Le terme “pentatonique” nous vient de la langue grecque : le préfixe penta-, “cinq”, et le mot tonos, “ton”, y sont associés pour évoquer l’idée d’une gamme à cinq notes.
Il existe bien entendu de nombreuses possibilités d’échelles de cinq sons au sein du système tempéré (division de l’octave en douze intervalles égaux, dits chromatiques). Nous porterons ici notre attention sur la gamme pentatonique la plus usitée et l’appellerons la pentatonique “globale”¹ (on retrouve en effet cette gamme dans les musiques de nombreuses cultures de par le monde).
 La pentatonique globale est fondée sur une succession de quintes ascendantes : do sol ré la mi.
 Une fois ces notes réarrangées au sein d’une seule octave, nous avons : do ré mi sol la.
 Les intervalles formés par les notes de cette gamme par rapport à sa fondamentale (do) sont :
une seconde majeure entre do et ré ;
une tierce majeure entre do et mi ;
une quinte juste entre do et sol ;
une sixte majeure entre do et la.
Comme tous les intervalles de cette gamme sont majeurs (mis à part la quinte juste), elle est souvent baptisée pentatonique majeure. Ce que j’appelle sa “formule”, qui associe des chiffres arabes² à chacun de ses degrés (contrairement aux chiffres romains communément utilisés pour représenter les accords construits sur chacun des degrés d’une gamme), est la suite de nombres : 1 2 3 5 6.
 Exactement comme pour les échelles majeures diatoniques à sept sons (do ré mi fa sol la si), la gamme relative mineure de la pentatonique majeure se construit en jouant toutes les notes formant la pentatonique majeure, en partant une tierce mineure en dessous de la fondamentale de celle-ci : la do ré mi sol.
 Les intervalles formés par les notes de cette nouvelle gamme par rapport à sa fondamentale (la) sont :
une tierce mineure entre la et do ;
une quarte juste entre la et ré ;
une quinte juste entre la et mi ;
une septième mineure entre la et sol.
Comme tous les intervalles de cette gamme sont mineurs (sauf la quarte et la quinte), elle est souvent appelée pentatonique mineure. Sa “formule” est : 1 b3 4 5 b7.
En résumé, voici les formules à savoir (accompagnées d’exemples ayant la note do pour tonique dans les deux cas pour faciliter la comparaison) :
1 2 3 5 6
do ré mi sol la
1 b3 4 5 b7
do mi bémol fa sol si bémol
¹ Cette terminologie est utilisée par Michael Hewitt dans son livre Musical Scales of the World (voir Hewitt 2013).
The term “pentatonic” comes from the Greek language: the prefix penta-, “five,” and the word tonos, “tone,” are associated to bring forth the idea of a five-tone scale.
There are of course many five-tone scale possibilities within the twelve-tone equal temperament system. We’ll focus on the most common pentatonic scale here and call it the “global” pentatonic¹ (this particular scale is indeed encountered in the musics of many cultures around the world).
 The global pentatonic is based on a succession of ascending fifths: C G D A E.
 Reordered within the range of a single octave, we have: C D E G A.
 The intervals formed by the tones of this scale relative to its root (C) are as follows:
a major second between C and D;
a major third between C and E;
a perfect fifth between C and G;
a major sixth between C and A .
Since all the intervals in this scale are major (except the perfect fifth), it is often referred to as the major pentatonic. What I call the scale’s “formula,” based on Arabic numerals² representing its scale degrees (as opposed to Roman numerals commonly used to represent chords that are built on each scale degree), is: 1 2 3 5 6.
 Just like the diatonic seven-note major scale (C D E F G A B), the major pentatonic’s relative minor scale can be built by playing all the notes that comprise the major pentatonic, beginning on the tone located a minor third below the latter scale’s root: A C D E G.
 The intervals formed by the tones of this new scale relative to its root (A) are as follows:
a minor third between A and C;
a perfect fourth between A and D;
a perfect fifth between A and E;
a minor seventh between A and G.
