Winter Rhythms – AfuriKo feat. Chloe Seunghyen Kim @ Soapbox Gallery / Dec. 1, 3PM

using improvisation to increase your self-confidence and tune in to your own musical voice

Improvisation can sometimes feel daunting, even to the best musicians. Questions like “where should I start?” or “is what I am playing any good?” are indeed uttered far too often, when in fact there is no right or wrong… Everyone is capable of improvising (we all do it in speech for example), but even so, blockages often remain when put on the spot in a musical situation that requires “in the moment” creativity. So how does one go about asserting her/himself musically?

Drop all forms of self-judgment and self-criticism

If you chose to walk the path of true freedom in music, you’ll quickly realize that most of the work is of a psychological nature rather than a musical one. Sure, it’s still a great idea to practice on a daily basis and by all means, I encourage you to do so! But instrumental technique should only be viewed as a means to expressing yourself, not as an ultimate goal: virtuosic display is only relevant when backed up with a good story, a message, earnest feeling and emotions… No one really wants to hear a continuous string of loud and fast notes void of meaning…

The good news is: regardless of your technical ability on your instrument, you can always channel that heartfelt storytelling into your music. Don’t judge yourself, play with conviction, and drop all self-criticism. Often, what might initially be a “mistake” can turn into a beautiful thing: in his book Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, Stephen Nachmanovitch talks about how oysters eventually make pearls out of grains of sand that inadvertently fall into their shells…

Don’t try and play anything groundbreaking

I remember Greg Hopkins, professor of jazz composition at Berklee College of Music, telling the class something along these lines: “Don’t try to be original. Write what your hear and you will be original.” The same goes for improvisation, and the “less is more” approach is definitely recommended to begin with: simple ideas are often beautiful! Play few notes with strong time and feel and let the music come to you. The more virtuosic stuff will come naturally after a while if you stay humble and committed to playing what you actually hear (as opposed to running scales up, down, and sideways just because you theoretically know that they fit a given chord…)

Let’s have a look at a practical example: a seven note scale (such as the major scale) is sometimes too cumbersome for beginner improvisers to use, so breaking it up into two tetrachords (groups of four notes that usually span the interval of a fourth) can work wonders. Spend time exploring and internalizing each tetrachord (C to F and G to C in the case of the C major scale for instance). With four notes at your disposal, there is still a lot to do… Remember that your melodic motives can go up, down, or be a combination of both. Repeated notes are also an option. Generally speaking, being creative with the rhythm is a great starting point when the range of useable notes is limited. Experiment with different limitations and find your freedom within the boundaries that you set for yourself.

Establish rituals

In his book Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within, jazz pianist Kenny Werner explains how to establish a direct connection from your true self to your instrument using four guided meditations (also available in audio format for convenience). I thoroughly recommend them as a ritual that will relax your body, calm your mind, and give your self-confidence a boost.

There are plenty of other things you can do on a daily basis to help you on the path to musical freedom, that don’t even require purchasing a book, or using any accessories or instruments. The great Austrian writer Rainer Maria Rilke emphasizes the importance of three themes in his Letters to a Young Poet: childhood, nature, and friendship. Spend time recalling places, events, and the emotions and feelings of your childhood in great detail. Improvisation is akin to child play… And for fresh inspiration, wander in nature and socialize with dear friends. I might also suggest regularly remembering your dreams and writing them down or sharing/discussing them with somebody (a person you can trust). All these activities will dramatically improve your creativity and general well-being.

In the end, it’s all about being open and having fun tapping into the great subconscious “pool” of musical ideas. Taming the ego and being able to let go of all preconceptions and expectations are crucial parts of the process. The journey can be a rough ride, but it is absolutely worth embarking on. True magic will happen along the way. You will no longer play the music… Become the instrument and let the music play you!


Nachmanovitch, Stephen. Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art.
Werner, Kenny. Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet.

Visit for detailed information about lessons or click on the image below to book your spot at the “Demystifying Improvisation for Classical Musicians” workshop today:
guaranteed-greenThe class will meet for four live sessions on Wednesdays, October 23, 30 and Nov. 6, 13, 2019, from 8-9 pm ET.

