Getting Intimate with Your Piano Jazz

Perhaps, sometimes, you sit at your piano and wonder what to play and how to play it, what new jazz tune to learn; even what to practice.  Am I right?  Sometimes, the piano seems to drown you in a sea of notes, ideas and chords before you even touch it?  Do you find yourself sitting and tinkering with notes and chords and melodies that you already know perfectly well and feeling you have absolutely no direction to head so that you may discover something new?

You're not alone, dear reader.

Due to my overall music ambitions along with my dedicated, somewhat obsessive study of Liszt literature and jazz piano studies (reading/listening) in general, I seem to have automatically come to realise and acknowledge a few ways of rising above the kinds of negative, unhelpful feelings I mentioned in my opening paragraph.  I would like to share those with you in this post in the hope of giving you some inspiration, direction and foundation from which you will then be a free bird to hone and polish your own interpretations of jazz piano.

First of all, every day when you sit at the piano, do some finger warm-up exercises.  Relax, I'm not telling you to sit with your back straight and middle C pointing at your belly button and to run up and down melodic minor scales in parallel motion (well, I am, but very very very indirectly).  What you want to aim for is, quite obviously, warm fingers.  Sitting at the piano with cold hands is somehow very discouraging to the mind.  You could warm up with a cup of tea or hot chocolate, but just give those fingers a nice warm up.  Personally, I partake in the following warm-up session absolutely every morning, without fail (I have such time available, but it only takes 10 minutes) and after that, I feel a greater connection with the piano and the warmer, more flexible and awake fingers seem to just want to play the piano more than they did 10 minutes ago.  Please, copy this; it's good for your dexterity and precision, too:

1.   Using the little finger of the left hand, with as flat a hand as possible, go up the major scales of all 12 keys, from C to C, then back down, so that's 14 notes x 12 = 168 with the little finger.  You don't need to do this fast, just do it as fast as your finger allows and stick to that.  Then, repeat one octave higher with the right hand's little finger.  Then, back to the left hand ring finger and then with the right hand ring finger.  This gives 4 fingers an individual work out (which you can and should do with your eyes shut to increase your connection with your internal piano when at the physical piano) in the following way:  14 notes x 4 fingers = 56 notes per key per finger, multiplied by 12 keys gives 672 notes... all for the 2 weakest fingers of each hand.  Do this every day, even twice, even if you don't plan to stay at the piano for long, and you will very quickly feel more flexible in those fingers with a warm hand and ever-strengthening weak-finger muscles.

2.  Once complete, I then run up 5 octaves in parallel motion using thumbs, index and middle fingers the chromatic scale from C up to the E of the 6th octave because I like the feeling of landing on the E then descending again from it.  I do this about 10 times, from lower to upper register, starting slow the first 3 or 4 times then progressively getting faster.  This, combined with the exercise above, will warm up your hands and give all fingers a nice nimble flexibility... a great feeling for wanting to continue playing the piano when you feel lost at it.  It's almost like a soothing effect.

3. Because the little and ring finger are the weakest, I like to give them just a tiny bit more work.  After the chromatic runs, I simply use the C major scale and, one octave apart, with both hands, I run up in 'triplets', 123, 123, 123, 123... from each next note of the C major scale.  Right hand begins with middle finger then to ring then to little whilst the left starts on the little, then ring then middle.  Starting on C, both hands play C, D, E... then D, E, F... then E, F, G... up the C major scale, then down again.  This is good for concentration as well as precision and strength.

I don't do this always, but you may want to then go through the 12 keys with both hands an octave apart playing the 4 main chord types:  major 7th, dominant 7th, minor, minor 7th.  It's nice to be familiar with these shapes in all 12 keys so why not go through them in all 12 keys?  It's not difficult and is not about speed!

I then feel really warm, nimble and ready to want to sit at the piano and go on a journey.  Let's go on an example journey...

I go to YT and search for Bill Evans.  I find this:


Once I remind myself that it is wrong to compare oneself to a legendary jazz pianist since it only depresses the mind and that I am my own musician and perhaps one day, somebody will feel the same after listening to one of my own pieces (positivity much...? You bet), I then go to Google to find the chords, and I find this: - A freely available lead sheet for Like Someone In Love.  How about that?  I then bookmark that website and plan to share it with the jazz piano community via Google+ and on my book's facebook page.

I save the image and print it, then place it on my piano's music shelf.  I stare at the chords and listen again to Bill (via the site at the top!), trying to hear when and how the changes take place.  I dabble with the melody and determine the key is  1 whole tone lower than how Evans is playing it.  Not a problem, I simply follow the chords anyway, choosing to keep things simple for now.

After a few listens and a good effort at finding chord progression patterns and similarities, I give it a go myself.  I play the nice chords and find the melody using my own ears rather than reading the music since I want to have an emotional, not eye-physical, attachment to the melody... but after internalising the chords, I feel something is missing.  I go online to find the lyrics, and then I read them:

Lately I find myself out gazing at stars
Hearing guitars like someone in love
Sometimes the things I do astound me
Mostly whenever you're around me

Lately I seem to walk as though I had wings
Bump into things like someone in love
Each time I look at you, I'm limp as a glove
And feeling like someone in love

Now I get it.  Now I can try to relate such sentiments from my own life and incorporate them into the way I understand and play this piece.  Such lyrics also enable me to know how I can extend chords; do I extend them as jazzy or as melodious and romantic, even sad-like?  I think that's obvious to anyone who has read the lyrics.

I spend about 30 minutes going over the melody and finding my own improvisations between the chord sequences.  I slowly come to realise the purpose of my playing this song, which is difficult to put into words, but I find it and I play it and I add it to my repertoire.

Before I sat down 45 minutes ago, I was unaware of the song... now, I have a beautiful, perfect song to play when the feeling takes me publicly, alone or for a friend.  This happened because I warmed up my hands and fingers:  got a nice cup of tea, did the finger exercises and went on a random journey which ended up being quite special and personal.  Again, admiration for Bill Evans continues to rise.

I hope this blog was of some use to you.  Please like, comment, share on Google+ and facebook and generally please allow yourself to feel a part of the success and popularity of this jazz piano blog.  Your own experiences and progress reports are very interesting to me, too.