Chord Enclosures Jazz Piano Improv Exercise

Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Level 2
Level 3
15:18

Learning Focus
  • Exercises
  • Improvisation
Music Style
  • Jazz Swing

In today’s piano lesson, you are going to learn how to use chord enclosures to take your jazz piano improvisation to the next level. Many students who feel stagnant in their jazz soloing think the solution is to learn more and more scales. But there is a simpler way! You can create beautiful, professional sounding jazz improvisations by using 1 scale and enclosures. In today’s piano lesson, you are going to learn:

  • What a Chord Enclosure is
  • How to enclose each of your chord tones
  • How to use Upper Enclosures and Lower Enclosures
  • The Chord Enclosure Descending Exercise
  • A beginner jazz accompaniment using Chord Shells
  • An intermediate jazz accompaniment using Rootless Voicings

Whether you are a beginner jazz pianist, or  you have experience playing jazz piano, this exercise will help you take your jazz improv to a new level. Let’s dive in.

Chord Enclosures: Rethinking Scales

When you first learn to improvise jazz piano, many jazz teachers will teach you a chord progression and scale that you can use to improvise over this chord progression.  For example, you might have a C Major 7 chord like this:

C Major 7 chord in root position on piano (keyboard)
C Major 7 chord in root position on piano (keyboard)

Here is the notation:

C Major 7 chord in root position on piano (notation)
C Major 7 chord in root position on piano (notation)

Then, your jazz teacher might explain, “you can use any of the notes of the C Major scale to improvise over this.” While this is a good place to start as a jazz improviser, eventually it can start to sound very… vanilla. Students start to get bored playing the same scale up and down. So what do they do? They go learn more scales.

Now this is fine to learn more scales, but it can become extremely overwhelming when you can use multiple scales to improvise over a given chord. For example, on a dominant 7 chord, I use 5 different scales (see the Scales for Soloing on 7th Chords course). Now, multiply that by 12 dominant chords on the piano – that’s 60 scales… Yikes! Well, I’m happy to tell you that you DON’T need to learn 60 scales to make your jazz improv sound more interesting. Instead, you can learn the enclosure approach.

Chord Enclosures Explained

The Chord Enclosure approach is a fundamentally different approach from the Scale Approach we talked about earlier. Instead of thinking of a “scale” to solo, you think of musical targets. What are our musical targets? Let’s go back to the chord you learned earlier, the C Major 7 Chord:

C Major 7 chord in root position on piano (notation)
C Major 7 chord in root position on piano (notation)

Each of the notes of this chord (C E G and B) is a musical target that you want to aim for. So, the question is, “how do we get to those musical targets?” Instead of using a scale, we’re going to use the Chord Enclosures.

What is a Chord Enclosure?

A Chord Enclosure is when you play the neighboring notes surrounding a target note. In this post we will focus on chromatic enclosures.

How do you “enclose” a note?

Let’s practice enclosing 7th target note of the C Major 7 chord, the B. There are 2 ways that I like to enclose a target note:

  1. Upper Enclosure
  2. Lower Enclosure

Upper & Lower Enclosures Explained

What is an Upper Enclosure?

An upper enclosure is where we start a note a half-step above the target note, then we play the note a half-step below the target note, and then we play the target note. In the case of the B target, we would play C Bb and then B. Make sense? Here is what the sheet music looks like:

Upper enclosure on B for jazz piano improv
Upper enclosure on B for jazz piano improv

What is a Lower Enclosure?

A Lower Enclosure is where we start a note a half-step below the target note, then we play the note a half-step above the target note, and then we play the target note. In the case of the B target, we would play Bb C and then B. Here is what the sheet music looks like:

Lower enclosure on B for jazz piano improv
Lower enclosure on B for jazz piano improv

Using this idea, we can practice our enclosures on all the other notes of the C Major 7 Chord.

Enclosing the G:

Upper enclosure and lower enclosure on G for jazz piano improv
Upper enclosure and lower enclosure on G for jazz piano improv

Enclosing the E:

Upper enclosure and lower enclosure on E for jazz piano improv
Upper enclosure and lower enclosure on E for jazz piano improv

Enclosing the C:

Upper enclosure and lower enclosure on C for jazz piano improv
Upper enclosure and lower enclosure on C for jazz piano improv

At this point, I recommend that you practice your enclosure on all major 7 chords. You can practice this lesson in all 12 keys with the click of one button with our Smart Sheet Music. You can also download the PDF lesson sheet music at the bottom of this page after logging into your membership.

Once you can do this, it’s time to practice our enclosures in a descending exercise.

