New Age Philipp

Okay, so let’s talk about being stuck, shall we? Or, rather, to start it on a positive note, about getting unstuck. Why do people end up in this situation in the first place? Well, there are probably heavy books about this topic, and I’m risking to sound too pretentious trying to figure it out in one paragraph, but anyway. I think that the principal reason here is the fear of new things, lack of exciting stuff and the rigid habits that keep us from progressing. It is safe to play the same set of exotic scales and independence exercises for months even though it gets incredibly boring. Weirdly enough, the fear of new might become so strong that it will make boredom look acceptable, even cozy. Which sucks, because now you have to turn everything upside down, mate. But I’ve been there, and I emerged on the other end. So, to wrap up this rather longish intro — how did I break from this trap? That’s right — I jumped head-on into the most dissonant, weird and scary routine: Exercises for Independence of the Fingers by Isidor Phillip.

It’s a monumental work that’s been very popular among classical pianists and, in fact, remains one of the most recommended books on the topic of finger independence, which it clearly states in the title. It is also one of the most crazy, dissonant, finger-cribbling, brain-melting, thought-freezing, torpor-inducing, I-suck-so-much-attitude-provoking source of piano exercises I have ever used in my life. Basically, what it does is it tells you to set your hands in a fucked up position and then make sure your every single finger is being fucked up in an equal measure. And, as if this were not enough, it tells you to transpose the whole thing in all 12 keys. So, as you can see, it sounds like a perfect solution for pretty much any desperate plateau situation.

I started on the first page. It took me several days to master this finger-twister in several keys. In fact, it’s a pretty pleasant-sounding exercise, take a listen:

(Just in case: I’m only playing the 2nd bar, moving it around the circle of 5ths starting on C.)

Then, of course, I skipped to the middle of the second book (classic) and embarked on this one:

That was terrible. It sounded nothing like music and was unbearably hard to play in fast tempos. But I got through it! And guess what? Because of its insane complexity, it required my entire processing power to focus on it, so I ended up having to move my mouse cursor as my laptop screen went dark as I was familiarising with the pattern. I was finally doing the Work! The feeling of getting off the plateau gave me a huge boost of confidence and I jumped right to the second part of the book to attack this monster:

Yeah, baby. It was fun to learn. I remember spending an entire hour of my 3-hour routine just learning this incredibly fucked up pattern. And I got this one nailed too! Check out how awful it sounds:

Want a joke? They are, in fact, just two parts of one mega-pattern that is supposed to be played with two hands simultaneously! Yes, you can do it. I decided not to record as it would probably have taken me ages to get a clean take 🙈

Have you noticed the amount of occurrences of the phrase “fucked up” in this text? I guess I might have surpassed my normal threshold, and that’s not without a reason. In fact, upon closer analysis of this exercise I realised that Mr. Philipp apparently did that with of good intention, and not at all to make my brain melt. He made me play all those diminished chords because he cared about my finger dexterity and he didn’t want me to do the stretching exercises while I’m focusing on independence skills. But what if he didn’t give a fuck? What if he went all berserk? I can do anything in the name of musicality, dude! Stretch over a major 10th in order to get something that sound a ted more musical? Hell yeah!

So I did that. Or, to be precise, I undid — all the diminishing, all the flattening, all that was supposed to accommodate my poor fingers. And look, mom, what come out of it!

Isn’t it amazing? This is the same pattern, but with all minor and diminished intervals replaced with their natural versions. Here’s the left hand:

Here’s the right:

And both hands together:

Doesn’t it sound almost like a new age minimalist piece? It sure does! Therefore, I decided to call this rendition of the classic exercise the “New Age Philipp”. Of course, we can develop it further and conceive a left hand figure that might be very useful in improvisation. And — remember all those patterns I’ve been talking since forever in this blog? Well, you can just incorporate them here and make this exercise sound even less like an exercise!

I remember watching a video on YouTube with a classical pianist explaining how Philipp’s books are purely technical, absolutely non-musical and how you should think about them only as a workout for your fingers. But guess what? Seems like you just need to tweak a tool a bit, and it will become the source of inspiration.

And, to conclude this post, a little piece makes use of the above patterns — both in left and right hands:

By the way, if you are by chance in listening to some longer pieces that I record, feel free to check my Spotify page or my SoundCloud stream, or just google me and check out my releases on all the streaming platforms in all possible universes. I do them — releases, not universes (unless you’re a quantum physicist on the free ride through the Web) — I do them pretty often, and it’s not just piano. But that’a topic for another plug!

Voilà, I hope this was helpful for you guys and that you have learned something! If you don’t have these books, definitely go buy them, they are awesome, and, by all means — harmonise till it hurts! (Metaphorically, not proverbially, keep your fingers safe.)

Non-jazz improvisation in 5 moderately easy steps

I’ve been wanting to talk about improvisation for a while — not that vague and obscure term most textbooks teach you, but the one you could start practicing right now, without waiting till your scale fluency is perfect.

My problem with the way the jazz texts teach improv — is that they either overwhelm you with pre-written lines that you first have to plow through in order to become capable of creating your own — or, they just give you the chord chart and a passing modal scale name. Which is fine, but, if you don’t have a good grasp on scales, the exercise risk to remain very shallow, meandering around blurry and watery 7th chords, which in turn might make you feel bored and eventually abandon it. Which is, of course, not cool at all!

I’ve been there, and, after having hit the wall several times, I decided to use a slightly different approach: start by choosing a progression, gradually develop left hand patterns and use chord shells as a basis for the right hand melody. Let’s go over it step by step.

