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May 3, 2023

Jazz Improvisation Practice Mistakes

This Jazz Piano Skills Podcast Episode discusses the top three Jazz Improvisation Practice Mistakes made by every beginning Jazz Student.

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Welcome to Jazz Piano Skills; it's time to discover, learn, and play Jazz Piano!

Every Jazz Piano Skills weekly podcast episode introduces aspiring jazz pianists to essential Jazz Piano Skills. Each Podcast episode explores a specific Jazz Piano Skill in depth. Today you will discover, learn, playJazz Improvisation Practice Mistakes. In this Jazz Piano Lesson, you will:

Three HUGE mistakes that you want to avoid when practicing jazz improvisation


How to THINK about practicing Jazz Improvisation formulaically

Essential EXERCISES to help you develop improvisational skills the right way!

Educational Support
Community Forum

Episode Outline
Discover, Learn, Play
Invite to Join Jazz Piano Skills
Jazz Lecture
Closing Comments

Visit Jazz Piano Skills for more educational resources that include a sequential curriculum with comprehensive Jazz Piano Courses, private and group online Jazz Piano Classes, a private jazz piano community hosting a variety of Jazz Piano Forums, an interactive Jazz Fake Book, plus unlimited professional educational jazz piano support.

If you wish to donate to JazzPianoSkills, you can do so easily through the Jazz Piano Skills Paypal Account.

Thank you for being a JazzPianoSkills listener. It is my pleasure to help you discover, learn, and play jazz piano!

Warm Regards,
Dr. Bob Lawrence
President, The Dallas School of Music



Welcome to jazz piano skills. I'm Dr. Bob Lawrence. It's time discover, learn, and play jazz piano here we are start of a new month, the month of May. It's hard to believe that we are a third of the way through a new year and have already explored improvisation, improvisation patterns for the keys of C, F, B flat, and E flat. And as you know, the patterns are designed to help us get comfortable with the frequent shifting of our right hand which is needed when improvising. Of course, in order to be successful with the constant shifting of our right hand, we need to be very much aware of our fingerings. So with every month, and every new key, we are challenged with patterns, and fingerings for each of the primary sounds of music, major dominant minor, half diminished and diminished. Plus the four traditional altered dominant sounds as well sharp 11, flat 13, flat nine flat 13. And the fully altered sound flat nine sharp nine, flat five sharp five. In addition to all of that, we then take a week out of each month to assess the fruits of our labor by studying a classic bebop two. And doing so we validate the importance of good fingerings that allow us to easily and accurately shift our right hand when playing bebop heads, bebop melodies. And while improvising needless to say, it's pretty intense work right? So much so that if you are not truly serious about wanting to discover, learn and play jazz piano, you will move on to another podcast, you'll move on to another side, another program, another YouTube video, a popular book, and so on in hopes of finding something much easier than jazz piano skills, something much easier, that will hopefully do the trick for you.

For those of you who fall into this category, I wish you all the best with your jazz journey. And for those of you who are hunkering down and getting down to business, stay in the course and putting in the hard work and study. I want to say congratulations, your pay day is coming very soon. Now with all of that being said, you regular listeners know you true DLP ears. A DLP or of course is one who is serious about their journey, their quest to discover, learn and play jazz piano.

I just came up with that. Anyway, for you true DLP ears, you know that I like to give you all a reprieve between keys right to give you time to digest the patterns and fingerings of the current key before moving on to a new key. And I typically do this by inviting a guest to join me on jazz piano skills, which of course, I will continue to do. However today, I thought I would take this break between keys to introduce you to a new jazz piano skills segment that I am officially launching today. My new segment is called the JPS lecture series. The idea is this I may do a solo lecture, like I will be doing today or a lecture that includes a guest panel. Several folks, either way a lecture series episode will explore a specific jazz topic in depth. The idea is that I want to give you a seat at the table with the best jazz educators in the world where the discussion is centered around


specific topic, and essential jazz piano skills. Needless to say, I am extremely pumped about the JPS lecture series. And I hope you are too.

