Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Intermediate
16:20

Learning Focus
  • Exercises
  • Practice Tips
Music Style
  • Fundamentals
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Do you know the most important question that you can ask as a piano student? What should I be practicing? That’s right! How you answer this question will determine your progress and enjoyment in making music. In today’s Quick Tip, Jonny shares a solid plan on what to practice on piano every day to become a well-rounded musician. This plan centers around 5 practice pillars:

  1. Technique
  2. Theory
  3. Tunes
  4. Improvisation
  5. Ear Training

Are you looking for a piano practice routine to take your piano playing to the next level? If so, this practice plan has everything you need to get there.

Let’s take a closer look.

Piano Practice Pillar 1: Technique

In music, technique refers to one’s ability to efficiently control the anatomical mechanics needed to produce precisely desired sounds. When it comes to the piano, technique is also described as dexterity—the skill or ease of using the hands. If you, as a pianist, are a driver, then your technique is your engine. This topic represents a massive field of study and there are volumes of piano books dedicated to the development of proper technique. You may even be familiar with the popular works of composer/pedagogues such as Hanon, Czerny or Pischna. Technical studies have an important place in a piano student’s daily routine.

There are two important factors to keep in mind when selecting which technical exercises to include in your piano practice routine:

  1. Consistency
  2. Relevance

First and foremost, the development of a strong piano technique is comparable to any other human proficiency. That is, the battle is won is small, repeated victories. You cannot and should not attempt to attain a prodigious technique by the end of next week! Instead, you need something that you can consistently practice each day that will make a big difference in the long haul. However, you also need to have significant practice time remaining after your daily technical studies for more immediate goals, such as learning repertoire. The key to developing your technique is baby steps.

Secondly, the best technical exercises are those that are fun, musical and relevant to your performance goals. For example, Jonny’s Diatonic 7th Chords Exercises provide multiple benefits. Not only do these exercises develop finger dexterity, they also help you learn your 7th chords and develop your swing feel. Check it out:

Diatonic 7th Chord Exercises

Exercise 1: 8th Notes

Diatonic 7th Chord Exercise 1~8th Notes C Major Jazz Chords Arpeggios
Diatonic 7th Chord Exercise 1 develops your 8th-note swing feel and helps you learn the most common chords found in jazz music.

Exercise 2: Triplets

Diatonic 7th Chord Exercise 2~Triplets Jazz Arpeggios Finger Strength Control Dexterity Piano Technique
Diatonic 7th Chord Exercise 2 develops your triplet feel while building strength and control.

As you can see, it’s possible reap the benefits of adding these exercises to your piano practice routine in less than five minutes per day! A good target tempo for these exercises is 140–160 BPM. However, be sure to choose a point of entry that you play with control, even if you find it necessary to start much slower. In fact, the first step is to master these exercises is to simply play blocked diatonic 7th chords as in the example below.

Blocked Diatonic 7th Chords

Blocked Diatonic 7th Chords
Both of the piano exercises above are built on the following ascending diatonic 7th chord structure which you can practice in isolation as a point of entry.

You can find additional chord exercises in our Intermediate Piano Foundations Learning Track. A great approach is to practice these daily exercises in a different key each month. That way, you’ll be able to play all your diatonic 7th chords fluently by the end of the year! You can use our Smart Sheet Music to easily transpose these exercises to any key you wish. Also, be sure to download the complete lesson sheet which includes these exercises notated in ascending and descending patterns. The lesson sheet appears at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership.

Piano Practice Pillar 2: Theory

In the previous section, you learned that the development of good piano technique relates to your hands and how you play. However, it’s also important to develop your musical mind so you understand what you play. This brings us to the topic of music theory. Music theory in a broad sense is the study of the relationship of musical sounds—melody, harmony, rhythm, accompaniment, ornamentation, song form, and more. However, the heart of music theory is the quest to understand harmonic function—how and why specific chords operate in succession within a piece of music.

You can develop your music theory skills as a part of your daily piano practice by performing a chord analysis on familiar tunes. Let’s try a little bit together. The excerpt below shows the first 8 measures of the popular jazz standard “Autumn Leaves” by Joseph Kosma.

Autumn Leaves Excerpt Lead Sheet chord analysis music theory
Excerpt of “Autumn Leaves” lead sheet.

Step 1: Determine the Key

Our objective in chord analysis is to understand the harmonic function of each chord. In other words, how does each chord relate to the key center? Therefore, the first step is to determine what key the tune is in. This example above is in the key of G Major. If you need help mastering major and minor keys, check out our All Major and Minor Scales Reference.

Step 2: The Roman Numeral System

Once you determine the key of a particular tune, you can begin analyzing the chords. We use Roman numerals to indicate the relationship of each chord to the tonal center in which the Roman numeral “I” indicates the tonic chord (aka: the 1-chord). It’s also a good practice to include the chord suffixes in your analysis (ie: Maj7, m7, etc.) to indicate the quality of each chord. The diagram below shows each of the diatonic chords in G Major with their corresponding harmonic function.

