Improvising Using Just Black Notes

Thursday, November 21st, 2013 - 3 Comments

In my ongoing effort to convince everyone that they have what it takes to sit down at a piano and have some fun, and even improvise a little bit, I want to give you a little exercise that will help you to be able to do just that to create some really nice sounding music on the piano. More than anything though, I want to prove that the prevalent thinking that you either have the “gift” or you don’t—isn’t true regarding your ability to improvise or play for that matter. Today’s tip covers improvising using just black notes.

Here are two chords you will need to play with your left hand

F#, A# and C# (F# chord)

F#, B and D# (B chord, which is inverted)

Spend about one minute jumping between those two chords.

Now, here is the nice thing: By using those 2 chords and nothing else in your left hand, you can play anything with your right hand if you stick only to the black notes. Anything you play will melodically sound just fine, so you can play without any stress of worrying about hitting a “clam” or a wrong note.

As unbelievable as that sounds there actually is some theory behind it, as it is based on what is called the Pentatonic Scale (but you don’t need to know any of that just to have some fun and to sound good too).

The move you improvise, the easier it will be to make something up rhythmically that sounds pretty good. To prove my point, (Scott plays the piano). Right, no matter what you play, it will sound OK. Now, I’m playing on a digital piano, so I’m going to take advantage of the fact that there is a rhythm section on this thing. I’m going to start a drum beat behind it. I’ll noodle around a bit to show you what I mean. Here we go. (Scott demonstrates improvising by playing all black notes with his right hand while playing the 2 chords in his left hand.) I can do that on and on …

By doing that I hope that you will start to feel that you are the “creator” instead of the re-creator of the music that you play. This is a good first step to use to get started into the world of improvisation in a stress free and pain free environment. I hope this will be a liberating experience for you without having to worry about what chords you are on or which notes you are playing …

What I really hope is that you continue to have fun playing piano.

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A Great Professional Blues Ending for Piano Players—Piano How to

Thursday, November 14th, 2013 - No Comments

This a great professional Blues ending to use with any blues or boogie-woogie tunes. Here is what it sounds like. I am going to play it in the key of C. I’m sure you have heard it a million times. You are going to play that on the last chord of the tune. If you are playing in the key of C that would be a C chord. You start out playing a C two octaves apart like this.

Here’s the left hand part. While holding down the C, you will walk down starting on a Bb. Pretty simple. Finger it any way you want. Use whatever is most comfortable.

Here’s the Right Hand part:  Starting by holding the C down with your pinky you will play this: G, C, F#, F, E.

To give it a little spice, using a slide up to the first G from the D# to the E. Like this …

Then you can put it together, and it will sound like this … Really nice, good, open voicing. One more ending you can add to your stack.

Have fun everybody!

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Boogie Woogie Riffs for Piano Players

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013 - 1 Comment

Today I would like to share with you a 2 part boogie woogie riff. I am going to show you what to do with both your right and left hands. Both patterns are pretty easy to do by themselves. I hope by the end of this tutorial that you will agree that this is one of the easiest boogie boogie riffs for piano players and great sounding too.

Left hand pattern is a simple boogie pattern in C. It is basically just the 3 notes that are in the C chord (C, F and G) and using the octaves.  I am playing it a little faster than you will in the beginning.

The right Hand Pattern reminds me of something that Jimmy Yancey from Chicago might play. I’m going to teach you a rhythmic pattern. It’s pretty simple because it is just thirds. In your right hand you will do this.  (Scott demonstrates.) The pattern goes like this. (Scott demonstrates.) I’ll play it very slowly this time.  (Scott demonstrates.) I know that you will have some hand coordination problems here. Go slowly. To finish play this try this.  (Scott demonstrates.)

If that is too tough try the shuffle pattern. It is a lot easier from a  coordination stand point. Just noodle around with the rhythm until you find something you like. Have fun. See you next time.

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Using the Pentatonic Scale for Piano Improvisation: Jazz Improvisation Tip

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013 - No Comments

Today I would like to share with you an easy, basic way to start improvising. Sometimes I think beginning piano students are a little intimidated by the whole process.

Here’s the tip:  You are going to play blues chords in your left hand, and in your right hand you are going to improvise  using 6 notes.

Left Hand: I will play these Blues Chords in root position so as not to confuse anyone:

C7 (C, E, G, Bb)

F7 (F, A, C, Eb)

G7 (G, B, D, F)

You are going to play those 3 chords in the blues chord progression. If you don’t already know the blues progression you will need to find that somewhere else such as by doing a quick google search.

Fingering Advise:  Simply slide your hand away from you so that your fingers slide up between the black notes. That way your thumb can play the note comfortably.

Right Hand: In your right hand you will play any of these 6 notes in any order: C, D, E, G,A and Eb. You can play anything you want as long as you stay playing only any of those 6 notes. You can vary the octave.

You can change up the left hand part by playing the chords in straight quarter notes like this. I’m just making this up as I go along with what I am playing in my right hand.