So I thought I would kick things off today with a lecture titled, jazz improvisation practice mistakes.

Jazz educators spend a lot of time talking about what you should be doing to improve your jazz piano skills. However, we rarely discuss what you should not be doing. So today, you get to kick back, listen, and enjoy my thoughts, insights and experiences as a lifelong jazz student and professional jazz educator about mistakes you want to avoid when practicing jazz. So you're, you're going to discover three huge mistakes that you want to avoid. When practicing jazz improvisation. You're going to learn how to think about practicing jazz improvisation formulaically and you are going to play essential exercises that will help you develop improvisational skills the right way. So as I always like to say, regardless of where you are in your jazz journey, a beginner an intermediate player, an advanced player, even if you consider yourself a seasoned and experienced professional. You're gonna find this jazz panel skills podcasts lesson exploring jazz improvisation practice mistakes, to be very beneficial. But before we dig in, I want to as I always do welcome first time listeners to jazz piano skills. And if you are indeed a new listener if you are new to the jazz panel skills podcast if you're new to jazz panel skills, I want to personally invite you to become a jazz piano skills member. There are various membership plans to choose from so take a moment when you have a few minutes free to check out jazz piano skills. To learn more about all of the perks of each of the membership plans. There are educational weekly podcast packets, sequential jazz piano Online Piano curriculum, which is loaded with comprehensive courses their online weekly master classes online interactive Fakebook, there's a private jazz piano skills community which hosts a variety of engaging forums. There's unlimited private, personal and professional educational support as well. All of this, all of these perks, waiting for you to help you discover, learn and play jazz piano. So when you have a moment, visit jazz panels check it all out. And of course, become a member. Once you're there, if you have any questions, please do not hesitate feel free to to contact me reach out to me. I'm always happy to spend some time with you. Answer any questions that you may have and help you in any way that I can. Okay, let's discover, learn and play jazz piano. Let's have some fun with jazz improvisation practice mistakes. Okay, there are several mistakes

that the beginning jazz pianist makes when embracing the challenge of developing improvisational skills.

The mistakes of course range from simply not investing enough practice time,

to overthinking the entire process and trying to do way too much. And when I say trying to do too much.

I mean trying to do way too much every time

they sit down at the piano to practice.

You know, in my three plus decades of teaching professionally, I can honestly say that every student, every student, I have had the privilege to help

has embarked upon their journey with the sincerest of intentions and the utmost optimism. However, if the big mistakes they are about to make are not immediately addressed and rectified.

They then their good intentions and optimism will quickly wane.

Now, you may be asking how in the world you know

The mistakes they are about to make before they make them

well, because every single student, and I mean that literally, every student makes these critical mistakes. My job. My job as it is for every jazz educator is to address these common mistakes as quickly as possible, so that the student can make the necessary adjustments and continue to experience forward motion. Continue to experience growth, right continue to experience progress. So today, I am going to address three mistakes that everyone including you

make when working on developing improvisational skills. Additionally, I will of course suggest some exercises to practice that will help you circumvent these critical mistakes. Mistake number one.

Mistake number one, every beginning jazz improviser.

wrestles with trying to play melodies. Let me say that again. Every beginning jazz improviser, wrestles with trying to play melody.

That's right melody.

So if you're trying to think of a melody to play when improvising, you are already off track.


this may sound strange to you, since we all think we all think of jazz improvisation

as our ability to create melodies on the fly. And indeed it is, however, the ability to spontaneously compose to improvise,

is the byproduct of successfully practicing harmony. And rhythm. Let me say that again, as well. The ability to spontaneously compose to improvise, is the byproduct of successfully practicing harmony, and rhythm.

So if you are trying to develop your improvisational skills by focusing on melody, before having an operational command and functional command of harmony and rhythm,

then you have the cart ahead of the horse, you're starting at the end of the process instead of the beginning. Which is never, which is never a good idea.

So let's talk about harmony first.

How well do you know your chords?

