Tune Learning

I find that many of my students learn a tune, and a year later, it’s forgotten. I think learning a tune is both an aural and an analytical process. In addition to listening to different recorded versions of a tune, (until you can sing the melody, and learn the lyrics if there are any) it’s really necessary to isolate the melody and harmony (both the chords and bass line) and master those. I’ve figured out a good step-by-step process to doing this. First practice the melody slowly, with a metronome, until it’s secure, then go on to the following steps.





Practicing: Part 1 – Warming up

I’m a big fan of a 15-to-20-minute warm-up. It relaxes me, focuses my attention on the tasks ahead and loosens up my fingers, hands and arms. I don’t focus on the individual fingers too much; rather, I like to make sure my arm rotation is happening … from left (as I play the thumb on my right hand) to right (as I play the fifth finger), and vice versa on the left hand. Allow the hand and arm to play the notes, unless the tempo is REALLY fast. Then engage the fingers, but don’t play too loud. Use full arm and shoulder weight for really loud passages.

More on this later. Today we’ll give you a great warm-up routine.

I got this from my teacher at Duke, the late Loren Withers, who was a student of Ernest Hutcheson, a former president of the Juilliard School. First, acquire, if you don’t have it already, the classic Hanon studies book (Schirmer, Vol. 925). On pages 50 through 64, he has very good fingerings for the 12 major and minor scales. Incidentally, his alternative fingering for the chromatic scale, on the bottom of page 64, I like very much.

Pick a metronome marking of, perhaps, quarter note = 60. Then practice your scales the following way:

Play scales in quarter note = 60, one octave. Start mp, get gradually louder, don’t stop on top, just get there, maybe at a forte dynamic, and come back, getting softer to the original mp.

Think about sound … make each note RIGHT with the metronome. No bumps in the sound; make the crescendo and diminuendo even and musical.

Now play in eighth notes, two octaves. Same approach.

Then, triplet eighths, three octaves.

Finally, 16th notes, four octaves. If this isn’t possible, either slow down the tempo or leave out the 16th notes for now. It’s important to have even tone, consistent crescendo/diminuendo and perfect rhythm. I have done this every day for 35 years (except for my occasional days off!!!).

Then I do my chromatic scale, starting on C. If I’m feeling good, I might omit the quarter notes here and go right to the eighth notes. Same approach.

Next, I would tackle dominant seventh chords (Hanon, pp. 70-71).

Quarter notes one octave, eighth notes two octaves, triplet eighths three octaves, 16th notes four octaves. Don’t skip any steps. Think rhythmically, and think about great tone. That’s what I love about the piano; even if you’re a beginner, you can get a great sound right away.

Next, use the same approach for major and minor triads. (Hanon pp. 65-68).

I’m not a huge fan of pounding through the Hanon uncritically, but there are some exercises in it that are of value:

On a particular day, I might pick one from pp. 22-43 and run it through a mode I’m trying to learn — in all keys, of course. I also think the trill exercise on pp. 76-77 is worthwhile. Keep the hand relaxed, and let the arm rotation help you execute the trill. Don’t do it with just the fingers.

Many of the Hanon exercises concern themselves with technical problems in mid-19th-century piano music and are not as useful to the modern jazz player. I’d rather a student practice Bach two-part inventions, easier Mozart and Beethoven, and Chopin preludes and etudes. I think you can get technically all you need to be a fine jazz pianist from these composers, throwing in a little Debussy and Ravel for tone color and balance.

Jazz Harmony for Piano: Volume 1

I constantly get questions about how to develop good jazz piano voicings. I’m currently writing a book about  this very topic. Here are a few examples from it, and how to practice them.

1. There are two basic versions of every voicing: one with the 3rd  (above the bass) on the bottom (the A version) and one with the 7th  (above the bass) on the bottom (the B version).  Good voice leading switches the two, so that the 3rd in the m7 chord resolves to the 7th in the next chord, and the 7th to the 3rd. Simply play this progression, and keep going with the pattern established; Am7 D7 Gmaj7, Gm7 C7 Fmaj7, Fm7 Bb7 Ebmaj7, Ebm7 Ab7 Dbmaj7, C#m7 F#7 Bmaj7, Bm7 E7 Amaj7.  Notice each series of three chords progresses downward in whole steps.

2. In this example, the same progression is played, but now in descending half  steps.

3. This is the same as #1, but with the 3rd and 7th reversed.

4. This is the same as #2, but with the 3rd and 7th reversed.

5. This is the same as #1, but with an added note, either the 9th or the 6th. The right hand is actually a great left hand voicing, too. So practice this with the hands reversed. Same with #6.