I used the Pentatonic Scale, but I added one bluesy note to it. So, I hope that you will agree with me when I say that my Jazz Improvisation Tip: Using the Pentatonic Scale for Piano Improvisation can really make getting started a lot less imtimidating for someone new to the world of improvising. Have fun!

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Jazzy Chord Changes for “Jingle Bells” on Keyboard or Piano

Friday, November 8th, 2013 - 1 Comment

I have some “jazzy” chord changes for “Jingle Bells” to give to you to help you play a really beautiful, modern version.

If you don’t know all these chords you can look them up either online or in a chord book to get the notes that comprise each chord.
I’m going to play it in the key of C. I’m also going to play the chords in root position at first. Here are the chord changes:

CMaj7, Dmin7, Emin7, Dmin7, CMaj7, F/G, CMaj7, Dmin7, G7, Emin7, Amin7, D7, F/G back to the beginning:

CMaj7, Dmin7, Emin7, Dmin7, CMaj7, F/G, CMaj7, Dmin7, G7, Emin7, A7, Dmin7, F/G back to C.

Note:  F/G is an F chord with a G in the bass.

If you want to add a jazzy chord in there for the ending try this:  Instead of the C, use a C#Maj7  (use my trick of of going a half step higher) then bring it down to the C.

I will split the chord tones between my right and left hands. I’ll always play the root on the bottom and the melody on the top.
There, that was a warm, nice, jazzy sounding chord changes for “Jingle Bells.” Merry Christmas!

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Don’t Read Music? That’s OK …

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013 - 21 Comments

Don’t Let the Tail Wag the Dog in Your Quest to Play Piano.

In my years of giving live workshops and hearing from thousands of viewers of my television programs, one constant fallacy has remained prevalent among what I affectionately call “wannabe” recreational piano players.

That fallacy is: Being a good note reader is a requirement to becoming a good piano player.

If you want to become a concert pianist and play concerts with symphony orchestras for a living, or make a living as an accompanist, then that probably is true. But assuming your interest lies instead in playing just about any and every other style, be it pop, jazz, blues, country, gospel, etc. for purely recreational reasons, then I disagree heartily with that belief. I would like to dispel that myth for many of you pining to start playing more piano, yet feeling hamstrung due to your lack of note reading prowess.

Although you can be good reader and a good player, you can also be a terrible reader and a good player. Even more interesting (or frustrating for those to whom this applies) is the case of being a great reader and a terrible piano player. Those tend to be the people who, when you ask them to sit down and play a tune, reply “Oh, I’d love to, but I didn’t bring my music.”

Somewhere along the line, the tail started wagging the dog when we started regarding music notation – ink on paper – and the ability to read it with more importance than what it was recording – the music itself. Sheet music isn’t music – it is music notation. Music is what you listen to, not what you read. Sheet music is simply a recording device.

I think it is important to realize that traditional music notation was developed long before the technology existed to record anything aurally. It was the only way you could hope to record and preserve something to give to someone else. Not surprisingly, it does a very adequate job of describing the popular music of the era when it was developed, that which we now call “classical” music.

However, for the popular music of this era, traditional music notation is at best a somewhat crude, not very accurate way to record on paper what is occurring in the aural dimension. The analogy is of a translator being forced to improvise while translating from one language to another because the words simply don’t exist in the other language. Similarly, there are myriad situations when traditional music notation doesn’t contain the “words” to accurately describe the music being played in many popular genres. How do you notate accurately the incredible swing feel of Oscar Peterson’s melodic lines while improvising, or the great, funky syncopation of great New Orleans Style players like Dr. John?  The answer is: you can’t.  The “words” simply don’t exist in the language of traditional music notation. The fact is, for non-classical styles of music, even if you become a good notation reader, traditional sheet music will not give you the information you need to play the style correctly due to the lack of “words” in traditional notation to describe non-classical techniques. Let there be no mistake, notation is an incredible aid in telling you what notes to play. It just can’t tell you how to play them.

Guitar players finally confronted this situation head-on years ago when they developed an entirely new type of notation known as tablature, which contains the graphic symbols, or “words,” needed to accurately describe the things that are required of a guitar player to play popular styles correctly.  Although piano players haven’t resorted to an entirely new “language” of notation like tablature, those who play non-classical styles professionally have for years used a style of notation that, unfortunately, is rarely taught by traditional piano teachers. It is called lead sheet notation and is dramatically easier to read. It was not developed to be easier as a “shortcut.” It was developed to allow a player of non-classical music to get to what is important, which is playing the tune well versus reading the tune well.

Because of this, I feel it tragic and sad that most beginners spends such an inordinate amount of time and effort trying to become good sheet music readers when, in fact, what they are trying to do is become good players. The vast majority of beginning students never get to a level of proficiency that allows them to have fun playing things they want to play, and thus, they drop out and consider themselves a failure at being able to play the piano. The reality is that they are failed notation readers, not failed piano players. The piano wasn’t the problem… it was the piano music.

Professionals know that their livelihood depends on their playing ability, not on their reading ability. When is the last time you saw some pianist out working a gig in a dining room or lounge reading a piece of sheet music? Never, right! No one has ever walked up to me after a gig and said “Boy Scott, you were just reading up a storm tonight!” Instead I might hear (if rarely…), “Boy Scott, you were playing great tonight.”  As silly as that first one sounds, it drives home a great point that should never be forgotten: The objective is to become a good player, not a good reader. I have found lead sheets to be a great way to get the majority of people to a point where they can have fun right away.

Just remember, when it comes to non-classical piano playing… reading piano music does not equal becoming a good piano player. Don’t forget the ultimate goal, which is to become a good recreational player, not a good recreational note reader. Most importantly don’t get the cart before the horse and ever think that sheet music is more than what it is – simply a not-very-exact way to record non-classical music.

Work on becoming a piano player.

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Backtracking Tip for Piano Players

Thursday, October 24th, 2013 - No Comments

Backtracking is a great  tool to use to make your piano playing sound more interesting when you are stuck on the same chord for multiple measures.

For example in blues tunes, you are on the same chord for several measures here’s a technique you can use.

Here’s what it is: You are backtracking from the chord that you are on to a 4 chord before it.

So you play …

Switch back and forth and shift away to the 4 chord and back to the 1. An easier way to do it is to play a Major chord (a triad) and take the top 2 notes and move them up one note and then back down. That’s it.

It sounds like this … I’m going to play the root in my left hand.  You want to predominantly stay on the chord you’re playing but this technique allows you the freedom to move away from that chord a bit to make it sound more interesting. You can actually slide up on the 3rd. That sounds good too.

Be sure to change it when you get to a new chord.

Here’s a rock pattern … You would be playing it straight like this … Or if you are playing a gospel-shuffle pattern it would sound and look like this.

Again, when you are stuck on a single chord for multiple measures, you can use this technique.

Have fun!


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Easy Chord Substitutions-A Quick Tip to Make Your Playing Sound Hipper

Thursday, October 24th, 2013 - No Comments

If you want to make your playing sound jazzier or hipper, simply substitute a Major 7th chord for any Major chords. For example if in the song you are supposed to play a C chord, substitute a C Maj 7 instead. It will sound like this. So if you were supposed to play an F chord, substitute a F Maj 7 chord instead. It makes things sound a little more modern or jazzy. There are a few times that this substitution won’t work, but you will be able to tell right away. It will sound very wrong or dissonant. Again, this is an easy way to quickly make your playing sound more jazzy or hip—simply substitute a Major 7th chord for any Major chords.

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Best practice regimen for chords …

Thursday, August 29th, 2013 - 13 Comments

Do you ever wonder what is the best way to practice chords? I get that question a lot. No matter how you slice it, at its simplest you just need to play the chord enough that it becomes familiar to your hands.

The way I typically tackle that, and it’s also the way I suggest doing it in all the lessons, is to first simply identify the notes in a chord. Then, immediately “burn it in” by jumping back and forth between whatever chords are in the song that you’re currently working on.

For example, say a song that you’re working on has three chords in it. Assuming you didn’t know any of the three chords yet, we first would simply learn the notes in the chord, usually by looking at chord charts that are given to you in the exercise portion of the online environment as well as in the books.

Once you had a chance to actually get your fingers over the correct notes and try to visually learn them, we would then immediately start moving back and forth between the chords to solve the problem of needing to be able to jump from one to another to accomplish getting the tune played.

That might take four or five minutes or might take ten or fifteen minutes depending on your level of proficiency. However, once you are comfortable jumping between the chords, in any order, and moderately smoothly, you should pretty well have those chords “burned into” your memory and have the associated muscle memory needed to play the chords smoothly as well.

One thing to note here: Don’t think that you need to stop everything and learn every version of some new chord and practice moving from that new chord to hundreds of other chords until you know every possible combination you may ever run into for the rest of your life. Aarrggghhhh!!!!!!

Instead, just work on only those chords that are in the tune you are currently trying to play, and get comfortable moving smoothly from chord-to-chord in only the combinations you will need to actually play the chord changes as they come down the pike in that tune.

It’s SO important to not lose sight of the forest for all the trees … Your goal is to be able to play the tune, not necessarily drill your chords. Learning your chords is a means to an end – not the end in itself. The endgame is playing the tune well and sounding good at your piano!

If you keep things in that perspective, when it’s all said and done you’ll still learn your chords, but you’ll be doing it in the context of a tune, which is a much better way to cement that skill into your longer term memory versus just drilling incessently and having it go in one ear and right out the other …

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A Little “Day In The Life” Vid from a Recent Shoot Trip

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013 - No Comments

Just for fun I thought it might be interesting for you to see a little “behind the scenes” of a recent trip for a shoot. I’m in Seattle at Microsoft Productions. I’m going to give you an inside scoop to what it is really like on a shoot. We are filming a new show.  See what the green room looks like as well as the set we are using.

Later we are off to give a Play Piano in a Flash Workshop.

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