey that all started ten years ago (!!!) back on ljp in 2002. :)
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i've been doing some wood shedding lately too.  i recently began playing with a big band that forces me to sight read some pretty hairy charts, and take some solos at pretty burning tempos, and it's kicking me where the sun don't shine, but my face turns red enough to make up for it.  last gig i wanted to crawl into a hole, but i figured if david freese can drop a routine fly in a world series game , then come back and get a walk off, then perhaps i should get back in the saddle and give it another whirl.

bottom line, the wood shedding has really been paying off.  it's easy after playing so many gigs that don't really challenge us, to become complacent.  on most gigs, i might get an 8 to 16 bar solo on something mainstream, so when it comes time to stretch ouy or play tempos, i feel like a fish out of water:)

anyway, i'm following the advice i give to my students.  it's nice to know that it works:)
ziggy- arpeggios!!  i started doing them in both hands around five years ago and my left hand is nearly as strong as my right hand now.  playing lines, stride, funky bass lines, the left hand is catching up.

thanks for the post, you (and the good dr whack) touch on something that is stupidly important for musicians, and artists in general, who want to grow.

habits.

in fact, habitual responses are the main thing that hold people back in life.

from music (playing the same chord voicings, starting lines the same, doing the same thing in bbm and the same something else in em, etc...) to life (a single guy sees a girl he's immediately interested in and runs away instead of going up and saying "hi") to interacting with people.

break those habits. do whatever it takes.  when we're not controlled by habitual responses, then we're humans.  if we let our habits/instincts take over, then we're, well, not really acting like humans.  that's what we got over most animals- we get to make choices.  woohoo!
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nothing to add, but plenty to learn from just reading this thread. thanks guys!
a few updates:  

it's funny how one matures as a musician over the years, particularly when it comes to technical exercises.  as mentioned above, i've been going back to "the shed" and decided to give the exercises a shot in honor of guys like red garland and horace silver that used them from time to time to punch up the chops.

i cracked open a "modern" book of technical exercises about three days ago that i've had for about 8 years.  (the 30 day keyboard workout by tom breslin).  i bought it because it received a glowing review from keyboard magazine back in the day and i liked the concept: two 30-day programs with two exercises for each day, one linear and one chordal, focusing on a specific technical problem.  the idea is that over thirty days you work through a wide range of technical issues without repeating the same exercises over and over again throughout the whole program.

long story short, i made it through two days of the exercises (both chromatic scale studies) before i got curious and started flipping through the book.  i came to to following conclusion: maybe 5% of the material has any relevance to me a musician.  most of the exercises are a through the same chromatic/diatonic patterns with little trace of anything that would be found in popular or even most classical music (unless you count chromatic/major/minor scales in uninteresting patterns).  there's a couple chordal exercises that focus on ii-vs, but those are just garden variety ii7 and v7 chords taken chromatically through all keys.  even the "advanced" workout from the second 30 days is mostly just the same exercises with the tempo doubled or the rhythmic emphasis altered.  

the whole thing has renewed my belief that most exercises are worthless to actually playing music.  it's more work, but i can get much more mileage out of transcribing technically challenging solo lines and running them through the keys and have something that i can use in my playing (or finding a written piece that's above my level and working on it).  

i've also been working on my sight reading, but i think i'll save most of that for a separate post.  i'm working out of howard richman's super sight reading secrets (it's better than it sounds) and it's a godsend for progressively weening you off looking down at the keyboard.
i have a set of exercises i do that i think are fairly useful - to me at least.

the first one is i find an interesting voicing and move it in half-steps around the keyboard.  then i move it in whole steps. then i move it in minor thirds, then major thirds, and so on.  by the time i've conquered all the intervals i've immediately jumped up a notch in my piano playing- intervalic mastery is one of the things all great jazzers have in common.

the second exercise is turning a nice voicing into arpeggios.  simple- you play the notes of the voicing from bottom to top in each hand (two octaves apart) and go up as high as the keyboard allows (while figuring out good fingering also, especially when passing the thumb under etc) and then back down.  i do that same voicing in all keys.  if i get really ambitious i'll move one hand up so that i'm playing the two arpeggios but at a different stage in each hand.  now that's pretty brain bending.

the third is scales.  really, scales.  however i like to make up scales and start them on different starting notes and play them in different intervals.  that is, i will play the scale in unison, both hands two octaves apart (and probably play it in triplets for three octaves).  then after i have it down, i will move one hand a half step away and play the same scale a half step apart in each hand.  then a whole step, then a minor third, and so on.

sometimes i find these voicings or scales from arrangements or from someone's solo, but usually i'm just messing around on the piano and come up with something cool.  that's when i get the urge to really know it and go through the hell i described above.

but that hell will bring your piano playing to a place where you just don't worry about whether or not you can play something anymore, you worry more about playing something musical.
If I'm not back in 24 hours, call the president.

Scot is available for skype jazz piano lessons (and google hangouts, phone call, etc...)
Use the contact link at the top of the page.
well, i'm still transcribing.  my fire for practicing has dimmed somewhat since that original post (time, work, etc), but i'm still putting in more work developing my melodic vocabulary than i have in years.  one of my hurdles is splitting piano time with my recently acquired melodica.  i've wanted one for years, and i finally got one this christmas.  i love the piano, but it's nice to have a "wind" instrument that can do swells and sustained notes and is portable to boot.  i've gotten to the point where i can play with the mouthpiece more or less without needing to look at the keys.  it's also great for jam sessions where there's more than one piano player, and only one piano. :)

i have a new goal for this week/month/lifetime: making peace with the metronome.  i haven't used a metronome for a few years, primarily because i would:

1. frustrate myself when it revealed the sometimes significant discrepancies in my time.
2. frustrate myself again when i would become impatient and use it to jack up tempos by brute force (rather than gradually) and introduce tension and mistakes into my pieces/playing.  

i've told myself that it will be different this time.  i won't get offended or discouraged when i go out of time, and i will resist the urge to jack up the tempo prematurely.  here i go!
the melodica!  i bring my to jam sessions all the time.  i don't even use a mouthpiece anymore.  well, that's because i lost it on a beach... but that's not the point, melodicas are very cool.  i  have to retrieve mine from a party i was jamming at the other night... :)
If I'm not back in 24 hours, call the president.

Scot is available for skype jazz piano lessons (and google hangouts, phone call, etc...)
Use the contact link at the top of the page.
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