Sophisticated left hand patterns: how to avoid the “arpeggiator” sound

I’ve got some new exciting left hand patterns for y’all! Let’s dive right into it. You know I’m a great fan of arpeggiated broken 10ths, right? This is the pattern that stride pianists of the 30s-40s have been using in their ultra-fast left-hand rolls when they got bored by stride bass and triads. 10ts are nothing less but 3rds transposed up an octave — but they sound much sexier, airier and just cooler. Think of them as 3rds with the make-up on. Or 3rds in lingerie. Okay, I guess I made it clear enough, let’s not explore this analogy further—

So, the 30s guys used to play them fast and mostly harmonically, meaning — as chords (that require a hell of a finger span), but the real magic happens when you play them melodically, i. e. when you arpeggiate them. You can then add other diatonic intervals and discover whole new universes of left hand patterns. By the way, if you’re lazy, I have a ton of exercises on this very topic for you.

Just like any other chords, 10th “chords” have “inversions”. And just like any inversions, 10th inversions have — ahem — permutations. If you aren’t familiar with the concept of chord permutation, read this post. Inverted 10ths come very handy when you want to diversify your left hand playing style. For example, if you have a pattern that goes: Cm7 — Bbm7 — Ab∆7 — Eb∆7, it would be a bit repetitive and stale to use the same broken 10th pattern for all four bars. By alternating inversions and combining them with normal 7th chord arpeggios (and arpeggiated chord shells) you can create the fabric that flows very smoothly, blending between chords in intricate and subtle ways, as opposed to robotic switches when you just repeat the same pattern in a different harmonic context.

Let’s take a closer look at inverted broken 10ths:

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This is the classic 1-5-10 pattern for the Cm chord: starting on root (C), then on the fifth (G) and on the 10th (Eb one octave above).

Here’s how you can construct a unique left hand pattern using three different ingredients: inverted 10ths, 7th arpeggio in two permutations and the shell voicing.

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And that’s just one chord! So, even if you’re going to be staying in Cm for a couple of bars, by having your left hand pattern flow like this, you’re much less likely to sound stale and static.

Here’s the C Phygian piece using some combinations of the aforementioned patterns to create smooth connections between the chords and make the whole thing sound richer and more interesting. The progression is the same: Cm7 — Bbm7 — Ab∆7 — Eb∆7, right hand plays simple arpeggiated triads.

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I hope my new score highlighting approach improves legibility of the ideas that I’m trying to communicate here, and not vice versa 😆 Let me know if the old one was better! So, back to the piece — as you can see, I’m alternating here between the three ingredients we’ve already seen before, trying to create the uninterrupted line by starting each new bar on the closest note possible to the last note of the previous bar. It’s very much like walking bass lines, right, bass geeks? 🤓 Seriously, I guess I have to credit Todd Johnson and Scott Devine and many other bass instructors here for making me internalise this principle of voice leading — make it flow, make it flow.

Check out how it sounds:

 

Okay, that should be it for today, I hope it was helpful! See you later and — harmonise till it hurts! 🤙🏻

 

Finger independence routine as a composition tool

Hand independence is one of those technical things that I unconsciously put off for as long as I can, trying to justify it by telling myself that it’s not as important and that I’d be better off focusing on theory or learning pieces, plus it’s just plain boring and frustrating, so why start it anyway. And it’s all right until I sit down to record another piece and realise that I need 20 exhausting takes to lay down a fairly simple part because I just can’t reconcile left hand bass pattern with the melody that my right hand plays. Furthermore, because of the lack of focused work on independence, my fingers tend to avoid complex patterns and I often end up with similarly sounding, repeating melodic landscapes. So yeah, dedicated hand independence workout is important because it improves composition.

But instead of reaching for a Czerny book and embarking on a 10-year nightmare of finger exercises, I decided to make use of some jazz voicings and — as always — come up with a routine that would be fun and musical. So I could actually compose stuff in the process.

Here’s what I started with:

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As you can see, the right hand simply plays notes from the shell voicing of a major 7th chord (7-3-5 in this case), while the left hand walks up and down the major 7th arpeggio (in full 1-3-5-7 form). Just breaking a shell chord voicing into individual tones already creates a pleasant sounding line! What is the obvious next step to sex it up?

Yes:

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Add broken 10ths in the left hand. Alternating 10-5-1-5-10 pattern and walking ∆7 arpeggios with LH against the same line with RH already sounds super jazzy and very rich. Just in case — I’m going around the cycle of 4ths here (C∆ → F∆ → etc.) and playing corresponding 7-3-5 shells with my right hand.

