Rooting for You

Poor old root...

Poor faithful old root… We here at the Root Note Shelter take in thousands of neglected roots every year. Loving little C here was found abandoned during a performance of A Train. Please consider giving a home to a deserving note.

Piano students experience a great leap forward in the authenticity of their sound when they discover the classic rootless voicings. For a breakdown of what they are (and why they are what they are) see Rootless Voicings from Scratch.

They happily get on with the business of:

  • Using them in the RH over a LH bassline for comping;
  • Using them in the LH to accompany a RH solo;
  • Perhaps using them in both hands together, but stripping out a couple of voices in each as a basis for creating spread voicings.

Before long they get to the point where both their hands can instinctively find the shapes. As they should. And now they’re ready for those wine bar gigs! But…

This can lead to a limitation when soloing. The problem is pretty obvious if you think about it, but obvious problems are often the hardest to identify. If your soloing RH has become conditioned to just naturally settling onto these shapes, you will tend to neglect the roots on all chord qualities and the 5th on the dominant as well.

Which is a terrible waste, and can lead to frustration and solos that lack melodic cohesion. Soloing based on the rootless voicings is a legitimate approach, but it shouldn’t be your default, or all you do. The solution?

  • Practise soloing with the RH alone. Leave the LH on your lap. Imagine you’re a horn. This is also excellent for sharpening up your phrasing.
  • Practise soloing with the RH alone in octaves. This helps to de-emphasise ingrained digital gestures – it takes you off automatic and slows you down so you really consider what you’re playing.
  • Reinforce this by trying soloing in octaves with both hands. Co-ordinating the two hands in octaves when improvising is tricky at first, so don’t kill yourself, do a little at a time, slowly and deliberately, and keep coming back to it.
  • Then reinstate the LH rootless voicings underneath your newly reconditioned RH.
  • Just for fun, and to further mess with yourself, now try rootless voicings in the RH and soloing in the LH underneath.
  • If you’re up for even more self-flagellation, try thinking of your LH as a tenor and your RH as a trumpet and play two simultaneous solos…

I think you might find you solo rather differently when you’re not being subconsciously preconditioned by your rootless claws or when pushed out of your comfort zone and tackling the technical challenge of improvising in octaves.

Oh, and RH only and octaves aren’t just for practice. These approaches have an intensity and focus, and they’re a tool you should sharpen and keep in your box. Most of the greats used them freely.

As ever, let me know what you think.
See also Rootless Voicings from Scratch.

PS A piece of advice on single-hand octave technique.
In classical piano, octave passages are often fingered using the 4th (and even the 3rd) finger as well as the 5th, for more speed, comfort and better legato. If you can’t make the stretch, don’t worry, but if you can take an octave at all, you’ll find you can take it with thumb and 4th as well. If you get into the habit of always taking white-note octaves with thumb and 5th finger and black-note octaves with thumb and 4th, you’ll find your octave passages will flow far better.

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Posted in a) Soloing Scales & Modes

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