Since all the intervals in this scale are minor (except the perfect fourth and fifth), it is often called the minor pentatonic. Its “formula” is: 1 b3 4 5 b7.
To sum up, here are the important formulas again below (accompanied by examples with the note C as the tonic in both cases, for ease of comparison):
1 2 3 5 6
C D E G A
1 b3 4 5 b7
C Eb F G Bb
¹ This terminology is used by Michael Hewitt in his book Musical Scales of the World (see Hewitt 2013).
The “dominant shape” is extremely versatile. In a tonal context, it can be used to voice all chords that are derived from melodic minor, and most chords that are derived from major (in a modal context, its use is broader yet). The degrees on which each of the chords below function are indicated in the captions below each example.
Transposable formulas (specific arrangements of chord tones and tensions, e.g. “3 13 b7 9”) are also given in the captions for each chord (in each caption, position B is listed first and position A second to be consistent with the music notation). By position A/B, it is meant “dominant shape (voicing used for the V chord) extracted from the major II-V-I progression in position A/B.”
The dominant shape is comprised of the following intervals (listed from the bottom to the top of the voicing): major third, major second, perfect fourth in position A / perfect fourth, minor second, major third in position B.
Tonal use cases
The mixolydian (dominant) chord is listed first, since it is, naturally, the one from which the thought of using the dominant shape to play other chords comes from. Then we have the altered chord, and it is interesting to note that there is a sub V (tritone substitution) relationship between the mixolydian and the altered dominant chords. Eb7 and A7alt, for example, indeed share the same guide tones (G and Db/C#), and their roots are indeed a tritone apart. As a result, one chord can be substituted for the other following the tritone substitution rule.
I have then chosen to list the locrian and minor 6/9 chords, since they are also widely used. In fact, a minor II-V-I can be played entirely using the dominant shapes presented here (e.g. Emi7(b5) = E A Bb D, A7alt = G C Db F, Dmi6/9 = F A B E).
Next up are the lydian and phrygian sounds, which also come in handy, albeit arguably more sporadically than the ones mentioned previously.
Lastly, the mixolydian b13/aeolian sound is probably the least common of all (moreover, it is rather tricky to find an adequate chord symbol for it, so the space has been left blank).
Internalize both shapes by taking them through the cycle of fifths (using different roots in the left hand for example; that way you’ll get the different sounds described above). It’s fine if you have to think about the formulas at first, but try and gradually shift towards using your ears and muscle memory exclusively. It is without question a challenging exercise… But trust yourself in the process: it will be way more fun!
The excerpt above is a transcription of Herbie’s short solo on the A section, right before Wayne Shorter states two thirds of the closing melody, coming in on the bridge (B) and going into the final A and coda. The inspired introduction is another spot in this version where the piano is featured. Listen closely to the form throughout: A (9 measures), B (9 measures), A (9 measures). That’s three sections of nine measures each. Cool, unusual, and reminiscent of Nikola Tesla’s obsession with 3, 6, and 9 (numbers often seen as representing the non-physical realm). I’m guessing “Infant Eyes” is certainly a tune the genius inventor would have thoroughly enjoyed…
Shorter, Wayne. Speak no Evil. Blue Note/Decca 744042. 2021 (originally released in 1966, recorded 1964).
Piano being a polyphonic instrument, pianists naturally have access to playing several notes on the keyboard at once, which is definitely an advantage when trying to develop harmonic consciousness. Guitarists also have a fretboard suited to playing and hearing both simple and complex chords, and vibraphonists, with two pairs of sticks, are often seen playing four notes at once — a perfect number if you’re focusing on chord tones only! But what about you melodic instrumentalists out there? How does a flute player, a trumpet player, or a double bass player go about hearing a tune’s harmonic framework?
Having taught a few people who play such melodic instruments (as opposed to pianists which typically make up the bulk of my students), I have found that going through a tune arpeggiating its chords is a worthwhile exercise. It gives the player a deeper awareness of the changes, which later enables him or her to be more connected to the tune when improvising (and when playing/embellishing the melody).