Can you easily spell them from the root to the seventh of the sound? For all 12 Major, dominant minor half diminished and diminished chords? 60 in total? Can you spell them from the root to the seven? Can you spell them

in their inverted positions as well.

I call these 60 chords, the primary sounds of music.

Now not only is your ability to spell them vitally important,

but you also want to be able to see them as well.

And not only spell them and see them in root position,

right, but also spell them and see them in their inverted shapes.

Now I start every new jazz piano student with the shapes and sounds because they are the harmonic foundation of music. In fact, they are the foundation of music

without a conceptual and physical command of this foundation, the 60 harmonic structures, you are going nowhere with your play.

I cannot be any more truthful than that. If you do not have a command of the 60 harmonic structures 12 Major 12 dominant 12 minor 12 half diminished 12 diminished chords in root position and inversions. You aren't going nowhere.

There's not a YouTube video that you can watch that's going to circumvent this

Truth. There's not a book you're going to read that's going to circumvent this truth. There's not a podcast that you're going to listen to that's going to circumvent this truth. There's not a shortcut.

Hate to break it to you, no shortcut, the 60 chords must be under your fingers in your ears, and sorted out conceptually, in your mind.

I had a teacher,

literally, he would greet me at the front door, before I can even get to the front door, he would be standing at the front door.

Shouting to me, as I'm walking up the sidewalk through his screen door, he would say a half diminished. And he wanted me to literally as quickly as he said the chord name a half diminished. He wanted me to say a C, E flat G.

And if I hesitated one second, if I said like a C, he would go You do not know it. B flat minor seven, I'd go a B flat, D, you do not know it. C diminished C, E flat, you do not know it. I got Holy smokes. I used to say Listen, can you give me a second, please? And he'd say, well spelled Bob.

Yeah, right.

And he would say, Look, you have to be able to spell these chords as easily as you spell your name.

So he used to drill me every single lesson the same way. And I remember one day, one day, I was walking up the sidewalk and he yelled, F sharp, dominant seven, F sharp, A sharp, A sharp C sharp E. He'd say D minor seven, I got D F A C, he would say a flat dominant seven, I'd say a flat, C E flat G flat. And he he MUST rattle off at least a dozen chord names. And I would rattle right back at him I'd rattle off the spelling. And he looked at me and he smiled. He said, you know? And I said yes, I do. So my whole point. My whole point is you have to know them in the very same way.

When I start a new jazz piano student

with learning the primary sounds of music, the 60 chords in the in root and inverted positions. I explained to them that this is really, this is really an improvisation exercise.

I tell them this because it is the shapes the sounds that they will use

to begin developing melodies when improvising. Now I say this, I say this to every student. And I know for a fact that goes in one ear and out the other because they have absolutely no idea how these harmonic shapes could possibly be used to improvise.

So when I tell them this musical truth, it's a pleasant exchange between the two of us with affirming up and down head nods accompanied with warm smiles. But I know it is quickly forgotten. But that's okay. Because I will continue to reinforce this musical fact over and over and over again until one day, they truly discover

that they actually have to thoroughly know and be able to play the 60 chords and root position and three inverted shapes, if they have hopes of ever improvising.

Now, let's talk about rhythm.

The piano.

The piano is a rhythm instrument

that should be played percussively that is if you want your piano playing your piano music to be exciting, emotional and expressive,

right. So rhythm should be something you focus on developing. Every time you sit down to practice.

Rhythm. Rhythm is without question. The most challenging skill for most people to develop, especially, especially adults. And the reason for this is that adults, adults are way too up tight.

They just simply art.

Something has happened to us throughout our lifetime over the years.

That makes us emotionally stiff.

I guess it's the battles of day to day living.

That make us this way that make us stiff. Make us, make us on guard, make us guard our emotions, make us protect our feelings and show show little emotion if ever. I get it, I get it. Right. But unfortunately,

unfortunately, we need to be relaxed, not stiff, expressive and emotional to play rhythm.

