Practicing finger independence without killing the musicality

Alrighty, I’m back from the little procrastination vacation during which I practiced as normal, but just couldn’t sit down and write a post about it, because there are so many new things going on! I’ve got some new books and came up with a bunch of wild left hand lines, but let’s start with something everyone struggles with. The finger independence! 🤙🏻

Of course, there is a well-known proven way to achieve independence nirvana and leave all trouble behind: just take your trusty Isidor Philipp and Carl Czerny books, put them on the note stand and spend some years perfecting each and every exercise in them — up until your brain starts melting from harsh diminished chord sounds and strenuous patterns. It works like a charm, the only problem with it — it freaking drives you crazy! (For the record — I love I. Philipp series and I do use them in my routine, but very sparsely, and I stop as soon as I notice nosebleeding.)

Being a huge proponent of the piano practice that’s also musical and meaningful, I came up with a couple of (relatively simple) independence exercises that don’t just challenge the fingers but also sound much less exercise-y. You can use them in different contexts and extend them endlessly. It was hugely inspired by the book Piano Technique by Ariel J. Ramos that I’ve read recently. Highly recommend!

Screenshot 2019-10-06 at 9.08.52 PM.png

 

Yes, just a C minor scale cut in groups of 3 notes and played by both hands with a 1-beat offset. I recommend playing it one octave higher than you see it in the sheet music, as it has the tendency of getting muddy. The next step would be to try and play something more interesting with the left hand, rather than just mirroring the right hand pattern.

Screenshot 2019-10-06 at 9.09.05 PM.png

 

That’s right, I’ve just switched to the minor triads. Here I’m playing the Cm scale runs over the Cm arpeggio — not really the full-sized 2-octave one, but rather the incomplete version of it. You can view it as a broken Cm 10th chord if you wish. And you know that I love 10th chords, don’t you?

Next improvement — upgrading the right hand pattern. I’m just going to copy the left hand and play 10th arp’s with both.

Screenshot 2019-10-06 at 9.09.14 PM.png

 

I have not mentioned, but I’m pretty sure by now you’ve figured that you can use pretty much any melodic pattern of any quality within this note grouping. Of course, the bigger the intervals, the trickier it gets! Let’s try something fancy:

Screenshot 2019-10-06 at 9.09.26 PM.png

 

Here’s the infamous Garner ballad bass pattern (normally used in the left hand, but who cares), played over the arpeggiated triad with the same 1-beat lag. It sounds awesome! (If you want to learn more about Garner bass, I have a whole post about it, check it out.) I would then go ahead and take me some II — V — I’s or a chord progression and play it using this independence framework. And then, of course, I would transpose it and throw it around the cycle of 4ths. And only then will I reverently open the I. Philipp’s Exercises for Independence of the Fingers, Part I— Just kidding! 😄

But seriously, in my opinion, it is super important for any exercise to be something that’s rewarding in the end — so that when you finally master it, you can enjoy playing it freely. Unfortunately, if you try enjoying some of the standard finger independence drills, it will most likely be very, very hard, as ther are rarely musical in their nature.

Okay, hopefully, that was helpful and you’ve found something new for your practice routine! If not — stay tuned for the next post, I think I’m going to share some fresh left hand hacks! Until then — harmonise ’till it hurts! (Not proverbially, people, keep your fingers relaxed.)

Comment j’apprends

Long time no see, huh! Sorry about the relatively long gap between the posts — I am currently rehearsing the tracks for my new EP, and it takes pretty much all of my time (which is the issue that might — and should — be addressed by proper practice 🤓)! Anyway — today I wanted to share a part of my workflow concerning the jazz books: how I use them, adapt them to my (sometimes not-so-jazzy) needs and make them work together with other practice routines that I have.