Arpeggiating is easily achieved for most chords: play the chord tones first (root, third, fifth, and seventh) then move up to the tensions (ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth)¹. Once you’ve reached the top, just make your way back down from the thirteenth to the root. That works really well for major and minor chords with ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths, and also for most dominant chords with tensions. But altered chords (a specific kind of dominant chord) can be a bit of a challenge because of the inner workings of the altered mode: it indeed appears to have two ninths (one flat and one sharp), and can be apprehended as having two fifths as well (a diminished and an augmented fifth). This can all be quite confusing… So let’s try and see through the fog so that you know what to play when you get to those last four bars of the tune Footprints for example².
First, it is important to know that the altered chord’s parent mode, the altered mode, comes from the melodic minor scale (also called jazz minor). Play C melodic minor for instance (C melodic minor is equivalent to the C major scale with a minor third instead of a major third). Now play all the same notes as in C melodic minor, but starting and ending on the note B. This is the B altered mode (B C D Eb F G A B), mode VII of melodic minor (the altered chord is thus the VIIth degree of melodic minor). Now, let’s attribute scale degrees (notated using Arabic numerals accompanied by flats and sharps when necessary) to the notes of the B altered mode:
Eb (= D#)
b5 / #11
diminished fifth or sharp eleventh
#5 / b13
augmented fifth or flat thirteenth
If you look closely, you might notice that we seemingly have two different kinds of thirds in this mode: a minor third (D), and a major third (Eb or, spelled enharmonically, D#). Theoretically, D natural can also function as a #9 on a chord whose root is B. And since we cannot have two thirds in a given chordmode³, scale degrees 3 and #9 can logically be attributed to D# (Eb) and D respectively.
We have now identified three of our chord tones: the root (B), the major third (D#), and the minor seventh (A), which indeed outline a dominant seventh chord in skeletal form. It’s now time to add some flesh to those bare tones! Before moving on to tensions, we have to make a choice for our last chord tone: the fifth. We can either use a diminished fifth (the note F in our example) or an augmented fifth (G).
Altered arpeggio using b5 as a chord tone
If we decide that the b5 will function as the fifth of the altered chord for our purpose of arpeggiating it, we have the notes B, D#, F, and A in the lower part (chord tones) of the arpeggio. The remaining notes of the chordmode are C (b9), D (#9), and G (b13). They form the upper part (tensions) of the arpeggio. And we have:
Notice that the tensions (C, D, and G) form a quartal triad that can be notated C2, D7sus(omit 5), or Gsus depending on its inversion. In this case, there is an absence of eleventh in the chordmode due to the presence of b5.
Altered arpeggio using #5 as a chord tone
If we decide that the #5 will function as the fifth of the altered chord for our purpose of arpeggiating it, we have the notes B, D#, G, and A in the lower part (chord tones) of the arpeggio. The remaining notes of the chordmode are C (b9), D (#9), and F (#11). They form the upper part (tensions) of the arpeggio. And we now have:
The tensions (C, D, and F) do not form any specific tertial nor quartal triad here, and in this second scenario, there is an absence of thirteenth in the chordmode due to the presence of #5.
So there you have it: two different ways of arpeggiating altered chords in full (i.e. entire chordmodes with four chord tones and three tensions). Don’t forget to practice both examples a) and b) in all twelve keys! As always, I recommend following cycle five root motion, starting at different points in the cycle every time you pick up your instrument to practice (I’ve started with B7alt in the audio examples above since this is the chord we’ve been concerned with throughout the article).
Finally, to further illustrate my point, allow me to offer a recording of Footprints for your consideration, wherein I used seven-note voicings extensively in the keyboard part (stacked thirds for the most part and the altered voicings discussed above for E7alt and A7alt in the 10th measure of each chorus). The track features soloists Corey Wallace (trombone) and Philippe Lopes De Sa (soprano saxophone), as well as a rhythm section comprised of Akiko Horii (percussion), Hiroshi Fukutomi (electric guitar), and myself (keyboard and keyboard bass). Enjoy!