Jim Funnell’s Word Out @ Club Bonafide / Oct. 10, 8PM

Benji & Rita and AfuriKo @ The DiMenna Center for Classical Music / Oct. 5, 8PM

AfuriKo feat. Corey Wallace @ Tomi Jazz / Sept. 26, 10PM

deriving tetratonic scales from the “new notes” on Oleleko

Let’s have a look at the chord grid for the solo section on Oleleko (the electric piano improvisation happens from 2’02 to 3’35 on the recording):

The following table lists all chord symbols, the parent scales they derive from, and their “new notes,” which is a concept introduced by contemporary jazz pianist and composer Laszlo Gardony (for each chord, we list the notes in the parent scale that were not present in the scale corresponding to the previous chord – this helps to give a sense of forward motion to the music and emphasize the shifts in harmony as we go through the grid):

Bar Chord
(Parent Scale)
121 C7 C mixolydian
(F major)
136 D7(#11) D lydian dominant
(A melodic minor)
F# G# B
137 Eb6 Eb ionian
(Eb major)
Eb F G Bb
139 Eb7sus Eb mixolydian
(Ab major)
141 Eb6 Eb ionian
(Eb major)
143 Eb7sus Eb mixolydian
(Ab major)
144 E7(#11) E lydian dominant
(B melodic minor)
E F# B D
145 F#6 F# ionian
(F# major)
D# E#
147 F#7sus F# mixolydian
(B major)
149 F#6 F# ionian
(F# major)
150 Db7(#11) Db lydian dominant
(Ab melodic minor)

Now let’s find possible tetratonic scales based on those “new notes” (using four-note scales will enable us to limit our melodic choices and create wider, more angular intervals, while including as many of the “new notes” as possible in order to retain the characteristic harmonic shifts in the music):

Bar Chord
121 C7 A minor (= A C D E)
136 D7(#11) E major (= E F# G# B)
137 Eb6 Eb major
139 Eb7sus Db major, Bb minor
141 Eb6 Bb major, G minor
143 Eb7sus Db major, Bb minor
144 E7(#11) B minor
145 F#6 C# major, A# minor
147 F#7sus E major, C# minor
149 F#6 C# major, A# minor
150 Db7(#11) Eb major

When there are two tetratonic choices, I simply go with the one I like best (in bold in the table above). By all means, feel free to experiment with both options and chose whichever sounds most satisfying to your ear!

Finally, and for the purpose of practicing, we can further break down these tetratonic sounds into triads: once you feel comfortable improvising using the triads exclusively, it’s easier to play the full tetratonic scales (adding a major second to major triads and a perfect fourth to minor triads to get the corresponding tetratonics).

Bar Chord
121 C7 A minor A-
136 D7(#11) E major E
137 Eb6 Eb major Eb
139 Eb7sus Bb minor Bb-
141 Eb6 G minor G-
143 Eb7sus Bb minor Bb-
144 E7(#11) B minor B-
145 F#6 C# major C#
147 F#7sus C# minor C#-
149 F#6 C# major C#
150 Db7(#11) Eb major Eb

Complete sheet music for Oleleko (from the album Tao) is now available on SMP Press:

Visit for detailed information about lessons or click on the image below to book your lesson today:

hand independence exercise based on Ainu canon

It’s Independence Day in America, and I thought it opportune to post a special workout for pianists focusing on… hand independence, with a global twist!

The song we’ll use as the basis for this exercise is an Ainu canon (the Ainu are a people from Northern Japan and the Russian Far East), which involves call and response between a lead singer and a group of singers.

Although it may seem simple on the surface level, we’ll see that the mental and muscular processes involved in order to produce an acceptable rendition of it on the piano are in fact rather intricate…

To achieve this, I suggest we break down the practice into the five following steps:

  1. learning the melody in the right hand;
  2. learning the (same) melody in the left hand (the song being a canon, the hands are indeed essentially playing the same melody, two beats apart);
  3. adding an accompanying foot pattern on the upbeats to the right and left hand melodies (optional);
  4. putting it all together with the right hand playing the role of the lead singer (call) and the left hand responding [letter A in the sheet music below];
  5. doing the same exercise again, but this time, reversing the hands: the left hand is now playing the lead part (call) and the right the chorus’ part (response) [letter B].

As you will see when you try this at home, although the result sounds simple and the melody is made up of only 3 notes ﹣ a tritonic scale roughly comprised of E, F#, and B (the tuning is not exact) ﹣ it does require some patient practice to really internalize this canon and play it accurately on the piano. For instance, particular attention should be given to the proper feel and articulation (when playing the legato and staccato notes in particular).

Have fun working on your hand independence with this song! It’s a great warm-up before tackling a Bach Invention or Sinfonia for example…

Sheet music (PDF) available here:

Visit for detailed information about lessons or click on the image below to book your lesson today:

Jim Funnell’s Word Out @ Rockwood Music Hall Stage 3 / July 3, 7PM

breaking up the Dorian mode into two pentatonic scales

Sheet music for Igneous Alloy (from the album Spirit of the Snail), the tune used as an example in this video, is now available on SMP Press:

Visit for detailed information about lessons or click on the image below to book your lesson today: