Jazz Piano Techniques for the Classical Player

Ben Muller Performing Arts

crossing over jazz piano techniques for the classical player

Crossing Over:
Jazz Piano Techniques for the Classical Player

In the 1984 classic, The Karate Kid, Mr. Miyagi agrees to train Daniel LaRusso in the fabled art of karate. But for the first several weeks of training, he makes a frustrated Daniel do nothing but the same chores around the house, over and over again.

(Bear with me, I’m actually going somewhere with this.)

Daniel finally loses it after cleaning Miyagi’s car for the umpteenth time – and who can blame the poor kid; Mr. Miyagi must be at least 150, and shouldn’t be driving anyway – but lo and behold, it turns out the menial chores he was doing indirectly helped him become a karate master. The physical motions of those tasks were the same as those of various kung fu moves, and so by learning those abilities that crossed over from karate to cleaning, he improved his skill at both art forms.

This idea – that learning an ability different from, but related to, another ability – is directly applicable to the arts. The stereotype of a football player learning dance to improve his agility actually happens all the time, and not just in high school. Steelers nose tackle Steve McLendon takes weekly ballet classes, as they improve lower body strength, as well as agility and flexibility. He’s not alone, either; the benefit of learning ballet has directly applicable results and is thus appealing to other players.

As a pianist with a classical background, I had a similar experience as Steve when I started playing jazz in college (though my similarities to the 300-pound, 6’5 football player end there). The crossing over of related skills meant that not only did my classical background help with jazz, but my newfound jazz knowledge helped a huge amount with my classical playing. I’ve incorporated the practicing techniques I learned for jazz into my classical practice. Here are some of those practicing techniques, broken down into scales and chords:

1. Major Scale Modes

Any music student knows very well that scales are an important part of practice. It’s easy to write them off, especially early on when their applicability to the actual music isn’t clear. When it comes to jazz and improvising especially, scales are your bread and butter. Instead of just doing major and minor, practice going through the modes in all twelve keys. Start with Ionian (that’s your classic major scale), then do all the other modes for each key (Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian). You can either do all the modes within one key, moving up the scale, or do all the modes starting on the same note. This is accomplished by starting with, for instance, C major, and then altering the following notes to get each mode:

• Flat 7: Mixolydian
• Flat 7 and 3: Dorian
• Flat 7, 3, and 6: Aeolian (note: this is just a natural minor scale)
• Flat 7, 3, 6, and 2: Phrygian
• Flat 7, 3, 6, 2, and 5: Locrian
• Sharp 4: Lydian

Being familiar with all the modes will make your improvising sound more interesting, coherent, and fluid. Improvising over a chord progression essentially entails determining which set of notes can be played over which changes (to name a few: Dorian over min7, Mixolydian over dom7, Locrian over halfdiminished).

The funny thing about modes is they are not limited in the slightest to jazz. The more I practiced them, the more I was able to recognize them in classical pieces I was playing. Modes make one familiar with tonalities beyond simply major and minor, and being able to recognize that in a classical piece (or any piece) will enhance your understanding of the music. Furthermore, practicing modes requires committing to your muscle memory more patterns than the usual major and minor, and this can be immensely helpful when learning music that strays beyond those scales.

2. The ii-V-I Chords

Like scales, cadences are a standard part of a classical practicing routine. And like scales, this too can be appropriated for a jazz education. Drilling progressions in various voicings made me better able to hear and recognize those patterns not only in jazz, but in classical music as well. Understanding what a piece is doing harmonically can be a huge help with memorization and proper phrasing, among other things. Knowing the progression of a piece enhances your understanding of it, and thus your ability to play it well. And from a compositional standpoint, understanding a composer’s use of harmony can be a huge aid in writing your own music.

For exercises, start with ii-V7-Is. This progression is heavily featured in many jazz tunes, and is also a
common classical progression. In C major, this progression is D minor to G dominant 7 to C major 6 (or C
major 7). First get a handle on practicing them with roots. Spelled out, that looks like: Dmin D F A C;
G7 D F G B; C6 C E G A. Then, move on to rootless voicings (a common technique in jazz, and one
that will make your progressions sound more colorful and interesting). Spelled out: Dmin F A C E; G7
F A B E; C6 E G A D. It can be helpful to play the roots in the left hand while your right plays these
chords, and then switch. Of course, go through this in all twelve keys. The next step is to add alterations
to the dominant 7 chord, such as b9, #9, and b13.

My own playing improved dramatically after learning these progressions. Being able to recognize these patterns in other contexts makes pieces easier to learn, and plus, it’s fascinating to understand a composer’s harmonic choices. As such, I’ve taken to doing a harmonic analysis of classical pieces before I learn them. When playing a piece – any piece – being able to play competently is one thing, and truly understanding it backwards and forwards is another. I urge new jazz students to not forget their classical roots, and instead apply their skills to their classical repertoire. Furthermore, it goes both ways. In the same way that jazz can help with classical playing, a knowledge of classical music can be enormously helpful while playing jazz. I found that my new jazz skills crossed over to classical, informing
and improving my playing of both. Many great jazz pianists are talented classical players as well, as they recognize that the ability to employ techniques from both skill sets will make one a better jazz and classical player.

Of course, this is just a place to start. There’s no replacement for a great jazz teacher, but there’s a lot
you can do on your own. The Aebersold series is vast and comprehensive, and features books with good
tunes for beginners as well as a host of practicing techniques. The above exercises will keep you busy for a while as well. Best of luck in your practicing!

Ben Muller

Ben Muller

Musician, composer, and recent graduate of Amherst College, Ben is a Graduate Associate and Asst. Director of the Amherst Symphony Orchestra at the college. Originally from the Washington, D.C. area, Ben is pursuing a career in arts administration and film scoring and performs regularly in numerous vocal and instrumental ensembles.