Tag Archives: improvisation

areas of study within jazz piano

The 6 areas of study within jazz piano.

“Feel, form, rhythm,” “arranging,” and “technique” are what I call the three foundational blocks of jazz piano playing. Without them, you won’t be able to build anything musically solid because your playing will always lack rootedness, depth, and precision. To improve in the area of “feel, form, and rhythm,” I recommend immersing yourself in some kind of West African musical tradition (Ewe drumming and dance, or djembe and dundun rhythms for example). “Arranging” is about mastering different textures and telling an engaging story. The piano has an inherent orchestral quality due to its wide range and polyphonic nature, so there is a lot to cover here, from bass lines, to chord voicings, all the way up to how to interpret and embellish a melody. As far as “technique” is concerned, some sub-areas are specific to jazz (such as a practicing a snippet of music in a variety of keys) and others more particular to classical performance. This is why I often encourage my students to work on Hanon’s Virtuoso Pianist, and the Bach Chorales and Inventions at the very least (taking separate classical piano lessons altogether, in addition to the jazz piano lessons, being the ideal scenario).

These first three foundational blocks support those that make up the second level in the diagram. “Improvisation,” in my opinion, is the heartbeat of jazz. It’s at the very core of the music, which itself is all about individuation (or “finding your own voice”) if you ask me. At its left, you’ll notice that I represented “listening/transcribing” as an arrow pointing towards “improvisation.” That is because the jazz language you will be exposed to, and eventually internalize, will unavoidably feed into your personal style as an improviser. The elements of tradition and innovation constantly and dynamically coexist in jazz, very much like the yin and yang components of Taoist philosophy.

Finally, all five aforementioned blocks support the final block at the top of the diagram: “building a repertoire.” Now the good news is, this task should be relatively effortless if you’ve studied all the other areas conscientiously… This culminating block is all about having fun learning the tunes you like, or, why not, even writing, practicing, and performing your own!

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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 http://funnelljazz.eu/lessons/ 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.

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, 2019) is available. Please visit the Funnelljazz catalogue for more information.

Visit http://funnelljazz.eu/lessons/ for detailed information about lessons or click on the image below to book your lesson today: