The Ultimate Piano Run – the Magic Run
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In a solo piano performance, two sections are absolutely critical—how you start and how you finish! For this reason, professional pianists are shrewd to give their audiences a little something extra at a song’s conclusion. In today’s Quick Tip, Jonny May will teach you how to be sure to leave your audience wanting more with “The Magic Run.” This ultimate piano run provides the perfect closure to any tune by captivating your listeners’ attention to the very last note. This professional technique also works great at song transitions in soloing. In today’s lesson, you’ll learn:
- Introduction: What is a piano run?
- How to Play a Piano Run in 5 Steps
- Piano Run Performance Example
The best part about The Magic Run is that it works over any scale, and it’s not as difficult to play as it sounds.
Introduction: What is a Piano Run?
A piano run is performance technique that uses a rapid scale or arpeggio pattern to create a sophisticated special effect. Professional pianists often use runs for intros, fills and endings to engage their audience.
Example: The Magic Run for Piano
Wow! As you can hear, this piano run has a magical sound that will definitely leave a lasting impression.
How to Play a Piano Run in 5 Steps
You might never know by listening to it, but this professional run is actually quite accessible by breaking it down into the 5 simple steps found on today’s lesson sheet. In fact, the downloadable lesson sheet PDF appears at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also easily change the key of the lesson material with our Smart Sheet Music.
Step 1: Start With the Scale
Since piano runs are a special effect based on scales or arpeggios, they can be played in any harmonic situation. You just need to make sure that your run is compatible with the chord symbol.
For today’s lesson, we’ll learn how to construct The Magic Run for songs ending in C major. However, our source scale will be C Lydian, rather than C Major. Arrangers commonly use the Lydian mode to create bright endings on tunes that conclude on a major tonic chord. The Lydian mode is similar to a major scale, except with a raised 4th tone: 1–2–3–#4–5–6–7.
Later, we’ll examine how to play piano runs using other scale constructions. In fact, the 5 steps in today’s lesson will work on any source scale containing 7 or 8 notes.
For a deep dive on the Lydian sound, check out our course on How to Improvise a Solo With the Lydian Mode (Level 2, Level 3).
Once you have identified your source scale, you are ready for Step 2.
Step 2: Divide Scale Into 2 Groups
The second step to play The Magic Run is to divide the source scale into 2 groups containing 5 notes each. The trick here is to make sure that the last note of Group 1 and the first note of Group 2 overlap with the same note. For example, using our C Lydian Scale, Group 1 uses the notes C–D–E–F#–G and Group 2 uses the notes G–A–B–C–D. Therefore, the note G is acts like a hinge between Groups 1 and 2.
Once you have identified 2 groups with 5 notes each, you are ready for Step 3.
Step 3: Apply the Magic Piano Run Pattern
In Step 3, we’ll apply The Magic Run pattern to each group from Step 2. This is the most important step because this pattern transforms your source scale from the sound of an ascending scale to a sophisticated run with intriguing contours.
In order to get the specific magical sound of The Magic Run, we need to apply a very specific finger pattern. Beginning from Group 1 with your thumb on C, play the finger pattern 1–2–5–2–3–4. This will give you the notes C–D–G–D–E–F. Next, move to Group 2 with your thumb on G and apply the same pattern. This will give you the notes G–A–D–A–B–C.
A Closer Look
If you look closely at the notation above, you will notice that the last note of the G Group has been omitted. Specifically, the note C with the 4th finger is not shown. This is because when the pattern resets, the final note from Group 2 becomes the initial note C of Group 1, albeit an octave higher. In other words, The Magic Run consists of 11 notes in each octave.
Now that you know the finger pattern for The Magic Run, you’re ready to move on to Step 4.
Step 4: Combine Patterns from Each Group
Without a doubt, Step 4 is the most exciting step! This is where you’ll cascade up the piano with The Magic Run. In essence, Step 4 repeats Step 3 in successive octaves in order to complete the piano run. Keep in mind that the last note of your run may vary. In other words, the final octave will not necessarily contain all 11 notes from Step 3.
Combined Patterns Demonstration
Did you notice in Jonny’s demonstration of this run that it is harmonically anchored with a whole note in the left hand? At a minimum, this should be the root of the chord. However, you can also add the 5th and even the 10th for a richer harmonic foundation. The following video slowly demonstrates Step 4, hands together and with the sustain pedal applied.
Step 4: Hands Together with Pedal
More Magic Anyone?