So for all of you listening who are stiff, emotionless, unfeeling, that I have great news for you. The study of jazz piano is it going to be great therapy?

Who knew? Who knew? Okay, so to begin playing rhythm,

you have to begin to sing.

Now, I'm not talking about the type of singing where you are producing a pretty sound and matching pitch, right? I'm not trying to be Luciano Pavarotti here are not studying voice. The singing that I am talking about is more like a moan or groan

that you do internally underneath your breath, if you will. That produces emotion, feelings and expression. We call this rhythm.

Now, with that being said, you want to make sure that you are moaning or groaning real rhythms and not just grunting to grunt.

Real rhythms right. Now, real rhythms are the opposite of just poking around on the keys trying to simulate rhythm.

Right real rhythms can be transcribed. In other words, someone would be able to actually musically notate what you just play. Right. So let me give you an analogy. When I was a little boy now, I do not know why I remember this. But

it's funny how we remember certain things in our childhood. But I remember when I was just a little guy, I don't know, maybe four or five years old, somewhere in there. I had this fascination with cursive writing, I would see

my parents and aunts and uncles and and, you know, adults, I would see them write in cursive. And it looked really fancy. So I remember one night my mom would, my mom was doing dishes in the kitchen and cleaning up after dinner. And I was sitting at the kitchen counter. And I had a piece of paper and I

I scribbled on the piece of paper so it kind of looked like you know a scribble followed by a space a scribble followed by a space another scribble and so on. And I remember I took the piece of paper and said Mom, what does this say?

And she looked and she said it says nothing.

As it's nothing. It's not gonna say nothing. I mean, it looks like cursive it looks like what I see everybody do when they move a pen across a piece of paper. This is what this looks like to me. How could it be? How can it be nothing.

So I went back to the drawing board I did another scribble followed by space and other scribbles space scribble space. As a mom, what does this say? I can remember she looks your sweetie Look, you're gonna learn how to read and write when you get to school. So don't worry about it. I went Wow. Bummer. So my point being is I was kind of imitating I was trying to imitate what cursive look like. But it wasn't cursive wasn't even close. Right? And that's how I for most folks, you know, trying to play rhythm and trying to kind of imitate what rhythms are, but they're not really rhythms. Right.

So let me tell you what, let me play for you the equivalent of what I'm talking about with regards to fake rhythms. I'm going to bring the ensemble and I'm going to play some T T s l rs

as I play all the things you are now what are TEA TEA SLRs

easy TTSL Rs are things that sound like rhythm, pte. SLRs. This is what I this is what I often hear from beginning jazz improvisers. When they are focusing on trying to produce melody long before they have a command of rhythms, right. So so here we go. Let's here's all the Here's one. Here's one

chorus of all the things you are

with me playing a lot of TTSL RS things that sound like rhythm, here we go check it out.

Wow, you see fake rhythms, no one would be able to musically notate what I just played. There might be a few couple notes in there that they might be able to notate. But overall, they would not be able to musically notate what I just played.

I was trying to create an impression

of what I think I hear when I listen to jazz pianists, right, like I was, when I was a little boy, I was trying to create what I thought was cursive, right, I was trying to present a knockoff account of a counterfeit jazz pianist, and hope that it would pass for the real deal. And let me tell you, it doesn't, it just does not. Now, let me play all the things you are again. And this time, I'm going to use quarter note, and eighth note rhythms only applied to chord tones only, right the root, the third, the fifth, and the seventh. So I'm going to use and try my very best to just stick the quarter notes, and eighth notes using only core tones. But I'm going to play real rhythms so you can hear the difference. All right, so let's bring the ensemble back. And let's check this out one chorus of all the things you are with real rhythms here we go.

Hear the difference I certainly hope you do.

Let's step back, let's just step back and look how we should practice applying chord tones to real rhythms. And let's begin with a single chord like F minor seven, the very first chord of all the things you are F minor seven.