6. Same as #2 with the added note.

7. Now, we’ve added a 3rd or 7th to the left hand. This is called a “shell” voicing, and often serves in bebop piano as a minimal accompaniment to a linear right hand when there’s no bass player. We’ve changed the right hand so there’s no 3rd  or 7th. Notice that there’s NO duplication of notes. This makes the voicing more sophisticated and contemporary sounding.

8. Same concept as #7 with the harmonic progression of #2. I’ve transposed the voicings so they sound good even when they get lower. In general, avoid the 3rd sounding below the C below middle C.

- Bill Cunliffe

Jazz Harmony for Piano: Volume 2

Here are some ideas that allow you to play a given voicing in many different contexts. My feeling is, you don’t need that many materials, but you need what you have in all keys and situations.
Back in the ’40s, people derived voicings from upper extensions of chords (b9, sharp 11, etc.). That’s still useful today, but most modern voicings come out of scales. We could start with Dorian (for the minor 7th chord), Lydian (for the major 7th chord) and Lydian b7 (for the dominant). First of all, be comfortable with these in all keys. I tend to take a scale and do it in all keys once a day, then on following days rotate through all the other scales I want to learn, such as diminished, melodic minor ascending (jazz minor), altered, Locrian sharp 2 and half step/whole step. My good friend Bob Sheppard, on the other hand, takes a key and plays all his stuff in that key during a practice session. I think that’s great, especially for A, E, B and F sharp, scales I need to deal with more often than I do.
Let’s work on the first one, C Dorian. It’s very helpful to use this scale in all sorts of vertical arrays. Here are some of the most important ones. Pick the ones you enjoy the most, and go through all 12 keys with them.
Spend 10 minutes a day doing this, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly your melodic and harmonic vocabulary expands. You should do these with the left hand as well as the right.Now, to expand your comping vocabulary, I’d suggest these patterns:

Do in all keys. I promise you’ll play better once you learn to do this. You’ll have more lines, too, because if you hear it in your left hand, it will come out in your right.
Start with the modes you use the most, and get those happening. Better to have this down in three modes than partially mastered in a bunch. Having them down in the six modes mentioned above is a great long-term goal.

Basics of Accompanying Singers: Volume 2

This is my last installment on working with singers, and I thought I might delve a bit into the psychological aspects.

We instrumentalists often forget that the voice is the most difficult instrument to “play.” You have to have a good ear just to even have a shot at singing. If you don’t look great and have tremendous stage presence, most people won’t even listen to what you are doing. You could wake up and not have your instrument working. When you are sick, it often totally impairs your instrument, and you can’t work.

Now, it is true that some singers are utterly focused on their difficulties in doing what they are supposed to do, and it can come off to others as self-absorption or ego. But most are just trying to do the best they can. What if you woke up one morning and went to the piano to practice, and it was sick and wouldn’t make a sound for days?

Anyway, a bit of psychology is good for all relationships, musical and otherwise. So let’s talk about how we can form relationships with singers that help both them and us.

The first thing to realize in all relationships is that everyone’s DNA is slightly different, and what works with one person won’t necessarily work with another. The second thing is, no matter how difficult a relationship might be, both people are usually doing the best they can and have good intentions. So it’s important to grasp with a singer what she needs to be at her best, and what makes you feel good about it, and try to reach that happy medium. (Feminine pronouns used here for simplicity.) See, it’s a two-way thing. We need to serve our singers, but the relationship has to serve and please us, too.

I have a little theory about that. The reasons I play music are threefold. I like music, I like cool people, and I like money. I usually need two out of three. One out of three usually isn’t enough. So … good singer, nice person, not great bread, I would do it. Especially getting started. Great bread, not a good singer, not a nice person, probably not, if I could help it.

So it’s important to know why you do gigs. If things don’t go well one night, then you have perspective on why you are there. If it’s three out of three, then a bad night won’t shake you. Because there will always be bad nights. But know why you do gigs, and when you accept a gig with a barely adequate singer who is a nice person and the gig pays well, DON’T COMPLAIN! You knew going in what this was about. Know what you want, and choose what you want.

Now, singers have different needs. I have worked with Maureen McGovern, a wonderful vocalist who has intricately scripted stage patter, tight arrangements and virtuosic scat vocals that are written out beforehand and sung with great sound and perfect intonation. Timing is everything. Like a great play, everything has to be just so, and it’s really exciting when it is.

Jane Monheit, another terrific singer I’ve worked with, has skeletal lead sheets and has me make up intros, and everyone solos on almost every tune. It’s a different kind of pleasure, equally wonderful.

Now, to Maureen, tempos are CRITICAL. Jane doesn’t care quite as much. When we do rubato stuff with just piano and vocal (they call it “colla voce” in New York), their approaches are completely different. With Maureen, the part is partially written out, and I have to match her timing exactly. Although I follow her most of the time, occasionally I pull the tempo back and occasionally I push it. All of this is rehearsed and is almost exactly the same every time.

