The Beginner Jazz Piano Practice Guide
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There is nothing quite like the sound of jazz piano—the colorful chords, playful melodies, bluesy inflections, and a swinging comp. These may be some of the reasons why you were drawn to study jazz piano. For other aspiring students, their journey began when they were arrested by a particular jazz pianist’s sound—Red Garland, Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Keith Jarrett…the list goes on. While these players are all unique, they each developed a highly-refined jazz piano skillset that enabled them to express themselves freely. But how does one develop such a powerful command of essential jazz piano skills? Not without a plan, that’s for sure. Today’s Quick Tip, The Beginner Jazz Piano Practice Guide, will help you build a balanced practice routine that focuses on the simultaneous development of 5 key pillars of jazz piano proficiency including technique, harmony, scales, lead sheets and improv.
The best thing about The Beginner Jazz Piano Practice Guide is that it works with the time you have, not with time you don’t have. So whether you’re able to practice 30 minutes per day or 2 hours per day, you too can develop a command of essential jazz piano skills to express yourself.
Use the following links to navigate through this guide:
Intro to The Beginner Jazz Piano Practice Guide
Many piano students find the study jazz piano intimidating because of the vast amount of information involved. It’s true that jazz pianists are brilliant—but then again, so are you! So no matter where your are in your jazz piano journey, you can celebrate the fact that you have made the commitment to discover your voice with this amazing form of musical expression we call jazz.
Since there are so many jazz piano skills to learn, it’s important that your practice guide is strategic and progressive. If you focus too narrowly, you’re likely to struggle in actual playing situations. For example, many jazz piano students become stagnant with left-brained analysis of jazz harmony. As a result, they put off the right-brained work of improvisation because they want to “understand it first.” That’s like discouraging a baby’s first words until they understand iambic pentameter.¹ Jazz is a spoken language, and those who desire to become fluent must listen to it and speak it regularly.
A Guide to Divide: Jazz Piano Practice for Beginners
Naturally, you’re probably thinking, “How can I practice all five jazz piano pillars every day? That sounds like five different practice sessions per day!” Well, in a sense, you’re right. The point is that each pillar—technique, harmony, scales, lead sheets and improv— is too important to neglect. Therefore, you serve yourself best in taking baby steps toward each of them rather than “hitting snooze” on the pillars that seem more difficult. The key is to determine the total amount of time you have available for practice each day, and then divide that time into five mini-practice-sessions of equal length.
You might be surprised to learn that you can execute a well-balanced jazz piano practice routine in as little as 30 minutes per day. In fact, Christopher Tarr, Lecturer in Jazz at Edith Cowan University, cites a study entitled “It’s Not How Much: It’s How” published in Journal of Research in Music Education which found that piano students’ length of practice time was not a significant factor in successful performance retention.
“The quality of a musician’s practice and the use of specific strategies play a bigger role in success that a simple measure of accumulated practice time.”
—Christopher Tarr, Lecturer in Jazz, Edith Cowan University
The image below represents deliberate practice sessions ranging in length from 30 minutes to 2 hours. Each session can be divided into 5 equal mini-sessions to give specific attention to each of the 5 pillars.
Pillar 1: Technique
What is musical technique?
A musician’s technique refers to their ability to efficiently control the anatomical mechanics needed to produce precisely desired sounds. Thus, a pianist’s technique may be described as “weak” or “strong,” “sloppy” or “clean,” and so on. Piano technique is also related to dexterity—the skill or ease of using the hands. If you, as a pianist, are a driver, then your technique is your engine.
“When you develop robust technical skills, you can close the gap between what you feel and what you’re able to express through your instrument or voice.”
—Gerald Klickstein, Educator, Author and Guitarist
The exercises is this section function much like a daily “tune-up” for your jazz piano technique. In fact, by adding these exercises into your daily practice routine, you’ll build the following jazz piano proficiencies:
- Diatonic 7th chord hand shapes for left hand
- Finger speed and strength for right hand
- 8th-note swing feel in right hand
Let’s look at the first exercise from today’s lesson sheet. You can download the complete lesson sheet PDF and backing tracks from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also easily transpose this material to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.
Beginner Jazz Piano Technique Exercise
Did you notice that the left hand plays through every diatonic 7th chord of C major in this exercise? This is especially important since diatonic 7th chords are a foundational to jazz harmony. If you want to learn more about this topic, then check out our Diatonic 7th Chords Exercises (Level 2) course.
This exercise also develops fluency with chromatic neighbors in the right hand. Did you notice that each measure contains an accidental? Jazz pianists frequently use chromatic neighbors in their improvisation to target chord tones with melodic tension. If you want to take a deep dive on improv with chromatic neighbors, check out our course on 2-5-1 Soloing with Upper & Lower Neighbors (Level 3).
When to Move On?
