The Secret To Piano Improvisation: Learning A Tune’s Chord Progression

piano improvisation secretIn this post in my series on the secret to piano improvisation, I’m going to focus on a few key techniques you can use when learning a tune.

Learn One New Tune Per Week

Firstly, I want to take a moment to stress the importance of practicing piano improvisation within the context of learning standard tunes.

I recommend that beginning and intermediate students focus on one and only one tune per week.

Focusing on one tune per week will allow you to gradually build a strong repertoire of standards to work from. Work with your teacher to help guide you in the selection of your tunes, to ensure they’re appropriate to your current skill level.

Focusing on only one new standard per week helps keep you focused, and ensure that you learn the tune really well. If you’re a beginner, you may even want to focus on one tune for several weeks, without changing constantly.

It’s better to learn fewer tunes well, than to rush through a lot of material without mastering anything.

First Practice The Chords

When you first sit down with a new chart, I always recommend that you start your practice by focusing on the chord progression.

This is counterintuitive for many students, who are accustomed to thinking about songs in terms of their melody. For improvisational purposes, however, it’s important to focus more on the chord progression, since it is the motion of the chords that will provide the color and context for your solos.

Arpeggios, Scales, and Key Notes

As you play through the chord progression, start your practice slowly, and attempt to play only scales and arpeggios for each chord, broken down to the appropriate duration of each chord.

For example, a 2-beat chord might receive an ascending 8th note arpeggio, while a 4 beat chord might get an ascending and descending arpeggio. A 2 measure chord might get 2 variations on the same arpeggio.

This will help you begin to internalize the sounds of the chords. As you do so, you can take your practice to the next level by landing on the 3rd or 7th of each chord. This will not only help place your practice within the primary tonalities, but will also allow you to vary the order and starting notes of the arpeggios and scales used.

How To Practice Improvisation Using Diatonic Arpeggios

diatonic arpeggios for jazz improvisationThere are lots of methods for learning how to improvise, ranging from lick memorization to difficult theory.

My belief is that one of the best ways to quickly improve your improvisation is to focus on true mastery of all of your diatonic arpeggios, with an understanding of the relationships between them.

Why This Works

This method works well because it focuses on the ability of your fingers to instantly recognize different chord variations within a key.

Given a diatonic tone center, you can simplify your improvisation to play simple a combination of arpeggios within your key-center.

For example, using the classic ii-V-I progression. If you’re in the key of Eflat, a basic approximation of the chords would be to focus only on the execution of the Eflat tonality.

As a second step, then, you could begin to focus on the individual chords, but the ability of your hands to easily “catch” the Eflat major will inevitably underly your ability to transfer between each individual chord within the key.

How To Practice Diatonic Arpeggios for Jazz Improvisation

Mastery of your arpeggios, is akin to mastering the tonal center and physical feel of a key.

That means that playing arpeggios is simply a variation of your scale practice. I encourage you to practice the following sequences, with example sequences are given in the key of C major:

“Skipped 2nd” Scales: C-E-D-F-E-G-F-A-G, etc

Diatonic triads moving up the scale: C-E-G, D-F-A, E-G-B, etc

Diatonic triads moving down the scale: C-A-F, B-G-E, A-F-D, etc

Diatonic 7th chords moving up the scale: C-E-G-B, D-F-A-C, E-G-B-D, etc

Diatonic 7th chords moving down the scale: C-A-F-D, B-G-E-C, A-F-D-B, etc

Quartal Scale: C-F-D-G-E-A-F-B-G-C, etc

Practice each of these in both hands, for multiple octaves.

As you practice, don’t always start your practice on the root of each key. Move up and down the scale at will, constantly varying when and where you change the direction of each exercise.

After you can play each exercise easily in every key, practice mixing the exercises. For example, you might play 2 beats of diatonic 7th chords moving up the scale, following by a descending quartile scale for 2 beats.

This variation will begin to make your scale practice more like improvisation, and when it comes time to apply it to a song, you will have the necessary preparation behind you!

Are Hanon Piano Exercises Good for Jazz Practice?

hanon piano exercisesOne question that often comes up with pianists interested in learning jazz is whether or not classical technical practice, like the Hanon piano exercises, are good for practicing jazz.

My opinion? Absolutely!

Maintaining a rigorous and diversified practice routine is essential to becoming a well-rounded musician. “Classical” exercises will translate much needed technical skills into your jazz playing.

A Strong History Of Classical Study

Many beginning jazz pianists may not realize it, most of the truly great jazz masters of the 20th century were well-studied musicians.

If you listen carefully, you can hear references to Beethoven of Schubert within Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, or Oscar Peterson’s playing.

Oscar Peterson could sit down and discuss at length almost any musical style, including slight variations in the sub-styles of different pianists of his era. Not only was he aware of this information, but he could sit down and play in any of those styles as well.

Technique, Technique, Technique!

Jazz players who don’t practice technical exercises don’t realize the importance of those exercises for developing sound technique over time.

While many argue that exercises like the Hanon piano studies aren’t “useful” for jazz soloing, and therefore aren’t worth practicing, they miss the fact that the point of the exercises are to develop agility and quick-response for each finger of both hands.

Just because you can’t quote the exercise in your solos doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it. Can you imagine a pianist breaking into a Hanon lick in the middle of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto? Me neither.

Practice Diversification

Finally, no matter what your preferred style is, the simple act of diversifying your practice routine is an essential skill to develop.

Work the Hanon and other classical studies into your routine for a few minutes every day, and over time you’ll be able to see the results of the practice filter in to the rest of your playing.