Jazz Piano Lesson #3: The philosophy of a practice session


Off I go to the piano. That means taking a look and a think at Oscar Beringer’s exercises, Grieg’s lyric pieces, and an amazing fake book with the verses for most of the tunes, the correct melodies, and even in most cases the correct chord changes. About Grieg’s lyric pieces: if you improvise at the piano in whatever style at all, whether jazz, freely, classically imitating Mozart, or whatever, there’s so much to learn about voice leading and just plain old “good pianism” in those pieces by Grieg.

If fact, they’re piano gems. Maybe I should say:

A gem has to have many facets. Therefore Grieg’s lyric pieces for piano meet that definition. For me and I know for many others.

Correct and correctness at the piano

Now, about that word “correct,” that I applied to the fake book I mentioned. First of all, I always hesitate to say correct when working with anything at the piano. Because if we take right and wrong out of the piano picture we’re left with is a path on which we travel. A learning path. If we mindfully follow the path and take in feedback as we get it and as it comes, well, right and wrong, they’re binary oppositions that need not apply.

So, what I mean when I say that that the melody and chord changes are correct in that fake book, what I mean is either they’re there as the composer wrote them. Or, they’re there as they’ve come to be altered in the jazz tradition at the level of and by Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, etc. And how do I know that? … 🙂

Experience at the piano

THIS is where experience, experience in particular at the piano, comes in to the picture. I have a sense of the quality of that fake book from years of piano experience using from these kinds of things and playing and discussing and listening to jazz with a wide cross-section of musicians. It’s a combination of listening to canonical jazz recordings, “sussing” out the chord changes as jazz musicians say, and also taking a look at songbooks where the piano arrangement was written by the composer, Cole Porter or George Gershwin, for example

What all above goes to is

Why do we practice the things that we do? And what do we hope to get from those things that we practice?

But why do we practice at or with the piano?

Well, all pianists practice. Yes? A given? But what’s important is when we practice we move towards some goal or along some path such that we can know whether or not we’re moving on the path or stalling in the middle of said path. If we have that knowledge then it means that however we’re doing it we’re getting feedback as we move along the path of piano practice.

Yet, it’s ironic but it’s true, or it’s a truism?  Isn’t stalling on the practice path itself a mode of feedback that we get at the piano. Or maybe better to say it in the affirmative:

Stalling at the piano during a practice session is indeed feedback!

What is the question of or at the piano?

Therefore, for me, the important thing about states and objects such as stalling, moving along the path, practicing, fake books, classical repertoire, old books that contain technical exercise (Oscar Beringer)—the important thing for the piano and pianism comes from a question:

What do we need to do to make our piano practice sessions as efficient and as productive and as fun as possible?

Well, fun being fun, I always recommend fun as the first metric for any practice session or concert or anything even remotely related to the piano.

It’s has to be fun!

About fun at the piano

So, those old Oscar Beringer exercises and fun. Those exercises can easily be dry and not fun. They can be totally joyless for that matter!

My way to produce fun with them is to remold bits and pieces of them. I remold bits and pieces so they might, for example, resemble excerpts from Bela Bartok’s Mikrokosmos, itself, a well-known and much-used piece of piano pedagogy.

In particular, I look to make sure exercises I’m playing from Berenger focus on the major and minor third in a key. When I say focus, what I mean is when I’m playing excerpts from Berenger I’m looking to remold how he used the third scale step in his major and minor exercises.

For absolute clarity, there’s nothing unique in how Beringer used thirds. His harmonies are as common-practice and ubiquitous as things can be. That means he provides excellent source material for remodelling. Because what applies in the way of remodeled harmony or counterpoint in his exercises will just as well apply in a million other contexts.

But before Berenger, perhaps think Mozart. Experiment with the first measure of K545. It’s a good measure with which to experiment because it’s so well known. The thing to try is:

In that one measure, where and how can E be transformed into Eb and vice versa: where and how can Eb return to E natural. The only constraint is while Eb and E natural shouldn’t sound simultaneously, they can both exist at different points in the same measure. And, of course, that constraint is artificial. We add it or we try it only to see what happens.

Fun, for example

With Berenger, I might take a measure or two or more and transpose the RH diatonically up a major third. Then, assuming the exercise is in a major key, I’ll put flats or sharps in either hand as needed and always to taste such that key and tonality are eroded.

Not eradicated. Just challenged a little bit. Challenged as in: If we can’t tell if we’re in a major or a minor key but we are somewho relating to a tonic then we’ve got a challenge. There’s a question there as there was with the altered Mozart measure. It’s a very simple question:

What key are we in?

One of the fun things we can do at the piano is question assumptions we bring to music in the first place. Those assumptions can be simple as why do I like this and not that? Or they can be more complex—as if the preceding question about what we like or don’t isn’t complex.

Therefore, a question that’s arguably simpler could be—but this part depends very much on what interests you and how YOU like to have fun at the piano. The question is: What key are we in?

For example:

Assume we have 5 notes in each hand


I’ll redo that to get

RH: Eb F G# B

And what’s the result? Why do as I’ve just done? The answer is:

When I go to improvise at the piano, this sort of experiment let’s me see and hear how a major third and a minor third—natural 3 and flat 3—exist side-by-side, actually, really, and very comfortably, in a passage that might otherwise be in a major or a minor key, meaning the 3rd scale degree is either natural or flat but never some combination of both.

That’s quite the insight if only because every theory book, meaning every undergraduate theory textbook that I know of says right off that things are in major or minor keys. And most of the repertoire we might play up until the early 20th century affirms:

Music is in a key and the status of the 3rd scale degree tells us whether we’re in a major or a minor key.

What I’ve described is a small, simple, effective, and perhaps slightly subversive way to go towards improvisation without begin constrained by chords or scales. And to think about the significance of that for a second: Just about every jazz or improvisation text I know of places either scales or chords at the centre of a major, important question, which is:

How to improvise?

When we improvise we like to think we’re making music with no constraints. At least I think that’s an important part of what we thinkg.

However, chords and scale are in of themselves constraints. They’re constraints because they say, very literally, that we can use that note or this note but not some note over there. We can’t use that not over there becauser it’s not In some particular chord or scale. In fact, that idea of exclusivity has a name in some improvisation texts. The note we can’t use, at the piano or elsewhere, is called an avoid tone.

So how do we affirmatively answer the question of how to improvise? It’s actually simple, at least in concept.

Follow, as it emerges, the shape and flow of a line.

What’s next?

Being at the piano and considering the shape and flow of an improvised line. That requires more explanation and it’s coming. In another blog post on the piano, improvisation and practicing! But at the meantime, it’s never bad practice time and, actually, in fact, it’s fabulous practice time:

Sit at the piano, listen to the melody that you hear internally in your head, and then play it. If, for whatever reason you don’t hear a melody then make one up as you go and respond to the pitch and pitches it contains as you make it up. What’s key, core, and central is FOLLOW YOUR EAR.

Nota brevis, at and for the piano, of course

Here’s a link to a conversation between Ornette Coleman—himself a follower of the improvised line—and Jacques Derrida—a philosopher who may not be in fashion or popular now but nonetheless left us with a word we use all the time, which is deconstruct.

Ornette Coleman and Jacque Derrida. Indeed, that’s quite the juxtaposition. Follow the line.