One you can play the exercise above at 140 BPM, you can proceed to a new key or continue building speed in C major. When you move on to a new key, consider following the recommended key sequence in this beginner jazz piano practice guide:
Pillar 2: Harmony
What are the 60 essential chords for jazz piano?
There are 5 primary types of 7th chords that are essential to playing jazz. They are major 7th, dominant 7th, minor 7th, half-diminished 7th and fully diminished 7th chords. Since there are 12 notes on the piano and each note can be the root for each chord type, there are 60 essential 7th chords for jazz piano in all.
If you are brand new to the piano, viewing all 60 chords at once may be a bit overwhelming. However, take courage…there is actually good news here! The number of chords you must learn is finite—just 60 chords. By following the deliberate practice recommendations in today’s guide, you can learn all 60 chords over time with as little as 6 minute per day! In addition, you can download the printable 60 Essential Chords for Jazz Piano PDF that appears at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership.
Next, we’ll show you how to structure and sequence your practice of these chords.
Practice Guide to Master Jazz Piano Chords
The image below shows each of the 7th chords with the note C as the root. Notice that each chord is built from a triad (major, minor or diminished) and the interval of a 7th (major, minor or diminished).
To master each chord, you’ll want to practice them with a few different exercises: blocked, broken and and “create-your-own” patterns. However, it is not necessary to practice each chord or each exercise every day. For example, the following three exercises demonstrate how to master the C Major 7 chord and can be spread over several days or even an entire week.
Block Chord Exercise
Block exercises are especially helpful for mental mastery of chords in various inversions. In addition, they also familiarize the hands with important hand shapes for jazz piano. The exercise below begins with a root position shape followed by 1st, 2nd and 3rd inversions. In the second measure, you’ll play a root position C Major 7 an octave higher from where you began and descend down through each inversion in reverse.
Next, we explore C major 7 with a broken chord exercise.
Broken Chord Exercise
In additional to block chords, broken chords are an essential jazz piano skill used in playing melodies, whether composed or improvised. Therefore, it is beneficial for jazz piano students to practice chords linearly as in the example below.
Make-Your-Own Pattern Exercise
Once you are comfortable playing the block and broken chord exercises in this jazz piano practice guide, consider making up your own patterns. Here is one possibility.
As a general guide, you may spend about a week on the exercises outlined in this section for C major 7. Once you can play the exercises above at 50 BPM, you are ready to move on to the next chord type. For example, repeat these exercises with C dominant 7. After that, play the same exercises over C minor 7 and so on. Using this plan, you will master all 60 chords in about a year.
The following Level 2 courses are perfect if already know your 7th chords and want to practice all 12 transpositions of a specific type in a single exercise.
You can find more courses like these in our Intermediate Piano Foundations Learning Track.
Pillar 3: Scales
The third pillar that should be included in your daily practice is scales. Scales are import for 3 reasons:
- Playing scales improves your technique
- Scales are used to improvise a solo in jazz
- Scales are the building blocks of jazz chords
Guide to Practice Scales for Jazz Piano
Jazz pianists deliberately practice scales from various starting pitches. This is quite different from most classical approaches to scale practice. Why is this so important? Consider this fact—very few tunes begin and end every phrase on the root of a chord. Therefore, as an improvisor, if you only practice scales from root-to-root, you will struggle to improvise melodies that sound natural. The exercises in this section will help the beginner jazz pianist explore modes.
What are modes in jazz theory?
In jazz theory, modes are scales that result from starting a major scale on each of its 7 tones. Each mode has a unique sound and a specific name. The names of the 7 modes in order from the 1st tone to the 7th tone are:
Great job! This is an important first step in exploring modes. Check out the following courses to take a deep dive on the following modes used most frequently by jazz musicians:
- How to Improvise a Solo with the Dorian Mode (Level 2, Level 3)
- How to Improvise a Solo with the Mixolydian Mode (Level 2, Level 3)
Pillar 4: Lead Sheets
Lead sheets are the most common form of music notation used by jazz musicians. Unlike the detailed scores of classical music, jazz lead sheets frequently omit many performance considerations such as:
- tempo indications
- accompaniment patterns
- intros & endings
In fact, the only things you can really expect to find on a lead sheet are an approximation of the melody and the chords. Anything else is a bonus!
Lead Sheets: What’s the point?
You might be wondering, “What is the point of a notation system with so much ambiguity?” Great question! Lead sheets are common in musical styles of the 20th and 21st centuries that contain a considerable amount of performers’ discretion inherent to the style itself. By contrast, the performance practice of classical music focuses on fidelity to the composer’s intentions. In classical performance situations that include a conductor, he or she serves as the primary interpreter the composers’ intentions. Jazz compositions, on the other hand, are frequently written to serve as a catalyst for the creative expression of the individual performers. Therefore, precise notation is not expected or desired. In fact, a lead sheet is quite commonly described as “a map” allowing jazz musicians to navigate through a tune together. Performance considerations such as chord voicings, dynamics and articulation are considered to be part of a jazz musician’s playing style.
