A Pianist’s Touch

April 9, 2015

By Jason Yeager

Learning repertoire is an integral part of every musician’s practice and study, regardless of genre.  In the jazz world, we often study “standards,” music that has become part of the jazz canon. This music tends to come from Broadway and Hollywood (the “Great American Songbook” of roughly the 1920s through the 1960s), as well as from the pens of jazz composers and improvisers. Even if we aspire to be composers ourselves, learning standard and other repertoire is an invaluable part of becoming a literate and aware musician. Understanding the harmonic dexterity of Jerome Kern, the memorable themes and infectious rhythms of Thelonious Monk, and the sweeping balladry of Billly Strayhorn can teach us much about composition, improvisation, emotional expression, and the fundamentals of great music.

As a pianist, I approach learning a new piece of music in a particular way. First, I try to learn the song by ear, being able to first sing and then play the melody. I choose a recorded version of the song that is both emotionally compelling and clear. If the song has lyrics, I’ll pick a vocal version, so that the lyrical content – a key element of the emotional story of the song – is not lost. With a quick search online, I research the song’s origins and history.

Even if I do not learn the tune by ear (perhaps I’ve been handed a score just before a gig, or have other time or technological constraints), I still approach practicing and learning the song in a similar way. For the purposes of this article, and given certain copyright restrictions, I’ll use as an example one of my own compositions, “Stumblebop,” a bop-inflected piece played at a medium to fast tempo.

Now as pianists, we must be ready to play each piece we learn in a variety of different contexts (solo, duo, trio, as an accompanist for another instrumentalist or vocalist, etc.). We also should be ready to improvise over the form of the tune, as well as to accompany other soloists in the ensemble. These are all reasons to practice a given tune in a variety of ways.

First, play only the melody and the roots of the chords (bass notes) at a moderate or slow tempo. Focus on staying light on the keys and having a clear articulation. For now, have the melody in the middle register of the piano where one might sing it – and the bass notes in the left hand, down a couple octaves from the melody. Try playing both parts staccato, then with an articulation that seems to makes sense given the rhythms and groove/feel of the tune. Here is an example of the first few bars of “Stumblebop”:


Second, play the melody in the right hand and shell voicings – using voices 1 and 3, 1 and 7, 1 and 5, or 1 and 6 – in the left hand:


Third, practice four-way close voicings (1, 3, 5, 7) in the left hand, using inversions to voice lead between chords, while you play the melody in the right:


Fourth, try three-note rootless voicings, using the 3rd, 7th, and one other chord tone or tension, with smooth voice leading:


Fifth, try the shell voicings in the left hand (from step 2), melody in the right hand, and one other voice beneath the melody in the right hand. (Note that you can play this “one other voice” in the left hand when the interval with the melody is too wide to reach.) This texture gives us a very basic four-voice version of the tune, with the basic harmony and melody intact. If you prefer, first play only the bass notes in the left hand (not shells), with the added note in the right hand under the melody, creating a three-voice texture. Whether three- or four-voices, this type of playing could be the beginning of a solo piano arrangement:


Sixth, play 3 or 4-note rootless voicings in your right hand while playing roots or a combination of roots and fifths in your left hand. Imagine someone else is playing the melody, and hear or sing the melody as you play.

Finally, play two-handed open voicings of the chord, perhaps with the left hand playing shells or guide tones (3rds and 7ths), and the right hand playing other chord tones plus tensions, as if you were comping behind a vocalist or horn player stating the melody.


Taking this approach ensures you know the “skeleton” of the song (melody, root motion/bass notes, and rhythm), have a basic understanding of the voice leading (through shells, four-way close, and rootless left hand chords), begin to construct a solo piano approach (step 5, with the four voices split between the hands), and practice accompanying someone else’s melody in a duo or ensemble context (steps 6 and 7). As jazz musicians it is vital that we be able to play a tune in at least four ways: as a solo pianist, as a pianist backed by rhythm section, as a duo partner accompanying someone else stating the melody, and as a member of an ensemble in which a rhythm section and melody player are present, leaving you (the pianist) to comp.

These are just the first steps in learning a piece of music deeply. Next, you’d want to practice different techniques of harmonizing the melody (melody doubled in the left hand, block chords, drop-2 voicings, open voicings in fourths and fifths, et cetera). You also ought to try moving the piece to different keys; having completed the above steps, you’ll have an easier time doing so than if you try to transpose directly from a lead sheet. You could even try reversing the hands of any of the steps/examples presented above. 

And even as you’re still working on mastering these preliminary steps, remember to always play with feeling, dynamics, and good time – these are not elements to add later, but rather integral to being musical and expressive. Let yourself go, and improvise early and often!

A New York-based pianist and composer, Jason Yeager recently released his second album, Affirmation (INCM 043), on the Inner Circle Music label. He teaches piano at Berklee College of Music. www.jasonyeager.com.

Leave a Comment