When most of us think about practicing jazz piano technique we usually think of the same old boring exercises that piano players have been playing for countless years. Things like scale practice, arpeggios, Hanon exercises, and playing classical pieces.
Now, to be fair these technique studies can be useful in certain ways but they don’t seem to be a direct path to help us become better jazz musicians.
So, what technique exercises and/or studies can we do to specifically improve our jazz playing?
A Funny But Sad Story
By the time I was 18 I knew I wanted to be a jazz musician. I really wanted to learn how to play well! So, I practiced lots and lots. I used to practice my classical pieces and hanon exercises for hours everyday. Wow, could I burn at Hanon! The more I practiced Hanon the faster I got at them. Sadly, I couldn’t solo that well but boy could I play Hanon
My fingers could move fast but when I would jam with other musicians nothing came out right. I left many jam sessions feeling frustrated. Playing Hanon and 4 octave scales up an down everyday just didn’t lead to great jazz. I left a jam session so frustrated one night that I knew I had to immediately change the way I practiced. That was my rude awakening
Just practicing technique in the traditional classical way won’t lead you to your goal of becoming a better jazz musician.
So, what can jazz musicians practice to not only improve our overall technical control of the instrument but also lead directly to us playing better jazz?
Fortunately, I’ve had 15 years more experience , countless hours of practice, and over a thousand gigs under my belt since then. So, I’d like to share with you the discoveries I’ve made since then. Here are 3 improved ways of practicing jazz piano technique.
A Jazz Piano Technical Routine
How I Practice Scales
1. When I warmup I’ll usually warm up with scales but I’ll do it in a very different way than what is traditionally done.
Playing scales in straight eighth notes or sixteenth 4 octaves up and down the piano with a metronome on every beat is not very jazzy!
Since I mostly perform jazz and blues I practice my scales almost exclusively with a swing feel. In order for me to make sure my swing feel is really happening I’ll usually set the metronome to click just on beats 2 and 4. This emulates a high-hat and the 2 and 4 accent pattern you’ll hear in a jazz rhythm section.
I also will put on the great jam track program Band-in-A-Box and play my scales swinging over a I-VI-II-V-I chord progression in each key. It’s all about being musical and simulating real musical situations. In this case it’s playing behind a groove and a chord progression.
Jazz Transcriptions…yes. Hanon….no.
2. Instead of playing Hanon exercises or other etudes I’ll practice what I consider the real jazz etudes. Specifically, I spend my time trying to execute transcriptions of challenging solos I’ve personally transcribed.
This in itself can be a phenomenal resource for learning technique. Not only am I studying jazz licks, jazz phrasing, but I’m also being challenged on the technical level.
It probably wouldn’t be musically appropriate for me to play a scale run that Beethoven composed on my next gig but I can definitely throw in a technically challenging Chick Corea or Bill Evans lick that I’ve been practicing. (If you need a good jazz transcription to get you started you can check out this Barry Harris Transcription)
Jazz Licks = Piano Tricks
3. Another immensely useful things I do for developing my piano technique is practicing licks. When I practice licks I make sure to practice them in all 12 keys and try to speed up the tempos while maintaining a good rhythmic feel.
This is a goldmine for improving my technique. As I’m sure you noticed in your own playing it’s usually easier to play certain licks in some keys more than others. Spending the time to figure out why that is has payed off for me in a very deep way!
I ask myself what I can do technically to realize an idea just as well perhaps in Ab as in the key of C or the key of D?
For example, Do I need to curl my fifth finger more? Is my pinkie sticking up more than it should? Do I need to move my thumb under more quickly on a crossover? Do I have to much weight one side of my hand and not the other? When I move my thumb under does it create an accent where there shouldn’t be?
All these things can effect your swing feel. Learning how to navigate different keys has made my finger motions much more efficient.
I know that I wasted alot of time early in my jazz studies practicing technique incorrectly.
How about you? How do you practice your technique?
(I’d like to thank a reader of this site by the name of Ken for the inspiration to write this article.)
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