3 Steps to Get a Pro Jazz Swing Feel for Piano
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Have you ever lost your balance? If so, it’s not an experience you’ll soon forget. Proper balance is essential to avoid an embarrassing fall or even a serious injury. As pianists, there is another type of balance that we must maintain. If you are a jazz piano student, no doubt you’ve invested significant energy on learning fancy chords and specialized scales. But have you invested deeply in your jazz swing feel? Today’s Quick Tip will help you balance out your practice routine with a proper focus on developing the right feel for a professional jazz swing sound. You’ll learn…
- Straight 8ths vs. Swung 8ths
- 2 Right Hand Swing Exercises
- 1 Left Hand Swing Exercise
The simple exercises you’ll find in today’s lesson are easy enough for most students. However, how you play them will determine where you are on the spectrum from amateur to pro. And by practicing today’s lesson, you will inch closer to that professional jazz sound.
Let’s dig in!
Notation & Jazz Swing Feel
The evolution of music notation is a fascinating study. Classical composers of the 20th century like Luciano Berio (1925–2003) and George Crumb (b. 1929) pioneered non-traditional methods of notation to expand the limitations of traditional practice. However, despite radical notation innovations in the 20th century, the method for notating the jazz swing feel has not changed significantly since its inception, despite its limitations. For example, the two piano excerpts below are notated almost identically (except for the left hand rhythms). However, when you click on the play button for each example, you’ll hear that they are played quite differently.
Wow, what a difference! The similarity in notation between these two fundamentally different approaches can pose a stumbling block for many piano students. This challenge is often magnified for jazz students coming from a classical piano background because there are significant performance considerations in jazz that are not expressed in standard notation. That’s why listening to jazz is so important in learning how to play it.
Let’s examine how you can isolate and practice your swing feel.
Step 1: Swung 8th Notes
The most significant consideration for properly playing jazz relates to the performance of 8th notes. For example, in Classical music and many pop styles, 8th notes are played precisely the same length. Consequently, this results in two even subdivisions of each pulse. A classical figure such as ♫♫ is performed “e-ven e-ven.”
By contrast, jazz music features a triplet subdivision in most contexts. In other words, the performance of 8th notes is adapted to fit over triplet grid. As a result, a figure such as ♫♫ in jazz is performed “long short long short.”
There are several common descriptions for jazz 8th notes including adjectives such as “swung,” “uneven” or “shuffle.” The images below illustrate that swung 8ths are synonymous with a triplet feel in which the first 2 of each group of 3 triplets are tied together.
Music publishers often uses the symbol below at the beginning of a tune in which swing phrasing is to be used. However, this convention is not universal, and many lead sheets will simply indicate “medium swing” or “fast swing.”
The following exercise is a great way to practice swinging your 8th notes.
Jazz Swing Feel Exercise 1
If you are enjoying this lesson, you will also likely enjoy our Jazz Swing Accompaniment (Level 2, Level 3) courses in which you will learn to master additional swing rhythms.
In the next section, we’ll explore jazz phrasing further.
Step 2: Accented Upbeats
A second performance consideration for developing a professional jazz swing feel involves the placement of accents on the “upbeats” in a series of 8th notes. This practice once again stands in contrast to phrasing conventions common to Classical music that emphasis metric accents on beats 1 and 3. The image below illustrates this contrast further.
The following accent exercise is especially helpful in developing the correct jazz phrasing. Note, in actual practice you will not necessarily accent every upbeat, but this exercise is an important starting point for developing the correct touch. Also, be sure to play the 8th notes legato—in other words connected rather than detached.
Jazz Swing Feel Exercise 2
How did that feel? If this is challenging or unnatural, you may want to add this exercise to your daily practice routine…it’s that important. Next, you’ll want to play this exercise with one of the backing tracks included with this lesson. You can download the lesson sheet and all four backing tracks from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also quickly transpose the lesson material to any key with a single click using our Smart Sheet Music.
The chord progression for the exercise above is a 2-5-1 progression and it is one of the most common progressions in jazz music. You can master this progression in all 12 keys in our 2-5-1 7th Chord Exercises course.
In the next section, we’ll examine some left hand performance considerations.
Step 3: Long Short
In our final section, we need to explore how a pro jazz swing feel applies to the left hand. Specifically, we need to examine how the jazz swing feel affects durations. Which chords should be played long and which chords should be played short? In the example below, the Charleston rhythm has been added to the accent exercise from step 2. Notice that the dotted-quarter note at the beginning of each measure has a staccato placed above it. In common practice, this staccato will not appear in the notation, however it should be interpreted and performed as if the staccato were present in most cases.
Jazz Swing Feel Exercise 3
Congratulations! You have taken a significant step is achieving a balanced practice routine by investing in your jazz swing feel. A great follow-up course to today’s lesson is our Soloing Over a 2-5-1 Progression.
Thanks for learning with us. We’ll see you again soon.
Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May
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