Applying Liszt Method to Jazz Piano

Yesterday, October 22, was Franz Liszt's 202nd birthday.  I originally wanted to post something on the day but instead I found myself listening to his music at length, reading volume 3 of Alan Walker's Liszt biography and in the evening, I went to the Liszt Ferenc Square here in Budapest.  It was opening night for the newly renovated Liszt Academy, a VIP event, and I enjoyed the ambiance very much.

Naturally, I have studied all material available on Liszt as well as listened to an enormous amount of his work, but what is the purpose of me writing about him on a jazz piano blog?

Easy answer:  his input into the world of piano playing in terms of technique, harmony and general musicianship is of such unparalleled importance and value, that to ignore all of this would be incredibly ignorant.  His words, his advice and his example are all to be followed, interpreted and implemented, jazz or not jazz.

In this blog, I will expand upon how study of his input will help you become a better jazz pianist.  Let's begin.

1.  Liszt wrote that he has, on occasion, "prayed" his music, meaning that, due to his very strong religious beliefs, his inspiration came from God and this inspiration resulted in the most marvellous of music you can imagine.  But, religious or not, the underlying idea of this 'praying ones music' is that it must come from an external source of inspiration.  I find it quite impossible to imagine how somebody could write such beautiful music, even improvise, without having lived, experienced, loved, lost, hurt, longed, been overjoyed, been touched in some way by some life event or having some thing/one to look up to.  For Liszt, this was God; for you, it may be an idol, a relative, a great living person who has done great, admirable things.

In your jazz improvisations, or if you feel like writing your own music, acknowledge a connection between your heart and your source(s) of inspiration; this way, you will discover that particular sounds just fit with how you feel; if you listen to my compositions ( here ), you will be able to read in the video how I wrote the music, what inspired me, my purposes, etc... it really is about finding a source of inspiration, acknowledging it, and fitting musical sounds to those emotions.

2.  Liszt's practice routine was, to the surprise of many, not the studying of pieces or repertoire expansion (this was almost automatic for him); it was actually endless scales!  "Oh no, not scales" I hear you say.  Well, yes, I said scales but there are two ways to practice scales.  I am afraid of saying a right way and a wrong way, but I will confidently say there is a better, more enjoyable way, and a less beneficial, more boring way.  Unfortunately, most teachers and books adopt the latter.  Allow me to share Liszt's (and my) method of using scales to the benefit of technical advancement and greater awareness of the piano rather than rendering the individual bored senseless:

Scales are the foundation of music; they connect keys and build chords; without them, there would be no music, or at the most there would be very atonal music.  Awareness of keys will help any and every improviser play better and achieve greater results; actually playing them will develop your finger strength.  Who would not want a combination of these two things?  In my post before this (so just scroll down to find it), I share my daily exercise routine.  I have since added a further 5 minutes to this rĂ©gime and I would like to share it with you for I discovered it using Liszt's technical exercises.  You simply play the 1-5 notes of each major, and then minor, scale using fingers 1-5!  It sounds so easy, but repeating it 20 times in each of the 12 keys is enormously helpful because of the following:  each major scale provides an opportunity for each finger to gain independence and strength.

On your piano, play C Major with both hands simultaneously - each finger is acquiring equal strength and has an equal opportunity due to all the notes being white (this also happens on G major).  But, when you go up to C#, you will see that, for the left hand, the ring and middle finger have a slightly large space to cover and with the ring finger being very weak for most people, you are obliged to control it and give it a little more mental attention (in the beginning, of course).  On the right hand, for C#, the middle and ring fingers are significantly close together so you have a 'difference' between both hands.  Moving onto D major, the left hand, the same two fingers are given more of a workout again but this time because of the jump to the F# from the E; a good exercise.  The right hand falls quite comfortably on D major but the ring finger and middle are close together with the F# forcing the middle finger to go higher.

Overall, each key gives different fingers a good work out.  Do it with your eyes closed, on your 'internal piano' (buy my book!) to really internalise the feelings rather than visually observing the finger positions.  This is detrimental to your learning.  Liszt read Shakespeare when he did scales, and Chopin practised in the dark... I think their example is quite important, no?

So don't make scales boring.  Break them up, make them musical, know that every minute you do this, you are adding to your finger independence and growing your awareness and comfortability in keys you would otherwise avoid.

3.  Liszt teaches us, as pianists, as improvisers, that every hand is different and that every piece of music has a purpose, a story, a reason to exist.  When you listen to Chopin, know that he was a frail, sickly man who was very uncomfortable performing in public and avoided it at all costs; imagine that.  What about how beautiful his music was and how he deprived those of his music through fear and shyness of playing it to them?  But despite that, he wrote so, so passionately, from the heart, every piece was born out of something real, something experienced, something of value to him (usually Poland, usually love, usually sadness).  Liszt did not allow students to play certain pieces by himself, by Chopin or by Beethoven (the Moonlight Sonata is a significant example).  When I say that every hand is different, I am making you realise that you are an individual and to think that there is 'one way' to play the piano, to place your fingers, is very wrong indeed.  Naturally, there are recommendations for strength and control, but every hand is different and Liszt allowed the student to work with their own hand and never try to change it into something it was not.  Do not allow your own piano teachers to do this.  A personal example is my own fingering for Eb in the left hand; I use 3, 2, 1, 3, 2, 1, 2, 3... ridiculous fingering, but I just can't do it any other way!

During your improvisations or composing sessions, use your kit of skills (which is born from scale practice, key knowledge, chord knowledge, inspirational sources) for the right, honest reasons.  Don't play anything if you don't know why you want to play it.  I have avoided one or two jazz songs because I just can't feel it yet, even though I could learn it in a short space of time and play it relatively well... it would be false, so I don't do it.  When I compose, if I can't find anything musically which connects with my source of inspiration, I leave the piano and try again later.

Good luck with your piano studies and try to implement my genuine advice into your piano lives.

Please enjoy my compositions, share what you wish and purchase my book for a large amount of jazz knowledge over 200+ pages and with 100 audio files, for only £3.50.

Bon courage