Lead Sheet Performance Demonstration
Let’s take a look at an example of a lead sheet and two sample performances. The tune “Fly On By” is Jonny May’s original jazz swing composition with a “tip of the hat” to the jazz standard “Fly Me to the Moon.” The two videos below represent drastically different approaches to performing the lead sheet. The first video is a literal reading of the lead sheet “as written” while the second video interprets the lead sheet in the jazz swing style.
Wow, as you can see, the right approach makes a big difference! Did you notice that the melody on the lead sheet is written entirely with quarter notes for the first 7 measures? However, in listening to the two performances, you can hear that it is necessary to interpret the melody in light of conventional swing rhythms. This gives the tune the proper stylization. The second video also adds ornaments to the melody such as turns.
Another significant difference between the two videos is how the chord symbols are interpreted. In the first video, the performer plays all root position 7th chords. However, the second video makes use of common jazz piano chord voicing techniques.
Guide to Reading Lead Sheets for Jazz Piano Practice
As a beginner jazz pianist, there are two simple steps you can apply right away to get a more jazzy sound when reading a lead sheet.
Step 1: Play Chord Shells in Left Hand
A chord shell is a piano voicing that uses only two or three notes from a given chord symbol. The best chord shells for beginner jazz piano students are root + 7th and root + 3rd . For chord progressions like we have in “Fly On By,” you will generally get the best sound by alternating between these two shell types each time you change chords. In just a moment, we’ll illustrate this approach.
Step 2: Add One Harmony Note in Right Hand
Adding as little as one note in the right hand can go a long way to filling out the harmony. In most cases, the best solution is to add a missing chord tone—that is, a note of the chord that is not already represented in the melody or chord shell. Jonny frequently describes this as “filler harmony.”
The following example from today’s lesson sheet presents “Fly On By” with beginner chord shells and right hand filler harmony notes.
A recommended pace to guide you in your jazz piano practice of lead sheets is to work through one tune about every two weeks. If you have additional time, you may be able to learn a new tune each week. On the other hand, there is no shame in learning one tune per month when practice time is limited.
Be sure to check out our full-length courses on chord shells and lead sheets to learn more about these topics:
- Chord Shell & Guide Tone Exercises (Level 2)
- Play Piano Lead Sheets With 7th Chords (Level 2)
- Play Piano Lead Sheets With Shells & Guide Tones (Level 2)
Afterward, you can apply these skills on classic jazz tunes in the following courses:
Pillar 5: Improv
As you can see from the above clip, the fifth and final pillar in our practice guide for beginner jazz piano practice is improv. It’s imperative that we clarify a common misconception about this topic upfront. Improv is not something reserved for “the pros.” In fact, renowned jazz educator Jamey Aebersold built his entire career on three simple words—anyone can improve!
“I haven’t met anyone who can’t improvise, although I’ve met a lot of people who think they can’t.”
—Jamey Aebersold, Jazz Educator and Author
Ironically, Jonny’s improv demo at the beginning of this section uses a single 6-note scale. In this section, you will learn to do the same!
Guide to Practice Jazz Piano Improv
How to Find What Key A Song Is In
To determine what key a song in, look for clues in the following musical elements:
- Key Signature
If you are familiar with key signatures, then you recognize that the key signature for “Fly On By” suggests C Major or its relative, A minor. If you haven’t learned these concepts yet, then be sure to visit our Beginner Piano Foundations Learning Track.
From the perspective of the melody to “Fly On By,” we have almost all white notes, except for the G# in measure 7. Over all, this still implies C major with a brief reference to A minor in measures 7 and 8. Did you notice that the melody begins and ends on the note C?
Similarly, the chords for “Fly On By” are played almost entirely with white keys with the exception of E7 in measure 7. This too implies C major.
Therefore, we can conclude that “Fly On By” is in C Major. Why is this important? Once you figure that out, you can use the corresponding major blues scale as a basis for improvisation. In this case, the C Major Blues Scale works fantastic! In fact, this is the scale that Jonny uses in the Pillar 5 improv demo clip.
Sound Great With 1 Scale
Now, all you have to do to improvise over “Fly On By” is play the same chord shells in your left hand from pillar 4 as you explore melodic ideas with the C Major Blues Scale in your right hand. Here is a sample solo that sounds great:
Be sure to practice your improvisation with the backing tracks that are included with today’s beginner jazz piano practice guide. This makes practice tons of fun and also helps develop your swing feel!
Congratulations, you have learned how to apply the 5 pillars of beginner jazz piano practice in today’s guide. For more great practice ideas, check out our popular Practice Essentials (Levels 1–3) full-length course.
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May
¹ iambic pentameter – poetry in which each line contains five pairs of unstressed and stressed syllables. For example, “Arise fair sun, and kill the envious moon,” from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
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