Roman Numeral Harmonic Analysis in G Major Music Theory Function piano practice
Harmonic function of diatonic 7th chords in G major shown with Roman numeral analysis.

Step 3: Analyze the Chords

Once you understand how to show chord relationships within a key center using Roman numerals, you are ready to practice analyzing the chords in your piano music. You may come up with something like this:

Autumn Leaves Analysis Step 3 piano practice routine pillars
Chord analysis of “Autumn Leaves” using Roman numeral system. Note that the chord circled in red is not a diatonic chord.

Did you notice that the B7 chord in measure 22 is not a diatonic 7th chord in G major? The III7 is circled in red indicating that this analysis does not best explain this chord’s function since the 3-chord is normally a minor 7th chord (IIIm7) as in step 2. This brings us to the final step.

Step 4: Consider Alternative Explanations for Chromaticism

Whenever we encounter non-diatonic chords, we want to choose the analysis that best explains the harmonic function. How is the chromaticism being used?

Secondary Dominants

You’ll discover in many cases that the chord quality of non-diatonic chords are frequently dominant 7th chords, just like the B7 in the example above. Dominant 7th chords most commonly function as a V7 chord. This means that B7, when acting as a V7 chord, most naturally wants to resolve to either an E Major or E minor chord. This is precisely the resolution we find measures 22 and 23 in our example. This means that the purpose of the unexpected B7 dominant chord is to create stronger harmonic movement toward the Em7 at the end of the phrase. Therefore, the B7 is said to be the “V7 of VI” which is notated as V7/VI. This is called a secondary dominant. You can view Jonny’s detailed expiation for the usage of this B7 secondary dominant chord in “Autumn Leaves” in Jazz Standard Analysis 1–Lesson 5 .

Now that we determined that the B7 is behaving as the dominant 7th chord of Em7, we need to adjust our Roman numeral analysis to indicate this harmonic relationship.

Autumn Leaves Chord Analysis~Step 4.1
The B7 in measure 22 is best represented as “V7 of VI” to show its secondary dominant relationship to Em7 in measure 23. However, is there another explanation for the F#ø7 in measure 21?
Tonicization

There is now another consideration. Is there a better explanation for the F#ø7 chord in measure 21? This chord is native to G major so an analysis of VIIø7 does not immediately appear to be a problem on the surface. The only question is whether or not VIIø7 best represents the relationship of the sounds as heard in succession: F#ø7→B7→Em7. If you have previously studied jazz chord progressions, you should recognize this as a minor 2-5-1 progression resolving to E minor. This is an example of tonicization—the process of making a non-tonic chord sound like a temporary tonic. Therefore, our final harmonic analysis shows this 2-5-1 relationship.

Autumn Leaves Analysis~Step 4.2 piano practice pillar 2
Adding frequent harmonic analysis to your piano practice will help you hear and recognize the use of tonicization as in measures 21–23.

Be sure to check out our courses on Jazz Standard Analysis (Level 2, Level 3) for more helpful tips on analyzing jazz tunes.

Piano Practice Pillar 3: Learn Tunes

A third pillar of daily piano practice is learning tunes. What’s the fun of practicing technique and theory if not to play songs that you enjoy? When learning tunes, you want to practice both sight-reading new tunes and memorizing some of your favorites.

Approach 1: Sight-Reading

Learning to play from a lead sheet is an important skill for pianists that requires consistent practice. Fortunately, there is an accessible way to add this to your practice routine. To get started, start by playing the single note melody in your right hand and root position 7th chords in your left hand. For example, if you were sight-reading the “Autumn Leaves” from a lead sheet, the first step would be to play the tune in the following manner.

Sight Reading Autumn Leaves
When learning a new tune, practice the melody and basic harmonic structure using root position 7th chords.

For addition sight-reading examples using this approach, check out our course on Play Piano Lead Sheets with 7th Chords.

Approach 2: Memorization

Adding daily sight-reading to your piano practice as described above yields many benefits. However, you’ll likely have some favorite tunes that you’ll want to memorize. In fact, you will probably want to play them with a bit more professional sound, particularly in the left hand. The Root-Guide Tone Approach is a great system for generating a left hand accompaniment groove that is simple and hip. To build this accompaniment, play the root of each chord followed by its guide tones—the 3rd and 7th. In some cases, you will play inverted guide tones in which the 3rd is placed above the 7th rather than beneath it. Here is an excerpt of “Autumn Leaves” using the Root-Guide Tone Approach.

Autumn Leaves with Guide Tones Memorization
The Root-Guide Tone Approach is a simple and hip way to memorize your favorite jazz tunes.