And let's play four quarter notes on the root only. Alright, and then we'll move to the third. Then we'll move to the fifth and we'll move to the seventh, right but we're going to play just four quarter notes on each note of the sound, the root, third, fifth and seventh. We're going to do so in time with a good feel. Now, I know this may sound like a very simple a very rudimental exercise to you. But I'm telling you, it's not easy. It's not as easy as you're thinking in your head right now, I promise you to play four quarter notes on a single note, whether it's the root, the third, the fifth or the seventh,

with a solid sense of time and a great feel is not easy. In fact, I would bet that many of you listening right now would struggle with this exercise.


so let me bring the ensemble back in. And let me demonstrate what I'm talking about. Okay. So I'm going to play four quarter notes moving from the root, then the third, then the fifth than the seven.

On F minor seven, the very first quarter of all the things you are okay, so here we go, let's check it out.

Now, if this is easy for you, congrats, you are on your way. If this is not easy for you, stay put, and continue to practice playing four quarter notes applied to a single note of the sound right to stay put in practice that exercise now I'm going to add a pair of eighth notes to my real rhythm. By the way, four quarter notes. That's a real rhythm. But now I'm going to add a pair of eighth notes to my real rhythm on count or beat four. Right, so I'm going to get 1234 and placing a pair of eighth notes on count four.

Plus, I'm going to stretch my rhythm over two notes. Now instead of just one

I am going to use the root and the third again. I will explore various notes sequences when applying the rhythm to see what I can develop when improvising. So So let's bring the ensemble back in have a little fun with this quarter eighth rhythm played using the root and third of the F minor sound. All right, okay, here we go. Let's check it out.

See, just adding a pair of eighth notes and stretching the rhythm over two notes instead of one makes a huge difference. In a real life practice setting. I would then explore moving this quarter eighth pattern to the third and fifth and to the fifth and seventh as well. But for the sake of time, I'm going to move on and stretch this very same rhythm over all four notes of the F minor sound, the root, the third, the fifth and the seventh. I will shuffle the deck so to speak right, the order of the notes once I get comfy with playing the rhythm in a sequential order from the root to the seventh. So once again, let's bring the ensemble back in. And let's see how this sounds. Let's see what I can come up with. Well

improvising utilizing four notes same quarter note eighth note pattern but using four notes now instead okay here we go let's check it out.

Think you know I think you are seeing where this is going right

let me give you a little arithmetic to help you

chord tones plus rhythm equal melody.

Let me say that again chord tones plus rhythm equal melody.

See exactly what I said earlier. If you are starting with trying to play melodies when improvising, then you are starting backward.

You begin with gaining the command of chord tones for all 60 chords for the primary sounds of music major dominant minor half diminished and diminished. And then you add real rhythms to produce a melody.

I would, I would focus initially on various quarter note eighth note rhythms. And before going any further before getting any fancier check out the entire podcast here for season the fourth season of the podcast. Check out that entire year where we thoroughly explored rhythms from home notes to half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, the dotted rhythms 16th notes, triplets and much more. Once you have a command of rhythms and chord tones, you can add the scale tones.

And once you have a command of the scale tones, you can begin incorporating non scale tones, half step approachment, neighboring tones etc. But do not do not make the most common mistake of all which is focusing on playing melodies. Before you have a command of the chord tones and rhythms. And when I say have a command of chord tones and rhythms, I mean conceptually

orally and physically. Right.

That is a ton. Now, one more thing I want to I want to circle back around and talk about the singing aspect. You have got to be singing these rhythms internally.

If you want your hands to respond and play them correctly, right? If nothing is going on upstairs, nothing's going to come out downstairs the hands take dictation from the mind. So you have to be singing or grunting or moaning or groaning these melodies. I mean, these these rhythms, if you hope to one day be playing melodies, okay.

Alright, so now, let's move on to mistake number two. Mistake number two.


The beginning jazz pianists fills up all space.

