Circling the Square

A hand's-eye view of B major

An arm’s-eye view of B major. Sort of.

I’ve been asked to post something on piano fingerings for jazz. I’ll do my usual – half-answer the question and then talk about something I think is far more important.

With precomposed music, you work out a fingering in advance but it’s largely based on standardised ways of working with scales and arpeggios. With improvised music, the standardised stuff is doubly important even though (in fact, especially though) you don’t know in advance where you’re going.

Jazz piano is mostly played with a sort of aggressive quirky marcato. But you still need those boring classical scale fingerings, even though part of the reason they were devised was to facilitate legato. And you still need to have your hands well-positioned and flexible even when you’re not playing actual scales.

There are very many different ways of teaching good scale and arp technique. One of the most popular these days is the Taubman method, which approaches piano technique from a point not a million miles away from ergonomics, perhaps even sports physiotherapy (in fact Taubman is often taught to rehabilitate those who have caused themselves actual injury from poor technique).

But there’s nothing new under the sun, as they say, and the following ideas have been around for years in various guises.

NOT SQUARE, COOL

1) Playing the piano should not be torture. You should be able to play for hours without experiencing fatigue or tension – certainly not pain. Never pain.
2) The piano keyboard is built in square chunks and human beings … aren’t.

It is the job of the torso and upper arm to act as a delivery system. They move to deposit you at the optimum place so that the mechanism from the elbow down can do its work. And what an incredible three-dimensional mechanism it is…

I'll be Bach... (oh come on, you knew I wouldn't be able to resist it.)

I’ll be Bach… (oh come on, you knew I wouldn’t be able to resist it.)

You can rotate the entire thing from the forearm through something like 180°, the wrist can move up and down by about 160° (some lateral movement is possible too, but too much is generally discouraged because it creates tension and impedes mobility in the hand). And that’s before we’ve even got into the weird and wonderful miracle of the hand itself.

The basis of good technique is for that entire mechanism from the elbow downwards to work totally harmoniously together. It’s generally taught that in scale and arp playing, the thumb passes under the fingers (going up) and the fingers pass over the thumb (going down). Well, yes. But – the whole job is made much easier if you involve the capacity of the forearm to rotate (the wrist gets involved too).

Standard scale fingering goes in bunches of 1-2-3 and 1-2-3-4 (the odd 1-2 creeps in here and there, certainly in the jazzier stuff). The point is to rotate your forearm slightly and keep the wrist flexible as you play these segments. The rotation is clockwise when going up, anti when coming down. The backs of your hands should be in constant subtle rocking motion.

Let’s look at a couple of exercises that focus on a point where your hand position changes during a scale.

LOOPS AND SWIRLS

I’m going to borrow an idea from Chopin. The first scale he would teach students (he had many and fell in love with quite a few) was B major. This is as inspired as it is obvious (after the fact) – the hand just sits naturally on this scale. The long fingers fall happily on the black keys and the thumb always and only falls on the white keys. (It also has the advantage of not promoting beginners’ fear of the black notes.)

Let’s zoom in on the first point where the hand position changes. The first exercise is all about developing mobility of the thumb:

Play very slowly, keep things relaxed, focus on your body and constantly work on the idea that you are learning how to use the mechanism from your elbow down to make your life as easy as possible. Land firmly and with conviction, but never thumpingly, on each note. Above all, don’t flare out your elbow or hunch your shoulder. Your torso and upper arm should have already done their job. They’ve airdropped the team to where they need to be, now it’s down to them on the ground.

Next, we’ll work outwards from the change point to take in the rest of the scale:

Remember that as you go up your forearm rotates clockwise, as you go down it rotates anti. It’s okay to exaggerate this movement to embed it into your body language, but once you’ve done that keep dialling it down. It’s a bit like seasoning in food – a pinch of salt can make a dish, half a cup will render it inedible.

Using these exercises as models, you can devise your own for the LH and other scales. Of course, there’s another thumb point in the scale – why not start with that. Helps if there’s a repetitious element to whatever exercise you come up with since it will free you up to focus on the physicality.

These 3D loops and swirls are present in every good pianist’s hands. You might not be able to see them, but they are there. Good technique is maximum result from minimal effort – if you want to make it look difficult, that’s up to you but you should be acting

While we’re at it, let’s steal an idea from Brahms. He was I think the first to advocate practising trills in triplets to promote evenness and flexibility. Play exercises along these lines in three feel as well.

I’m not a qualified Taubman practitioner, but I don’t think giving you this kind of thinking to chew over is a bad idea. It’s perfectly possible that you’ll just be able to get it by thinking this way and honestly and calmly focusing on bodily awareness. But if you are experiencing difficulty or pain then do consult a teacher, Taubman or otherwise.

Remember, we’re not square. We’re cool.

OH ALL RIGHT THEN, I’LL ANSWER THE QUESTION…

For those jazzier scales, there’s always a way of creating a fingering modelled on the classical approach. Use combinations of 1-2-3 and 1-2-3-4 as far as possible, but throw in a 1-2 when you have to. Sometimes you’ll have to start from somewhere other than the 1 to make a pattern that repeats at the octave. For instance:

C7alt      1-2-3-1-2-3-4
C7b9      1-2-3-1-2-1-2-3
G7alt      2-3-4-1-2-3-1
C7+5      1-2-1-2-3-4
Db7+5    2-3-1-2-1

You might come up with different solutions that work better and make more sense for you. That’s fine. And repeating at the octave isn’t always done when you’re in the heat of battle, but it’s a very good starting point.

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Posted in a) Soloing Scales & Modes, c) Musicianship
One comment on “Circling the Square
  1. Jason says:

    Someone has pointed out that I’ve neglected to mention the “added note” bebop scales. Fair point.
    Well, basically the same principle of combinations of 123, 1234 and the occasional 12 is still the order of the day. In many cases 1234 1234 is a good default option.
    This is useful for fast, efficient execution, but I’d inject a note of caution. I’m not entirely comfortable with describing these things as “scales” – they’re more scales with a passing tone added. If you just learn them as “scales”, it’s possible to lose that important distinction.

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