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My progression of choice is I — iii — V — iii in G major. Here I’m just starting to shape the bass line using my favourite (and probably a bit overused) starting point — broken 10th chords. Nothing fancy yet. Let’s go to step 2.

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Same bass line, plus — I’ve added something to keep the right hand busy. It’s normally much more satisfying to make it do any kind of work from the very start (as opposed to learning both hands’ lines separately and then trying to marry them somehow). Shell voicings are my go-to, since they have a very nice jazzy sound while being dead simple to execute, so you can focus on left hand almost entirely.

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This already starts to sound interesting.

 

Let’s add a bit more complexity to the left hand.

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Here, I went from simple 10ths to a combination of different elements: broken 10th, regular triad arpeggio, 7-3-5 voicing and, finally, the triad played harmonically, i. e. as a block chord. All this makes the line somewhat more interesting by creating more movement in the left hand (you may notice that broken 10ths transition very naturally to the triad arpeggios in terms of fingering — although it might seem scary on the staff). Right hand remains unchanged, doing its simple shell business.

Here’s how it sounds:

 

Now, it’s time to make the left hand pattern beautiful 😃

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What’s new here? A couple of things: first of all, I’ve switched to 8th triplets for the more animato sound, second of all, I’ve arpeggiated everything 🤓 The structure is now the following: normal broken 10th, broken 10th in 1st inversion (yes, you can invert 10th chords just like the normal ones), regular triad arpeggio, root played one octave up, 7-3-5 voicing one octave up, played harmonically. As I said earlier, it might look like a lot of stuff, but you will be surprised by how naturally these structures blend into each other. All of this creates a sonic texture that is not anymore a repeating pattern, but rather a smooth flow.

 

It does restart the same way when the chord changes, but there is a way to tame that as well — I’ve recently written a whole post dedicated to that topic; so, let’s not veer too far for now.

As the last step, I would, of course, bring back the right hand and play— what should I play? Well, I was playing shell chords up until now, what shall I do? (Voice from the back of the room: “Play them melodically!”) Yes! Arpeggiated shells or, if you want to get more science-y, shell permutations are the perfect starting point for the improvisation. From there, you’re free to build up on top of that and create a more sophisticated melody.

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As you can see, I used different kinds of shells for different parts of progression: 7-3-5 for Em and D and 3-7-9 for G. Check it out:

 

I’m not sure if this is more fun that cycling Dorian scales over minor 7th chords and then all Mixolydian over dominant 7ths, but something tells me that it might— Anyway, I hope you found this post insightful and this practice routine will be helpful for you in some way! Thanks for reading and listening, that’s it for today.

Next time, I’m going to be looking into some new bass patterns (take a break from 10ths shall we? 😄) Have fun and — harmonise ’till it hurts!

Dorian superposition and the bottomless pit of melodies

So, let’s talk about modal superposition, shall we? I guess there were a lot of relatively technical (to avoid the word boring) posts in the recent time where I was mostly talking about scale practice and left hand patterns and whatnot — let’s take a break from that and look at composition.

I adore modes. They’re pure math that lends itself very well to the creative process (which is normally the opposite). They help you widen your composition framework and explore new areas. The cool thing about them is that you don’t have to master them in order to start using them. It’s kind of counter-intuitive as most jazz books assume that you’re familiar with Dorian scale in every key to such extent where you can improvise and harmonise without any effort. That scares a lot of people (me included), so they get stuck and spend years diligently running all the scales and memorising chord qualities, never really getting to the actual application. But that’s wrong!

You can start applying modes right away. The key is, it’s not about taking a particular Dorian scale and blasting it over a minor 7th chord at lightspeed. Instead, it’s more about picking E Dorian key and then adjusting your tools to match its colour.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

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Here, I chose to play the 3rd degree of the harmonised Dorian scale (the III∆7 chord) in different shell voicings over the tonic (which is the i7, in this case, represented by a simple 5th chord). The same pattern is played in 3 keys: E, A and D Dorian.

I guess I’ve already mentioned the usefulness of jazz chord voicings like 7-3-5 or 3-7-9 or 3-7-6 — you name it — but I’ll do it once again: they are great material for improvisation, and they are extremely simple to play, because all you have to do is just arpeggiate the shapes you’re already familiar with (if you’re not, practice them harmonically first, I’ve got tons of workouts for that plus there are jazz books).

So, by superimposing G∆7 (Dorian III∆7) over Em7 (Dorian i7) we get a really nice and interesting sound — and that’s already a starting point for a song or improvisation. Cool, right? You don’t need to master Dorian mode in all 12 keys (or — 30 keys, you geeks) to start coming up with great ideas.

Let’s improve the piece above and add some more patterns to it:

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It’s the same melody, only the left hand now plays full minor 7th arpeggio and switches to chord shells every second bar. See what I’ve done here? The right hand uses the arpeggiated version of the chord shells as the material for the melody, and the left hand plays the same shells harmonically as an accompaniment. Check out how it sounds:

 

Fun fact: one of the tracks from my coming piano EP is based on this workout, so — stay tuned if you’d like to hear the full version! 🤓 (In the meantime, you might want to check out my new album that landed just two days ago.)

That’s it for today, wishing you a nice and productive week, practice hard, harmonise till it hurts, talk to you next time! 🤙🏻

Practice session: Locrian dissection and more

Scale studies

Improv

  • Always on my mind
    • Shells
    • 10ths
    • Free improv

Observations

When playing from the chord chart, there is always a temptation to look on it even after you already know the progression by heart. It could be helpful to try and memorise the chords in the process of improvising to be able to look away from the chart and concentrate on introducing new left hand patterns and right hand runs.