Now, within this context, I can reharmonize the tune in a myriad of ways. And even though the tempos are largely similar from night to night, sometimes when I know Maureen is going to take time on a long note, I will put in a little ritard before she hits that note. Makes it feel really dramatic and spacious.

With Jane there is a lot more freedom. There are only lead sheets, and sometimes not even those. So I really have to know the tunes intimately. If I don’t know the melody, I might step on her when I am doing fills. Remember that fills should normally be done only during spaces in the vocal, or when the vocalist is holding a note for a while. Jane will sometimes change the melody and “back phrase” (sing behind the beat).

You have to know whether you are supposed to go with the singer or keep your place and let her stay behind and catch up to you. This comes from knowing the singer and what she wants. It becomes instinct after a while. But you have to know the music first. No substitute for that.

– From an article originally published in Gig Magazine

On Accompanying Singers

Working with singers can be a reliable source of income for pianists. Singers get a lot of gigs, both in clubs and touring, which can be very lucrative. In addition, they always need you to coach them (to help them learn new music), to do lead sheets for them, to arrange songs for them, to make rehearsal tapes for them and to record with them. In fact, many of the best-known rock, pop and jazz pianists got their start in the business working with singers. When I find that jazz gigs are scarce, I can always pick up a little singer work. So be open to this.

Working with singers also provides a number of musical benefits. First, you learn tunes you didn’t know before. Pianists who know tunes always work. And you learn the lyrics (at least in part). The lyrics help you recall the exact notes of a melody and help you phrase correctly.

Second, working with singers is great training for ensemble playing. Many solo pianists can’t work with other people because they haven’t learned to play with a steady beat or to speed up and slow down with another instrumentalist or a singer.

Third, because the voice is the original musical instrument, I find that pianists who work with singers often develop beautiful tone and a lovely sense of melody in the right hand. Check out “The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album” and “Ella Sings Gershwin,” with underrated pianist Ellis Larkins. I always suggest that pianists sing while they play — this makes their lines better (for example, Keith Jarrett!). You might play a wrong note, but you never SING a wrong note, and if you play what you sing, it all works out.

So the singer gives you a lead sheet and says, “We need to find my key.” There is always the old trial-and-error method of pounding through the tune half a dozen times, but here’s an easier way:

Look at the music and determine the point of the song where the melody is highest. This is often near the end of the tune. Now, have the singer sing this part in full voice WITHOUT giving him his note. (I’m using male pronouns here for simplicity.) Match the top note that he sings on the piano and see where it is in relation to the corresponding top note in the sheet music. Suppose the top note that he sings is a minor third down from what’s on the sheet music. If the piece is in E-flat, then his key is a minor third down from there. C. Simple as that. This can save a lot of time, as singers sometimes are very insecure about not knowing their key and very sensitive about it being just right, especially if the song has a wide range. A typical pop song might have a range of an octave, a jazz standard a bit more.

Now, I am a fairly good transposer, but there are some transpositions that drive me crazy, like down a fourth. I’d take the time at this point to write in all the chord changes in the new key, especially if there are a lot of them, so that when the singer and I play through the tune, I can make some music rather than being in transposing hell. Before I do this, I double-check all the repeats, DS’s and codas (I mark them with a highlighter if I have to) and make sure I know the road map. Then I ask the singer to count off the tune. Most good singers have excellent rhythmic senses. I find the right tempo for the tune on the metronome and write it ON the music. Saves time later.

Next, some important rules and tips for playing the right stuff behind a singer.

From an article originally published in Gig Magazine.

“Pensativa” by Clare Fischer

One of our great treasures, the wonderful Clare Fischer, passed away earlier this year. One of his closest associates, the multi-instrumentalist Gary Foster, who is on the faculty at Cal State Fullerton, where I teach, gave me this music the other day. This is the authentic item, in Clare’s own hand, of his best known composition, Pensativa, a tune I have loved and played for years.
This will be required learning of all jazz pianists at CSUF, I can tell you!
Notice the absolutely precise inner part voice-leading, and the interesting “passing chords” he used. None of the “real books” out there correctly reflects all the nuances that Clare put into this piece, and, indeed, all of his work.
If you appreciate a particular voicing here, be sure to run it through all keys. I suggest going first up the chromatic scale with it, then do it in whole steps on both whole tone scales, and then in minor thirds, major thirds and then perfect fourths. When I run it in fourths, I go up a fourth and down a fifth, so I don’t run out of room so quickly. Art Tatum would do this with a two handed major 7th chord very effectively.

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