Here’s one of my long-time favourites: Jazz Piano Voicing Skills by Dan Haerle, one of the world’s most renowned jazz educators and pianist (he’s retired from his university job, but he’s still touring with his trio, by the way!). It’s the book that opened the Pandora’s box of 13th chords voicings — all that 7-3-5, 3-7-9, 7-3-6, all the polychord and fourthy stuff that I keep going on about here — it’s from Mr. Haerle. If you’re just starting your journey from the block chords to the new horizons, I would recommend getting this book, closing your browser tab and just diving in it for a couple of months — it will take your playing to the next level, no shit 🤭

So, back to today’s topic — here’s an excerpt from the book:

IMG_1268.JPG

All exercises there are called “skills”, and what they are is basically different types of 7th or 13th chords moving around the cycle of fourths while using the smart voice leading to ensure minimum finger movement. Sometimes the quality of the chord will also change, but in this case, it’s just the dominant chords with suspended 4ths, the left hand plays the root, and the right plays 7-9-4 → 4-7-9 pattern. You can also see that the marks that I leave in my paper books look exactly the same as the ones I have in my own sheet music here 😆

Okay, so, this is a great exercise, but after a while, it kind of gets too simple, particularly because of the left hand only playing the tonic. How can we improve that?

Screenshot 2019-06-16 at 9.47.01 PM.png

Of course! Instead of playing just the tonic — I’m going to play the full block chord with the left hand, which will give me the full dominant polychord sound and a very satisfying sentiment of being smarter than the jazz book. But chords are boring. Let’s arpeggiate things!

Screenshot 2019-06-16 at 10.18.22 PM.png

Just doing the same thing, only I added some eighth notes and shells to the left hand pattern. Only using the notes of the corresponding dominant 7th chords (C7 & F7) here. What’s next? Extensions, obviously! How about extending the left-hand pattern one octave lower and adding major 10ths?

Screenshot 2019-06-16 at 10.05.36 PM.png

I’ve probably said it too much already, but just for the record — broken 10ths in piano is like ollie in skateboarding: once you’ve mastered them, you have access to all the crazy tricks out there. I have all kinds of posts on 10ths here, check them out if you want.

Next stop?

Screenshot 2019-06-16 at 10.41.55 PM.png

Here, I’ve added one of my new favourite bass patterns that is based on so called “8-to-the-bar bass” that has been used a lot by stride pianists like Willie Smith. I learned it recently from the brilliant book Jazz Piano: The Left Hand by Riccardo Scivales. I’m definitely going to write a separate post to this topic, as it is extremely interesting. But for today, I think that’s it. I love jazz books (although I am not necessarily a jazz pianist), and this the way I incorporate them in my practice routine. Hope you found it helpful too! Thanks for reading and — till later! 🎹

Practice session: modes of harmonic minor & not forgetting 10ths

Scale studies

  • All Hm1 scales
    • Focus on sharp keys
    • Accidentals jam Bb — F — Eb (Hm1)
    • Accidentals jam C — F — Bb (Dor)

Left hand

Session timing: 2h

Gershwin’s reversed stride bass and best practice moments

Scale studies

  • All Lydian scales
  • All Ionian scales in contrary motion
  • Lydian scales dissection over moving arpeggiated inversions (C, F, Bb)

Left hand

  • Gershwin’s reversed stride bass — study + applying (from Jazz Piano: The Left Hand by Riccardo Scivales
IMG_0536 2

Yes, the notes I make in my textbooks look exactly as they look here 😆

Observations

I was studying a fragment from the Gershwin piece today where he uses a particular bass pattern, and it felt so satisfying to finally get it: ah, that’s what he’s doing here! After half an hour of meandering it just clicked. Probably the best moment in piano practice: when you’re slowly digging your way through the piece, dreaded by all the sheet music, and it feels so weird and complicated, and then — bam! — the logic kicks in and you realise what exactly is happening here. And then you can just play it without even looking at the sheet music.

Session timing: 1h 45m

Piano day (1h 30m)

Blues day!

  • Improvisation (Dan Haerle — Jazz Improvisation for Keyboard Players)
    • Lesson 11: Blues progressions
      • C blues scale over:
        • I — IV — V in 3-7-9 — 7-3-6 voicings
        • 12-bar major blues (in 3-7-9 — 7-3-6)
        • 12-bar minor blues (in 3-5-7-9 — 7-9-3-5 — 7-1-3-b5 — 7-b5-7-9 — 7-b9-3-5 — etc.)
      • Mixo, Dorian and Harmonic minor scales over:
        • I —  IV — V
        • 12-bar major blues
        • 12-bar minor blues
      • Mixing up C blues scale with corresponding Mixo / Dorian / Harmonic minor scales over the same progressions

Observations

Finally, I’m progressing at jazz pian improvisation ! Mr. Haerle, sir, you’re the best! 😃