To learn about this approach in greater detail, check out our full-length course on Play Piano Lead Sheets with Shells & Guide Tones. This course demonstrates how to apply this technique in several styles including jazz swing, bossa nova and jazz ballad.

Piano Practice Pillar 4: Improvisation

A fourth skill that you really want to practice every time you sit down at the piano is your improvisation. However, practicing piano improv includes more than simple trial and error. The Scale Degree Exercise prepares you to begin improv lines from each possible scale degree over a 2-5-1 progression.

The Scale Degree Exercise for Piano Improv Practice

Scale Degree 1

Begin by playing the major scale beginning on the 1st scale degree—the note C.

Scale Degree 1 Exercise
Scale Degrees 1 Exercise in C Major for piano improv practice

Scale Degree 2

Next, repeat progression and begin the scale from the 2nd tone—the note D.

Scale Degree 2 Exercise
Scale Degrees 2 Exercise in C Major for piano improv practice

Scale Degree 3

Now, play the scale from the 3rd scale degree—the note E.

Scale Degree 3 Exercise
Scale Degree 3 Exercise in C Major for piano improv practice

Complete the Scale Degree Exercise by beginning from each of the remaining scale degrees. The lesson sheet for today’s Quick Tip contains notation beginning from each scale degree. Also, be sure to check out our course on 2-5-1 Soloing with Chord Tone Targets. This course is packed with even more professional improvisation techniques and exercises.

Pillar 5: Ear Training

Finally, the fifth pillar of a well-rounding piano practice routine includes ear training. This is the ability to recognize melodic and harmonic sounds by ear and play them by imitation without sheet music. There are three types of ear training skills that you’ll want to practice.

Step 1: Melodic Dictation

Melodic dictation is your ability to recognize single pitches performed in succession within a tonal center. To develop this ear training skill, you must practice sining melodic patterns, even if you are not a vocalist. Singing aloud helps your brain comprehend sound properties similar to the way your sense of touch allows your brain to comprehend physical properties. To sing the tones is to touch the sound in your mind. Take for example the C major scale shown below.

Listen

First, play the major scale slowly and listen to each tone.

Melodic Dictation Step 1

Sing

Next, say and sing each scale degree number, both accompanied and a cappella.

Dictation Practice~ Singing the Major Scale

Additional Melodic Dictation Practice

Once you are able to sing the major scale, see if you can sing patterns that include skips and leaps like the examples below.

Melodic 3rds Intervals

Melodic Dictation Practice~Singing 3rds with piano

Major Scale Leaping from a Tonic Pedal

Melodic Dictation Practice~Singing Leaps with piano

Step 2: Outer Voice Dictation

The next important ear training skill you want to add to your piano practice routine is outer voice dictation. This refers to your ability to hear the highest and lowest tones in order to grasp the melody and bass line of a tune. This helps you recognize chord progressions and songs by ear.

You can use popular tunes to practice outer voice dictation. For example, let’s examine the first 4 measures of “Fly Me to the Moon.”

Outer Voice Dictation 1
You can practice outer voice dictation by singing scale degree numbers for the melody and bass line of popular tunes like “Fly Me to the Moon.”

Sing the Melodic Line

Outer Voice Dictation 2
Try singing the melody of “Fly Me to The Moon” using scale degree numbers.

Sing the Bass Line

Outer Voice Dictation 3
Next, try to sing the root of each chord of “Fly Me to the Moon” using scale degree numbers.

Step 3: Chord Quality

Another aspect of ear training is your ability to recognize chord qualities by ear. For example, can you discern the difference between a diminished triad and an augmented triad by ear? If not, you can begin to develop this skill by regular listening to and singing of the 9 most common types of chords.

Triads

A great place to begin practicing chord recognition is with triads. There are only four types of triads—major, minor, diminished and augmented. First, play and listen to each triad below. Then, try singing each of the chord tones up from the root on the syllable “dah” or “nah.”

Triads by Ear for piano practice
Play and listen to the sound of each triad. Then, try to sing each chord tone up from the root using the syllable “nah.”

Seventh Chords

Next, let’s practice hearing seventh chords. There are five main types of seventh chords—major 7th, dominant 7th, minor 7th, half-diminished and fully diminished. Listen to the unique sound of each chord. Then, try singing each example as a broken chord up from the root.

7th Chords by Ear
Play and listen to each type of seventh chord below. Then, trying singing the notes of each chord as an arpeggio.

Developing your ear can be difficult and frustrating.  However, it pays big dividends in terms your music understanding. Fortunately, we have a number of resources to help you develop these essential skills:

Conclusion

Congratulations, you are well on your way to a well-rounded piano practice routine just in time for the new year. We covered a lot of information today. If some of these concepts are new to you, consider implementing one pillar at a time into your routine until it becomes natural and efficient.

 

Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.

 

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Writer
Michael LaDisa

Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...

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