Brendan Cooney, piano teacher

Triggering Improvisation

This article was originally published on the Golandsky Institute blog.

Triggering Improvisation

by Brendan Cooney (www.mtairypianolessons.com)

When I was invited to contribute something to the new blog on the Golandsky Institute site I thought that it would be a good opportunity to share some ways I have applied a simple principle from the Taubman Approach in my development of ways to teach improvisation and syncopation.

The Taubman Approach has much to say about the interdependence of the two hands. Rather than conceiving of each hand as an entity controlled by a separate part of the brain, as if we were pressing ‘play’ on two tape-players at the same time, we are encouraged to eventually think and feel each musical moment as a singularity. Even before I have taught a student the complex skills of rotation, in and out, shaping, etc. I can still use this approach to interdependence to make notable improvements in a student’s playing. We take a passage and break it down into 3 types of moments- Right, Left and Both- corresponding to whether the right, left or both hands play at the same time. We first speak the order of moments out loud (ie “both, both, right, both, left left, both,”.. etc.) and then practice the sequences of motions physically at the piano ‘out of time’ before finally putting the passage in time. Each moment ‘triggers’ the next. By working out this process of triggering a passage involving tricky interdependence between hands can be made to feel natural and easy.

It was only relatively recently that I realized that I could use this approach to interdependence to help students overcome some problems quite common to the new student of improvisation. There are several overlapping stumbling blocks that I have often come across when teaching improvisation to students. Let me say a few words about each before I discuss how I think they may be connected and how a Taubman-informed approach to interdependence can aid in overcoming these problems.

Rambling Incoherent Phrases

Often the novice improviser seems to get lost in an incoherent stream of notes that seem to have no logical start or end or relation to each other. Perhaps all of the notes are ‘correct’ in the sense that they are from the ‘correct’ scale that corresponds with a given chord change or key center, but the way they are phrased makes the ideas impossible to follow. The students themselves cannot remember or repeat what they have just played.

Overly-Scalar Playing

Many who teach improvisation will probably recognize this common problem. A student is given a scale with which to improvise with and so their ‘improvisation’ consists most of playing up and down the scale. The focus on the scale seems to override the student’s ability to play coherent phrases or to hear ideas in their head.

Losing Track of the Pulse and the Form

One of the most difficult things about improvisation is to keep the pulse and the form (the given pattern of chord changes) present in the mind while playing improvised lines over this internal mental map. It is quite common for students to play ideas which cause them to unconsciously add or subtract beats from measures. It is also common for them to lose track of where they are in a chord progression.

Syncopation

It is quite common for students to have difficulty performing syncopated rhythms, either written or improvised. It is often the syncopation which causes them to add or subtract beats. Many students do not have the pulse internalized adequately enough to carry out instructions like “try starting your phrases on the ‘and of 2’.”

Two-Hands Working at Cross-Purposes

Often in ‘modern’ jazz piano playing the left hand is assigned the role of ‘comping’, or improvising rhythmic accompaniment to an improvised line played by the right hand. This left hand comping most consists of 2 to 4 note chord voicings played in no particular rhythmic pattern, changing bar by bar at the whim of the pianist. Adding this left hand comping style can be very destabilizing to the new improviser. All of the above problems become multiplied as they try to coordinated two different syncopated rhythmic ideas over a pulse and a chord progression.

In my opinion the common theme in all of these has to do with how students understand and express rhythm. Since expressing rhythm is necessarily a physical act, there is a technical dimension to all of these problems. I do not believe that the problem is helped by the excessive focus that jazz pedagogy often places on harmony as the foundation of improvisation. Most introductory methods start with scales. This puts the focus on learning the ‘correct’ notes to play. However I have heard many young, new improvisors with very little knowledge of harmonic relationships who can play great solos. What makes their solos great is that they play clear, logical phrases and that they play in time. It is my belief that this is the foundation of good improvisation.

Hence, when I teach improvisation I rarely begin with a discussion of harmony. Instead I focus on playing simple phrases, playing syncopation without losing pulse, and ‘keeping the form’ (not losing track of the chord changes). My vehicle is the ‘riff blues’, a common type of 12-bar-blues in which the same 4-bar phrase is repeated 3 times over a 12-bar-blues chord progression.

