Sunday, December 23, 2007

Developing Jazz Piano Technique: Scale Practice

Welcome YouTube and other viewers. This is the first tutorial in a series of a videos that well help piano players (and others) with technical issues on the instrument. Before we start, I would like to take a brief moment to discuss something important I find many pianist disregard in their own practice routines. There are two ways to easily injure yourself at the piano. The first is poor posture. The second is not stetching. Believe it or not, there are actually 35 muscles in the hand and forearm responsible for hand movement. All of them should be properly warmed up before attempting these exercises. (See the end of this article for reference on posture and stretching)

Scale Practice: These exercises can and should be applied to any scales. These include major, minor (all forms), diminished, pentatonics, etc. You may even want to apply this method to chords and arpeggios!
The goal of these exercises is not only to develop velocity at the piano, but to develop a good sound. YOUR sound. Like it or not, you were born with the hands you have and you can't change them. Long, short, skinny, chubby... you're hands are unique to you alone and they were made to produce YOUR own personal sound. Sure, you can change the sound you make through articulation, phrasing, and technique, but ultimately the physical characteristics of your body will determine the sound you produce. Your goal is to make it sound as good as possible! Bill Evans' described it best as "breathing" your voice in to the piano.

Exercise #1:

Do not set the metronome for this exercise. Play each note of the scale clearly and distinctly. Feel the weight of the keys and the ivories (or plastic) under your fingertips. Practice going up the scales freely and slowly. You're listening purely for the tone you produce with each strike of the key. Ask yourself... how softly can I play while producing a solid sound. How loud can I play using the least amount of energy? Relax and ENJOY your sound. This is you!
The rest of these exercises should be performed consecutively for each of the scales. I will go through one rotation for the B Major scale to give you an idea of how each should be practiced.

Exercise #2:

Set your metronome for 40 bpm. We will be playing quarter notes through this exercise. Play the four octave scale using the correct fingering (see link below for reference). If you have trouble playing all four octaves, just start out with one or two. Listen to the sound you are producing! It should be clear and resonant. Remember, if it sounds good, it probably is good!

Exercise #3:

Leave your metronome at 40 bpm. We will be playing eighth notes for this exercise. By doing so we double the speed of the previous exercise. If this becomes too easy it might be a good time to check out the variations (which will be added later)!

Exercise #4:

Leave your metronome at 40 bpm. We will be playing sixteenth notes for this exercise. By doing so we double the speed of exercise #3. Don't forger to concentrate on using correct fingering and producing a solid sound.

Play exercises 2-4 on one scale then move on to the next. Take these exercises through all 12 keys.
I have three additional variations for these exercises planned. Let me know what you think and be sure and ask if there is anything you would like me to cover!

Reference Links:

Dr. Robert Kelly has an excellent chart on fingerings for major and minor scales.

On piano posture:

First of all, I highly recommend getting a teacher or at least talking to a professional about it. You can develop habits that feel right but may be detremental to your playing and health. There are however some excellent videos on YouTube and articles on the net. Just search for "piano posture" or "piano technique."

I may consider doing my own video on hand position in the future.
Thanks to Tom for also recommending me to this link:
I found the section on "Injuries" to be very interesting and I will be ordering his book soon.

Free Jazz lessons sponsored by:


  1. Nice exercises! There is not enough emphasis these days on just passive listening to one's sound and on effortless playing. Nicely written!

    The jazz genre in general seems to lend itself to the development of unique tone quality of each pianist. I cannot say that I'm enough of a classical piano aficionado to notice examples of this nature in that genre. There are obvious examples of uniqueness, such as some of Sviatoslav Richter's Debussy recordings. And of course, there are a number of factors including the piano and the recording / performing environment.

    But there are many great jazz pianists whose sound one can immediately identify on many of their recordings based on a combination of their tone and the content of their playing (Bill Evans, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea immediately come to mind). I could be missing something, but it does seem to me that there is less individuality of tone among classical pianists, though many have excellent training and can make the instrument sing. The development of individual tone is a VERY important idea in jazz, and thank you for talking about it here.

    The idea of effortless playing is extremely important for technical facility. Too much downward pressure on the hand 'bogs down' the fingers and makes good finger facility next to impossible. Using a parallel of physical exercise to illistrate, it's a little like trying to do a sit up while forcing one's self to arch the chest in a convex manner -- doing the exercise with the prescribed muscle group while no other muscles are allowed to assist.

    One small observation: In exercise #3, second sentence, did you mean "eighth" notes, not "eight" notes (nit picky, I know).

    Thank you again -- I hope you have many visits to your site, and I will surely point people here!

    Dan Waldis
    Assistant Adjunct Professor
    University of Utah Music Department

  2. I respect the opinion of Dan Waldis because I studied piano with him for a while and he has great technique, keeping his fingers low to the keyboard and using great speed. John Wright, piano student and teacher in Utah

  3. thats an awsome article. thanks.


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