¹ These kinds of voicings are often referred to as “stacked thirds” (Levine 2014:3)
² The chords in this four bar progression are F#mi7(b5), F7(#11), E7alt, A7alt resolving to Cmi7. Listen to Wayne Shorter’s version on Adam’s Apple.
³ A chordmode is an indivisible entity that arises when a given chord sounds in unity with the scale from which it derives. “The complete sound of a chord is its corresponding mode within its parent scale.” (Russell 2001)
Levine, Mark. “Chapter One: The Menu.” In How to Voice Standards at the Piano: The Menu, 1-22. Petaluma: Sher Music Co., 2014.
Russell, George. “Part One: The Theoretical Foundation of the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization.” In Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization – Volume One: The Art and Science of Tonal Gravity, 1-53. Brookline: Concept Publishing Company, 2001.
Shorter, Wayne. Adam’s Apple. Blue Note 7464032. 1987 (originally released in 1966).
‘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 tradition¹ (Ewe drumming and dance, djembe and dundun rhythms, etc.).
‘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 practicing a snippet of music in a variety of keys) and others more peculiar to classical performance (using gravity and proper posture to get a great sound out of the instrument for example). This is why I often encourage my students to work on Hanon’s Virtuoso Pianist in Sixty Exercises, and the Bach Chorales² and Two-Part Inventions at the very least (taking separate classical piano lessons altogether, in addition to the jazz piano lessons, being the ideal scenario).
The heartbeat of jazz
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). 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 (Wernick 2010). 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 even writing, practicing, and performing your own!
¹ I recall from my time at Berklee that such was also Meshell Ndegeocello’s advice.
² Jazz pianist Fred Hersch (2012) also recommends working on the Chorales, and offers a step by step approach to studying them involving pairs of two voices, then groups of three, and finally all four.
Bach, Jean-Sébastien. n.d. 101 Chorals à 4 parties réduction pour orgue ou piano. Paris: Editions Durand.
Bach, Johan Sebastian. 1970. Keyboard Music. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
As most of us musicians and music students know, the circle of fifths is notably helpful when figuring out what key a piece of music is in looking at its key signature. But it also has practical uses and can indeed be seen as the theoretical framework for what is commonly referred to as cycle 5 root motion. Cycle 5 root motion is often used as a way of traveling through all 12 pitches of the keyboard in order to work on anything, from a snippet of music to a whole tune, in all 12 keys. It also underpins the concept of the widely used II-V-I progression.
To go through the cycle, simply begin on any given note, go down a perfect fifth or up a perfect fourth (for a comprehensive review of intervals, click here) to reach the second note. Once there, repeat the process: go down a perfect fifth or up a perfect fourth and reach the third note. Repeat again, and again, and again… Until you are back at your starting point and have completed the cycle!
Oftentimes, you’ll see the circle of fifths starting and finishing on the pitch C (as in the example above). But you can of course begin and end at any point in the cycle. Actually, I recommend starting at different points in the cycle every time you practice something in all 12 keys: repeated transposition can indeed be quite challenging and mentally exhausting, and more than once have I stopped half or a third of the way through the cycle, and forgotten where I left off the next day… So beginning on different pitches every time makes it more likely that you will eventually get through the whole cycle, or at least that you’ll cover some of the more unfamiliar keys!
When you start and end on C, unfamiliar keys (such as Ab, Db, Gb/F#, B…) are located towards “the middle” of the cycle, whereas the more familiar ones (fewer flats or sharps) are on “the edges.” Beginning the cycle on say the pitch Ab is a way to ensure that you’ll venture through unfamiliar territory during practice!