Pianists have a great advantage over other instruments in that we can accompany our own improvisation. With the help of the left hand a student can learn to improvise over a pulse and keep the form. Since a free, left-hand comping style can be quite destabilizing to the new improviser I give my students a simple quarter-note pulse of alternating 5ths and 6ths, in the style of a Delta blues guitarist:

C7 LH pattern

It may perhaps be a somewhat hokey choice of accompaniment, but because it gives the student a solid quarter-note pulse with which to relate their right-hand improvisations is creates a tangible, physical way to relate to the pulse. We begin with a riff-blues, perhaps something like this:

riff blues 1

The third measure is the tricky one because of the dotted-rhythm. Here we must stop and work out the interdependence by saying “both, left, right, left, left”. (We also often work on how to leap from one chord to the next in the left-hand.) Dotted-rhythms are tricky, especially when students have to relate them to a mental pulse. But here, with the left-hand playing the pulse, it usually only takes a few minutes of going over the interdependence before a student has mastered the dotted-rhythm.

When I first began using the riff-blues as a teaching tool I would quickly move to having the student make up their own riffs. But over time I’ve become less interested in jumping to this stage so quickly. Now I am more likely to give students increasingly tricky riff blues to work out. Sometimes what is ‘tricky’ is the syncopation. Sometimes it is a fingering. Sometimes it is that there is a note in the riff that needs to be altered over one of the chords (here we often use our ears to figure out the details rather than bogging the lesson down in a harmony lesson).

Eventually we move to the next challenge, working with less notation to execute a riff-blues. I might give a student this:

riff no LH

I tell the student that this is a riff for a C-blues. They must use the mental map that they have internalized to add the left-hand part to the right-hand, making the syncopations lines up correctly without actually seeing the left-hand pulse underneath. They must be able to speak the interdependence even though it is not written out for them to see. Then they must play through the whole 12-bar chord progression, switching chords when appropriate, without seeing the whole structure notated.

I find that this approach really helps the student to internalize the pulse and chord progression. Once these skills seem sufficiently internalized I then invite the student to begin to create their own riffs. We stick with riffs rather than open solos because I think that riffs force students to be conscious of what they play and to think about phrase structure. It is harder for most students to play a riff-blues than it is for them to freely noodle over the changes. This is because playing a riff-blues requires you to remember what you have played and then repeat it. The other great thing about a riff-blues is that it forces the student to play four-bar phrases, and to, hopefully, leave space between phrases. We can then use the riff-blues as a starting point for other types of phrase structures. It is fun to come up with phrase structures on the spot and try to implement examples in the lesson.

When do we talk about harmony? It is, of course, different with every student. When I don’t feel like there is time to delve into details I may just invite a student to chose any notes they like for their riffs, letting them discover what notes they prefer. If this doesn’t allow the creative juices to flow I give them a set of notes to choose from, not necessarily a scale. (It is probably a topic for a different discussion, but when I do start to talk about harmony and improvisation I usually base everything on chords. We learn chords first, then the student improvises using chord tones. Over-time the chords tones are filled-in with scale tones and chromatic passing tones.)

Another good challenge, and great for learning about different keys and key signatures, is to ask the student to transpose riffs into different keys. Since many students have not mastered enough rotation, in-and-out and other skills to spend a lot of time playing major scales in all 12 keys, learning to transpose riffs into different keys can be a ‘safer’ alternative and actually create a more robust internalization of the features of a key than repetitive scale playing.

There are many ways in which the above template can be used as a springboard for explorations of improvisation. I hope other teachers may find the ideas here useful and consider sharing their own thoughts or ideas. While there are undoubtably other possible variations on the above method what I think is most crucial, what is essential about this approach, is that it attempts to redress common problems that students encounter through a physical-technical exploration of pulse and form. It suggests that a pedagogy which helps students to internalize the feeling of syncopation against a pulse can solve many of the biggest stumbling blocks to the improvising pianist. If this approach produces tangible results (which it has for me) this might also suggest that a one-sided focus on harmony (as one often encounters in jazz pedagogy) does not sufficiently address the entire range of skills needed to improvise at the piano.