They don't stop playing. In other words, just way too many notes. Right space is a very important aspect of improvisation. It's what you do not play is just as important as what you do play

So in practicing your chord tones when practicing your rhythms, practice incorporating space as well. And you can do this a couple of different ways. You can improvise for measure, rest for a measure, improvise for measure, rest for measure, or improvise for two measures rest for two measures, right? I was kind of like I like to call it rest and assess where you play something, you have some silence, where you can assess what you just played, and then go at it again. Right, you can actually build the rest into your rhythms. And so you can have, you know, quarter when I say quarter note, eighth note rhythms, you can have quarter rest and eighth rest as well. Again, I would refer you to season four, the podcast where we spent the entire year doing a very thorough examination of common rib rhythms used in music especially used in jazz. So space, the lack of space is mistake number two. Mistake number three.

Absolutely no repetition.

No repetition. In other words, I used to have a teacher that used to say, Bob, if

if what you said was worth saying the first time, it's worth repeating a second time. And if it's not worth repeating a second time, it probably wasn't worth saying the first time. So when you have a musical idea, and you're improvising, you have a musical idea. It is okay to repeat that idea. I'm thinking of C jam blues right now. And that melody that's

and what happens?


then what happens again?

Well, Billy Strayhorn certainly thought that repetition was

a good, a good idea. So I would encourage you to be aware of repeating including repetition in your improvisation, the beginning improviser tends to think that repetition is somehow an admission of lack of creativity. And that is absolutely false thinking. It's not true at all. So mistake number three, repetition. So the big three, the big three, when it comes to the beginning, jazz improviser I think the big three mistakes. Number one, the beginning improviser begins with trying to create melodies. Mistake number two,

no space, continuous motion, continuous movement, no breath. Mistake number three, no repetition.

Those three elements if you can begin to control those three aspects of playing, you are well on your way. Okay, now, one last thing I'd like to do is I like to play one course of all the things you are and guess what I'm going to try to do. I'm going to try to use chord tones space, I'm going to focus on some repetition. So let's see if I can include all three of these into one chorus of all the things you are and and hopefully create a nice little improvise, improvise solo over the core changes. So let's check it out. Here we go.



well we've done again we've unpacked a ton of information one very short one very fast our

if you are new to improvising, if you are new to jazz improvisation just getting started then I strongly recommend that you focus on the arithmetic that I presented earlier in this podcast, core tones plus rhythm equals melody.

Commit to truly learning the 60 chords 12 Major 12 dominant 12 minor 12, half diminished 12, diminished and root position and their three inverted shapes.

Be able to spell them, see them and of course play them.

Likewise, commit to actively and consistently practicing rhythms. Begin with simple quarter eighth note patterns like I demonstrated today. Move the eighth notes from count four to count three, count two to count one.

Be able to play the rhythms using one note in time.

Once comfy with doing that, begin to stretch the rhythm over two notes. Then three notes and then for notes. In other words, be methodical be intentional, be formulaic in your practice approach. Never forget creativity springs from structure.

Creativity springs from structure. And, as always, always be patient. Developing mature professional jazz piano skills takes a lot of time. Begin structuring your study and your practicing after the plane demonstrations that are modeled for you today in this podcast episode and I guarantee it you will begin to see you will begin to feel and hear your progress.

Well I hope you have found this jazz piano skills podcast lesson the very first of the jazz piano skills lecture series exploring jazz improvisation practice mistakes to be insightful and of course to be very beneficial. Don't forget if you are a jazz panel skills ensemble member I'll see you online Thursday evening at the jazz panel skills masterclass. That's 8 pm Central time to discuss this podcast episode lesson exploring jazz improvisation practice mistakes in greater detail and to answer any questions that you may have about the study of jazz in general. Of course, you can reach me by phone 972-380-8050 My extension here at the Dallas School of Music is 211 You can also reach me by email Dr. Lawrence at jazz piano That's Or you can use the nifty little SpeakPipe widget that is found throughout the jazz piano skills website.

Well, there's my cue. That's it for now. And until next week, enjoy jazz improvisation practice mistakes. And most of all, have fun as you discover, learn and play jazz piano