The example above is a great exercise to practice some solid sounding 5-note voicings for a minor II-V (resolving to a Ima7 chord, just like in the second half of the bridge to All the Things You Are¹). So buckle up and get ready to take this whole thing through the cycle of fifths in all keys! You might well end up with a brand new, hip sounding chord or two in your toolbox. 🙂
The first chord, F#mi7(b5), is built using what Mark Levine (1989) calls the insen pentatonic (B C E F# A). You can construct it yourself (without looking at the sheet music) by first playing an E below middle C (as the b7 of the chord, that E respects standard low interval limits), then skipping the F#, playing the A, skipping the B, playing the C, and so forth (in other words, playing every other note in the insen pentatonic scale and sounding all the notes together with both hands). As you can see from the example above, I have notated all five inversions of that chord (first ascending, and then descending all the way back to the inversion chosen initially). I find it very beneficial to practice in that fashion in order to create a “sheet of sound” effect (like McCoy Tyner comping for John Coltrane!); having all five versions of the chord under your belt will also enable you to voice lead as smoothly as possible in any situation, taking into account where you’re coming from and where you’re going harmonically. Lastly, if the tune you’re playing calls for dwelling on a certain chord for a somewhat prolonged amount of time (a few bars), there lies a perfect opportunity for you to explore some of those inversions for the sake of variation…
The second chord is a B7 to which we have added a b9, a #9, and a b13. These tensions form a C2 triad (C D G) which when inverted gives us either two perfect fourths stacked on top of each other (D G C), or a Gsus triad (G C D)². Therefore we have an upper structure triad chord (UST) voiced with the aforementioned triad on top (played by the right hand) and the guide tones in the bottom (in the left hand). To be musically consistent with the phrasing used for F#mi7(b5), I have included several “inversions” here too (to be precise: inversions of the top triad in the right hand, and inversions of the guide tones in the left).
The final chord to which this progression resolves is an Ema7 chord (with thensions 9 and 13). The building process here is the exact same as for F#mi7(b5) (with the playing and skipping of every other tone in the scale), except that this time, a “regular”³ anhemitonic (containing no semitones) pentatonic is used (B C# D# F# G#). Notice how each individual voice outlines the pentatonic scale melodically… Neat, huh? I sure like it! (the same thing goes for the insen pentatonic we talked about above).
And there you have it: three solid sounding, 2-hand voicings for your minor II-V resolving to a major I chord. I hope you’ll enjoy practicing this snippet and that it will prove to be a valuable addition to your harmonic vocabulary!
¹ Click here for a transcription (example #2) of guitarist Remo Palmieri soloing over the bridge of All the Things You Are (Gillespie 1993).
² Click here to see these quartal triads (2 and suspended) in root position and their inversions notated in treble clef.
³ In order to differentiate this particular pentatonic scale from other kinds of 5-note scales (such as the insen pentatonic mentioned earlier), I usually refer to it as “global.” After all, it “has been found in use upon every single continent of the planet Earth.” (Hewitt 2013)
Gillespie, Dizzy. Groovin’ High. Savoy 152. 1993 (originally released in 1955).
Hewitt, Michael. “Section 5: Pentatonic Scales.” In Musical Scales of the World, 125-134. The Note Tree, 2013.
Levine, Mark. “Chapter 15: Pentatonic Scales.” In The Jazz Piano Book, 219-237. Petaluma: Sher Music Company, 1989.
If you’ve ever had a go at analyzing a standard and/or figuring out what scales to use on each chord, the question “So, what exactly is the deal with modes?” might have popped up in your mind. This very question certainly did arise recently during an online conversation I was having with a student of mine, who further developed his concern: “In the key of C for example, all of the modes are made up of the exact same notes (the white keys on the piano)… So why bother learning them!?” That is indeed a good question…
As musicians, we have to remember, and above all experience, that each mode has a distinctive flavor, or color, and conveys a particular mood or feeling. A mode’s particular color is conferred to it by the specific arrangement of intervals within the mode, and the resulting relationship each tone in the mode bears with its tonic. Some tones play a more important role than others in giving a mode its unique color. We call them “characteristic notes.” So let’s have a look in more detail at each mode of the major scale, and see if we can figure out what the characteristic note(s) are for each of them.