Chord Enclosure Descending Exercise

This is one of the best exercises to practice and master your enclosures on a chord. To practice the exercise, follow these 4 steps

  1. First, start on the high C and play the notes of your C Major 7 chord going down (C B G E).
  2. Next, play each of the above notes every two beats. Count 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &.
  3. Now, on the beat prior to the target note (beats 2 and 4), you will start your enclosure. Remember that the enclosure is 2 eighth notes, so it takes one full beat.

That’s it! Let’s look at the first measure together.

We start on a high C and start walking down the scale with C B (remember these are 8th notes). Now we’re on beat 2, so we need to start the enclosure to B. You could use either the upper or lower enclosure, but I like the lower enclosure Bb C. Now on beat 3 we land on the B. Here is how the sheet music looks:

First 5 notes of Chord Enclosure Descending Exercise
First 5 notes of Chord Enclosure Descending Exercise

Pretty cool, huh? Now, let’s continue this idea down the piano. From B we will continue down the scale to A on the “and of beat 3”. On beat 4, we need to start our enclosure for the G. Let’s use the upper enclosure for this (Ab Gb). Now we land on the G on beat 1. Here is the sheet music for this section:

Second 5 notes of Chord Enclosure Descending Exercise
Second 5 notes of Chord Enclosure Descending Exercise

Do you see the pattern? If we continue this down the piano, we have F, going to enclosure on the E (we’ll use Eb F as the enclosure). And then we go down the scale D to an enclosure on the C (we’ll use Db B as the enclosure). Here is the sheet music for this last section:

Second measure of Chord Enclosure Descending Exercise
Second measure of Chord Enclosure Descending Exercise

Now, let’s put the full exercise together. Here is the sheet music:

Chord Enclosure Descending Exercise
Chord Enclosure Descending Exercise

Isn’t that a sweet little exercise? The beauty of this exercise is that we end where we started, so you can repeat this exercise all the way down the piano, starting as high as we want. Now, make sure you are swinging the right hand, not playing the 8th notes straight. Also, pay attention to the fingering! We’ve notated the optimal fingering for you in the lesson sheet music.

I would encourage you to play this exercise with the included 4 backing tracks, which can be downloaded on this page after logging into your membership.

Now, we want to add a left hand accompaniment to make the exercise more interesting.

Chord Enclosures: Left Hand Accompaniment

Beginner Jazz Accompaniment: Chord Shells

If you are more of a beginner jazz pianist, I recommend learning the Beginner Shell accompaniment. For this accompaniment, we will jump up from the root of the chord (C) to only 2 notes of the chord (E and G). We call these Guide Tones (you can do a deep dive on Chord Shells and Guide Tones here.) Here is the sheet music for this accompaniment:

Beginner Jazz Accompaniment with Chord Shells
Beginner Jazz Accompaniment with Chord Shells

Intermediate Jazz Accompaniment: Rootless Voicings

If you have more experience playing jazz, I recommend learning the Intermediate Rootless Voicings accompaniment. For this accompaniment, we will jump up from the root of the chord (C) to to a beautiful C69 chord with the notes E G A D. We call this a Rootless Voicing (you can do a deep dive on Rootless Voicings here.) Here is the sheet music for this accompaniment:

Intermediate Jazz Accompaniment with Rootless Voicings
Intermediate Jazz Accompaniment with Rootless Voicings

After you choose your accompaniment above, go ahead and combine the hands. Make sure that your hands are lining up with the chord on the “and of beat 2”.

Chord Enclosures: Improvisation

The final step to mastering Enclosures is to actually use them in your improvisation. To accomplish this, all you need to follow is this simple guide:

Enclosure Improvisation Guide

  1. Start your line on any note of the C scale.
  2. When you want to enclose a nearby chord tone, enclosure on any primary beat (beat 1, 2, 3, or 4).
  3. Make sure your lines have a clear start and end point (don’t play run-on sentences).

That’s it! Here are some examples of lines that use enclosures:

Enclosure Example Improvisation 1

Enclosure Example Improvisation 1
Enclosure Example Improvisation 1

Enclosure Example Improvisation 2

Enclosure Example Improvisation 2
Enclosure Example Improvisation 2

Enclosure Example Improvisation 3

Enclosure Example Improvisation 3
Enclosure Example Improvisation 3

Final Steps: Practice Enclosures In Other Songs & Progressions

The final step to mastering the enclosure sound is to practice it over other songs, progressions, and styles. You can learn enclosures in the Bossa Nova Soloing course here.

You can practice your note targets over essential progressions like the 2-5-1 here and the Turnaround Progression here.

That’s all for today. Thanks for learning, and I’ll see you in the next piano lesson.

Your teacher,

Jonny May

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