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!

How to practice basic sh*t and sound fancy while doing it

Got an intense workout for you today! In case you’re still struggling with inversions — maybe they’re something you’ve brushed over earlier and now it seems almost embarrassing to go back and invest time in such a BASIC thing that, obviously, every two-year-old can play without a second thought (right?). I mean, that’s my case. I’ve always been too cool for triad inversions, that’s why I still mess them up in the middle of the piece and that’s why I’ve come up with this workout that would hopefully also help other people who are in the similar awkward situation. Want to practice basic shit and sound cool? Here’s the way.

Before I proceed to the sheet music — just a side note: this is, in fact, the third workout in the series that I started last year, so feel free to check the previous variations (they might sound a bit less fancy, but should be easier to play):

Inversions & Extensions I
Inversions & Extensions II

Now on to the new one:

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Here I’m combining two technical skills to take the dull, mechanistic element from the seemingly boring routine and make it sound musical and actually make practice enjoyable. That’s the goal of this blog, in case you didn’t know! 😄 In this exercise, the right hand plays moving inversions of the major triads: root — 1st — 2nd — root again, while the left plays the melodic pattern consisting of diatonic intervals. I’ve chosen major 3rds, 6ths, 7ths as the “colour” tones and added my favourite extension: the 10th (the 3rd octave up, in other words) that is known to instantly make everything sexy and jazzy. Just playing this figure over moving inversions already sounds like music, and not like aimless inversion drill.

What’s next?

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Yeah! I took the whole thing and played it around the cycle of 4ths (here I randomly start on E major and go to D major for demonstration purposes; you can go all the way from C if you wish). The main enrichment here is that instead of one diatonic pattern (10-3-6-7), I’m playing two, emphasising the 7ths and the 6ths. It introduces some diversity (right when you need it) and is actually so fun to play that you would be willing to cycle it all day! Take a listen:

There are, of course, countless ways to embellish and extend this routine, but I’ll just briefly cover one more:

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What should you do when adding major 10ths does not make your line any sexier? That’s right: add more major 10ths in bass! Here, I am not changing the right hand pattern, but rather employing a new device in the left hand to make the overall sound less monotone and piano practice-y. It works! Here’s an audio fragment:

Okay, that’s it for today, I hope it was helpful! Feel free to comment and add your suggestions or share practice tips. I’m also trying to make the posts a little more— er— clickable, shall I say? — by adding the audio clips of the passages that I list here, so you could get an idea of what’s going on right away, before even trying it at the keyboard. Let me know if it’s helpful. And — harmonise ’till it hurts! 🤙🏻