Once you are comfortable with The Magic Run right-hand technique, you can add even more magic to this sound by lightly padding colorful chord voicings with your left hand. Since we’ve already anchored the run with the root of the chord at the beginning (or Root+5th / Root+5th+10th), rootless voicings are a tasteful choice here. For example, Jonny colors the C Lydian run with the C6/9 rootless voicing pictured here in his left hand.
To apply this effect, lightly place this chord voicing in each octave with your left hand as you play the ascending run in your right hand. It is not necessary to try to line up the timing of the left hand with the right hand in any particular way. However, the C6/9 voicing does feel a bit more naturally when lined up with the G Group. Therefore, Jonny demonstrates this technique by starting on the G Group, as shown below. You can roll the notes of the left hand voicing for a more dreamy sound.
The Magic Run with Left Hand Coloration
If you have completed Steps 1 through 4, you have learned The Magic Run in its entirety. However, this run is specific to a C major chord. What if you want to play a piano run over a different chord? That’s where Step 5 comes in!
Step 5: Explore Piano Runs for Other Chords
The Magic Run technique can be applied over any chord type by simply changing the source scale in Step 1. Therefore, in this section, we’ll examine how to play The Magic Run on minor chords and dominant sus chords.
In order to choose the right source scale, you’ll need some prior knowledge of chord/scale relationships. In other words, you must know which scales go with which chords. If you are not familiar with this concept, don’t worry. We’ll introduce you to the scales you need to know for today’s lesson.
To learn more about chord/scale relationships, check out the following courses:
- Scales for Improv on Major and Minor Chords (Levels 1–2)
- Scales for Improv on 7th Chords (Levels 2–3)
To play a piano run over a minor chord like Cm7, we’ll use C Dorian as our source scale. The simplest way to construct a Dorian scale is to start with a major scale and modify it to contain ♭3 and ♭7 instead. Therefore, our C Dorian scale includes the following notes: C–D–E♭–F–G–A–B♭.
The diagram below illustrates how to apply Steps 1–4 to convert a C Dorian scale into a Magic Run.
Minor Chords – Alternate Finger Groups
Sometimes, you can vary the way you divide the scale groups to create a slightly different piano run. For example, the diagram below illustrates how a C Dorian Magic Run would look if you were to make the note F the hinge between Group 1 and Group 2. In this case, when you combine the groups, Group 1 will be truncated instead of Group 2.
Next, well look at how to play The Magic Run over a completely different chord—the dominant 7 sus sound!
Dominant 7 Sus Chords
The Magic Run also sounds great on dominant 7 sus chords. Therefore, in this section we’ll explore how to play a piano run over an A♭7(sus4) chord.
The source scale for dominant sus chords is the Mixolydian mode. The easiest way to play a Mixolydian scale is by starting with a major scale and then lowering the 7th tone (♭7 for short). Therefore, our A♭ Mixolydian scale includes the following notes: A♭–B♭–C–D♭–E♭–F–G♭. As you can see, this scale contains 5 flats and implies a V7 chord in the key of D♭ major.
Fingering Considerations for Piano Runs
There is one important consideration here regarding fingering. In the previous examples, Group 1 has always started on the 1st scale degree of the source scale. However, for A♭ Mixolydian, if Group 1 were to begin on the note A♭, that would put our thumb on a black key. Similarly, Group 2 would then begin on E♭—another black key! As pianists, we try to avoid using our thumbs on black keys when playing linear passages because this is contrary to our body mechanics. Since the thumb is the shortest finger, it is more ergonomically efficient to place our thumb on white keys and use our longer fingers for the black keys. Therefore, since A♭ Mixloydian contains two white keys (C and F), we’ll make sure that our thumb is on those notes when we divide up the scale in Step 2.
The diagram below illustrates how to apply Steps 1–4 to convert an A♭ Mixolydian scale into a Magic Run.
Piano Run Performance Example
Now that you know how to build a piano run over virtually any chord symbol, let’s take a listen to what The Magic Run sounds like in the context of a solo piano performance. In fact, the introduction to Jonny’s beautiful contemporary piano arrangement of “What a Wonderful World” features an A♭ Mixolydian Magic Run over A♭7(sus4)—just like our previous example!
Conclusion: Additional Piano Run Lessons
Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s Quick Tip lesson on The Ultimate Piano Run—The Magic Run. In the process, you’ve equipped yourself to captivate your audience during the two most critical sections of any solo piano performance—the start and the finish!
If you enjoyed today’s lesson, be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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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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