Playing the piano requires daily practice. Playing jazz requires an understanding of chord and extensions and modal jazz and lots of clever things. But, without proper practice techniques, you won't end up sounding very good! This blog aims to improve your practice regimes by giving you good, jazz-based techniques to simply... get better.
I have already written a well-received article about Purposeful Practice. This will not be a repeat of that since that was more about a psychological approach to practising; this post is about physical approaches.
Classical piano practice involves up and down scales, majors and minors, using correct fingering. It also involved arpeggios and chromatic scales. These take place in all keys and are very useful and beneficial. However, for the jazz pianist, they need to be more focused since we don't use music so our eyes and minds are elsewhere. The body follows the mind, as can be seen by watching any sight-reader, hypnotised to the page as if not themselves.
Jazz involves a mental freedom. Our fingers must be capable or overcoming any, and I mean any, obstacle so that we can achieve whatever we feel inside needs to come out. So, it's a very good idea to focus jazz piano practising on not only scales, but jazz voicings and improvised ideas in such a way that you can use them when you are actually playing an improvisation rather than reading a score.
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First of all, consider you strongest fingers. There is a simple test to perform, with a metronome if possible. At about 150bpm to start with, begin by using only the little finger - none of the other fingers - and using 2 notes per beat, go chromatically up 2 octaves (I go from C to the E of the 3rd octave then down again). Do this 2 times with your little finger at the same time, one octave apart, using both hands. It forces your finger to work and you may start to feel an ache, but hopefully not. Then, repeat with the ring finger, then middle, then index, then thumb. If you can do this with your eyes closed, even better - but don't worry about that for now.
Now, increase the speed to 160 and repeat. Then 170. About now, you will start to feel a strain in any one of the fingers of either hand. My first finger to go is my left hand little finger. Then, very surprisingly, it's my right hand index finger - which should be the strongest of all... but it seems to go before even my left hand ring hand which can go on forever like the other fingers can.
Once identified, repeat this exercise as much as possible. I won't say twice/day - just do it absolutely as much as possible, every day, every week, forever. Don't aim for speed, aim for consistency. I can do a great many octaves at 180 until my little finger gives, so I really push it beyond the limit of what it will ever do, but I was curious to know where my fingers are weak, and in what order. Good tip.
Now, focus on the main chord types... in the main keys of Jazz: C, F, G, Eb, Bb. These keys are enough to get you familiar with chord types across the piano but in a bitesize amount, rather than jumping into 12 keys, most of which you will simply never use (like Gb or E, for a jazz song, incredibly rare).
Place your fingers over the 4 note arpeggio with both hands in such a way that your fingers are comfortable; then play them up (one octave, don't move your hands) then down again. Do this at 180bpm, with two notes per beat). Play the Majoy 7, minor 7, dominant 7 and minor Major 7 chords about 10 times in each key. Do this as many times as possible every day. If you feel like it, do this with voicings, but over 2 octaves. A jazzy 13th chord is voiced: dominant 7, 3, 6 (also the 13th - it's the same physical note), and play up and down 2 octaves, at about 160bpm let's say. 9th voicings are 3rd, dominant 7th, 9th, so repeat with this voicing too in the 5 main keys listed above.
Next, look at 2-5-1 progressions. Without going in to too much detail, because that exists in both my jazz piano eBook and my YouTube piano lessons, the 2nd is always a minor 7th, the 5th is always a dominant 7th and the 1st is always a Major 7th. Learn them, repeat them endless, in the 5 keys given above.
Alter this last one by playing the chord with the left, and then the broken arpeggio over two octaves with the right, as if improvising. Your awareness of keys and piano positions will explode and you will feel incredibly comfortable and confident in many keys you may otherwise have ignored.
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