The modes of the major scale above are ordered from the brightest or most “major sounding” (Lydian’s intervals are all major or augmented, with the exception of the perfect 5th), to the darkest or most “minor sounding” (Locrian’s intervals are all minor or diminished, with the exception of the perfect 4th). The root C being common to all seven modes, it is not considered a characteristic note (or part of a pair of characteristic notes) for any mode.
Lydian is the only mode that has #4, which is hence the sole characteristic note for this mode. In order for you to hear the different modal colors, I recorded a short improvisation for each mode. This first one is in C Lydian (otherwise known as mode IV of the G major scale):
Now, when we lower #4 (F#) to 4 (F), we get the Ionian mode.
Ionian and all subsequent modes have 4, but Ionian is the only mode that has the pair 4 & 7, which are characteristic notes for this mode. The short improvisation below is in C Ionian (aka mode I of the C major scale):
Lowering 7 (B) to b7 (Bb) gives us the Mixolydian mode.
Mixolydian and all subsequent modes have b7, but Mixolydian is the only mode that has the pair 3 and b7, which are the characteristic notes for this mode. The improvisation below is in C Mixolydian (mode V of the F major scale):
Lowering 3 (E) to b3 (Eb) gives the Dorian mode.
Dorian and all subsequent modes have b3, but Dorian is the only mode that has the pair b3 and 6, which are the characteristic notes for this mode. The improvisation below is in C Dorian (mode II of the Bb major scale):
Lowering 6 (A) to b6 (Ab) gives the Aeolian mode.
Aeolian and the remaining two subsequent modes have b6, but Aeolian is the only mode that has the pair b6 and 2, which are the characteristic notes for this mode. The improvisation below is in C Aeolian (mode VI of the Eb major scale):
Lowering 2 (D) to b2 (Db) gives the Phrygian mode.
Phrygian and the last remaining subsequent mode both have b2, but Phrygian is the only mode that has the pair b2 and 5, which are the characteristic notes for this mode. The improvisation below is in C Phrygian (mode III of the Ab major scale):
Finally, lowering 5 (G) to b5 (Gb) gives the Locrian mode.
Locrian is the only mode that has b5, which is hence the sole characteristic note for this mode. The improvisation below is in C Locrian (mode VII of the Db major scale):
Lowering the root by a semitone would give the Lydian mode, but this time constructed with the note B as the new tonic (down a semitone from C). We could go through the same cycle again, outlining all seven modes from the brightest to the darkest, based on B as the new modal center if we wanted to… But by now, I’m sure you got the point!
Just like I did for the recordings above, spend some time with each mode, improvising with it in free rhythm (no regular pulse necessarily needed here). You can explore melodic ideas in the right hand while sporadically holding down two Cs an octave apart in the left hand. Spend 5 to 10 minutes (or more) with a particular mode during each session, and practice different modes based on different tonics every day. Eventually, all 7 modes in all 12 keys (84 in total!) should become familiar musical terrain, but take it easy… day by day and one step at a time! The goal is to internalize them deeply, and fully assimilating one mode in one key will help you assimilate other modes (in the same or different keys) faster.
Then of course, you can start applying them in the context of tunes. Modal jazz tunes such as So What, Impressions, Cantaloupe Island, etc. are a great starting point because they usually feature a slow harmonic rhythm (the same chord spanning a large number of measures) and few different modes/tonic centers. John Coltrane’s Naima is also a great choice with plenty of beautiful modal colors. The harmonic rhythm is faster with this tune though, so take it step by step (1 or 2 bars at a time) and extend the harmonic rhythm if necessary (i.e. play several bars of the first chord, the same number of bars of the second chord, and make a loop out of the two-chord progression; then repeat with the next couple of chords and so on!).
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.
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 https://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: The class will meet for four live sessions on Wednesdays, October 23, 30 and Nov. 6, 13, 2019, from 8-9 pm ET.