Next step — try a more sophisticated intervallic pattern. I love 6ths, James Jameson loves 6ths, why not take them?

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First, isolate them and practice over descending and ascending arpeggio to let the right hand get used to the new pattern, and then — combine all left hand and right hand lines in one workout:

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Here C∆ 7-3-5 figure is played over broken 10ths, and then in the next bar, the 6-5-3-7 pattern in F major is played over F∆ arpeggio. Obviously, you can continue on and go around the cycle of 4ths / circle of 5ths or a modal II—V—I.

Finally, here’s an example of a real world application of the all aforementioned techniques. I took the first couple of bars of Always on My Mind by Brenda Lee (D | A | B- | D) and just improvised on them playing mostly 1-5-10, 1-5-1′ pattern with the left hand and different intervallic patterns with the right (mostly focusing on melodically played 7-3-5 shell). Check it out, I’m using colours now! Does it make notes on the staff look less (more?) annoying? 🤓

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And here’s what it sounds like:

Hope you find it helpful! Till later—

Reversed stride bass in the context of satisfaction

Okay, first post after a two-week vacation! The best advice I could give to my two-week-younger self? Don’t ever take a goddam break from posting! I should’ve known this trap already, and yet I fell into it just like that. Anyway, on the plus side, I have tons of new sheet music and practice routine ideas waiting in the pipeline now, so expect high activity in the nearest future 👌🏻

Alright, today I wanted to talk about another left hand pattern that is worth exploring after you’ve mastered the broken 10ths and the excitement of mixing them with other diatonic intervallic patterns has started to wane. Reversed stride bass! I found it in the wonderful book Jazz Piano: The Left Hand by Roberto Scivales (which I highly recommend to everyone), got blown away by it and then amended it in order to use it in my own routine.

Reversed stride bass is — well, stride bass played backwards 🤓 Instead of hitting the root in the low register and then following up with a block triad or shell octave or two above, you do the exact opposite. Here’s the exercise that I used to practice this movement:

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The right hand here plays rootless voicings with minimal movement voice-leading pattern (7-3-5 → 3-7-9) around the cycle of 4ths. The left hand plays chord shells one octave lower and roots two octaves lower. You may also add root — 5th — root octave up movement to complement the rhythmic figure, but it’s more of an ornament.

You can absolutely play block chords in place of shells with the left hand, but, to my taste, doubling roots just sound too muddy. As always, after cycling that thing, take it to your favourite modal progressions & songs.

Reverse stride may sound a bit weird on its own, so, in order to add some FAT and intensity, you can actually combine it with broken 10ths (1-5-10) and block triads! It might be a bit tricky to get used to, but super fun to practice. Check this out:

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Same routine (cycling → modal DNAs → songs).

Just for the hell of it, here’s the (slightly oddly voiced) ii—V—I—IV improv that makes extensive use of the above pattern:

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I’m definitely not done practicing it yet, so it most likely is going to be one of my priorities in the next sessions. There aren’t too many things as satisfying as hitting the low A after a rather watery sounding 7th chord shell played over another shell, both of which are trying their best to avoid the root 😄 Till later—

How to deal with mad accidentals in harmonic minor modes

Harmonic minor is a bitch. Well, what I wanted to say is that it’s tricky in terms of getting fluent in it and not messing it up when you improvise. That raised 7th degree is super dissonant, it almost gives a feeling of a “wrong note” in a lot of contexts, so in order to get it properly wrong, you need to make sure your fingers remember what it is. The problem with accidentals in Hm is that the standard formulas for flats and sharps do not work, and “4 flats” does not automatically mean “Bb, Eb, Ab, Db”, as it would in any major mode. So you really need to get quick at figuring out what the 7th is and then raising it half step — or just get comfortable with all the accidentals in each key. Sounds like a lot of boring math, but I actually came up with a fun exercise that makes it sound super fancy and can turn your next practice session into a — you guessed it — extremely entertaining pastime.

The idea is simple: one of your hands only plays scale degrees with accidentals, the other one only plays naturals — in any octave, in any combination, harmonically or melodically. That’s it! You do it for one measure, and then you change hands. If the left was playing only altered degrees, it has to switch to naturals, the right then will switch to accidentals. For the next measure, you change the key (like, go around the cycle of 4ths maybe?). Here’s an example of Bb harmonic minor going into F harmonic minor going into Eb harmonic minor:

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And here’s how it sounds:

It might start sounding a bit like shit once you get to the keys with a lot of accidentals (like Eb here), but in this case, you can just turn off the restrictions and use all notes in both hands.

Oh, and yes — try in any major mode or blues scale to experience the instant gratification of not having to think about the raised 7th 😆

Till later—

Becoming a scale monster

Last week I’ve shared a non-boring scale hack that is supposed to turn the scale studies that are often viewed as boring and mechanical into an — quoting Dan Haerle — extremely entertaining pastime. I am using it all the time, and just recently I’ve come up with a new workout that could be viewed as a sequel to the original one. Word of warning: its efficiency in terms of fucking up your brain and your finger muscles has improved exponentially. This is why I called it The Scale Monster.

At some point in my bass training I have been introduced to the concept of chord permutations. Basically, it’s just pure math: you have a 7th chord arpeggio, and there are 24 ways to play these notes in a sequence. Not a big deal, right? Later, you realise that you can then take all inversions of this chord and permutate them. Which will give you 96 sequences. Which you will then transpose to all keys and circle around all the modes and create all the Western music.

Of course, it would be crazy for a human to just mechanically practice this hell (although it does improve your fluency tremendously). Instead, you can just use it as a pool of pre-generated patterns to sex up your routine!

Check it out — this is just a regular F#m7 chord played consequently in all inversions:

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Easy, right?

Going on — F#m7 in all permutations starting on 1:

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Personally, I just like how it sounds. There is no trace of that worn-out minor arpeggio sound that so many other people are practicing at this very moment all around the world. Yes, it’s a bit robotic — but — we’ll fix that in a sec.

Next — my “aha!” moment: 1st inversion in different permutations:

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Note that permutating the inversion does not give you the same results as permutating the original chord, as the root (aka 1) is transposed one octave above. So it’s a completely different set of combinations.

As a next step, I’m going to take one permutation of choice (1-3-5-7 in this case) and play all inversions of my F#m7 using it — ascending, then descending:

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And finally, add the right hand that is going to play the F# Dorian scale dissected into groups of 2 notes:

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If up until this point you were only mildly challenging the part of your brain responsible for scale fluency, now’s the moment when you finger independence gets fucked up big time! 🤓

Not all of it might sound great — as particular permutations might create dissonant intervals with scale degrees, but that only means that you can spend another two hours trying out other ones figuring out the best combination. And — remember — it was only F# Dorian over F#m7. Sooo… You get the idea 🤙🏻 Harmonise ’till it hurts! Till next time—

More descending motion practice + making it hurt for the right hand

“I only start counting when it starts to hurt” — inspired by this Mohammed Ali quote, I decided to make it hurt (well, for my brain) during today’s practice session. I am currently focusing on descending motion in the left hand as it’s my weakness (due to the years of ignoring reverse arpeggios), but, as you know, I don’t like doing just one thing as it quickly gets boring and frustrating. So I took two of my older exercises and added some mindfuck to them to also work on right hand.

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This is the continuation on the original one. I simply play 9ths over moving inversions, and because there is this panicky moment when hands are about to overlap, this version makes me think more, i. e. makes it hurt in a more effective way. Right?

Secondly, I came up with an improvement for this exercise. Now the right hand is involved, too, and it has to play the pattern that gets more and more complicated with each measure. The biggest fun for me happens in the last measure where I have to think about different scale degrees that I have to play with my left and my right hands. Yes, brain, it feels natural both physically and sonically to play C and then D with both hands, but in this case, it has to be D and then doubled Eb! (See sheet music for the explanation of this inner dialogue.)

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Descending motion is important, too!

Just realised that since I have discovered broken 10th patterns, I’ve been focusing heavily on ascending motion, almost completely ignoring the descending part. Here’s a workout that I’ve recently come up with to make up for that.

Left hand plays descending 10-5-1 pattern and then also continues with descending pattern of diatonic intervals alternating with the root. Doing it around the cycle of 4ths, as always!

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Then, of course, there’s the Fear Of Overlapping™ that has to be addressed — also in the context of descending motion. So here’s another exercise that does the job for me:

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Here I’m doing the same trick with alternating voicings (3-7-9 to 7-3-5) and forcing the left hand to play the same key as the right within one measure. I wrote about this here a little bit more in-depth.