Right, Said Fred

“The witness will kindly confine herself to using the right hand, the whole right hand and nothing but the right hand.”

I’ve been working with a student recently who’s concerned about getting more out of her piano soloing. And my suggestion has been to commit piano heresy – practise with the right hand alone.

Before the ghosts of generations of piano teachers break free from the special circle of hell reserved for them to torment me, I’d like to explain.

There are lots of different ways of playing jazz (or any music for that matter) on the piano. But you’ll find that even those who are most acknowledged for a “pianistic” approach have spent time listening to, transcribing and emulating the way horns play. It’s in their hands.

Articulation, dynamics, phrasing. And the best way to develop that stuff is to pretend there isn’t a band, or even a left hand, and work on that solo voice in the right. Just pour your full focus into that. Pretend it’s a horn – the horny hand.

THREE INTO TWO

Right, then. In music we have bass, harmony and melody, and I’ve never met a pianist with more than two hands. Of course, there are ingenious ways of amalgamating them or switching between them to convey the whole.

If you’re playing without a bassist, your left will be walking or hitting low roots or chording, your right will be chording or playing a line.

If you’re playing with a bassist, you can easily fall into a sort of automatic “crab and spider”-type playing – LH claws the chords, right hand crawls about. It works okay, but…

I’ve found that a lot of developing players have a sort of sogginess when it comes to the soloing. There are lots of possible reasons. Maybe it’s to do with the division of attention between the hands. Maybe it’s the fact that the two tend to get coupled together rhythmically. Some people almost seem to need the left hand to be going constantly to keep their place.

Maybe it’s the fact that if you’ve got the left laying down a harmonic bed, the right can get a bit lazy.Yeah, I mean it – the right hand can get lazy.

And maybe it’s because you haven’t listened to enough horn players? Really listened to them.

WALKING THE DOGS
Rightie out learning some athleticism (Leftie is at home snoozing).

Rightie out learning some athletic skills (Leftie is at home dreaming about chewing juicy chords).

It’s perfectly fine to leave Leftie snoozing at home and take Rightie off to the park with a frisbee. (Or even vice versa.) Work on some biff-bang-bounce with just the one mutt. You’ll subsequently find that even when you’re taking both dogs out (as you usually do on a gig), the other dog will have picked up some of the biff-bang-bounce.

As you usually do on a gig…

Well, this stuff isn’t just for practice. I’m not the first or only pianist to occasionally just drop down to single line playing on a gig. You get a very focused powerful sound when you do that – it’s a useful texture to have in your toolbox.

And especially in band playing, a lot of the great players were and still are often more right-handed than you think, with the left dabbing in chords here and there. There’s something about it that says: hey, listen to me because I’ve really got something to say…

Constant auto-chording in the left can actually limit you as much as you may feel it’s freeing you.

You can of course amplify the effect by soloing in single-line octaves in both hands. It’s difficult at first, so take it a little at a time. You can also get both hands involved in playing a single line.

SOME SUGGESTIONS
  • Try to outline the harmony clearly just with a RH line. No bassline, no chords, no crutches.
  • Don’t forget our old friends articulation, dynamics and phrasing.
  • Play anything you like – substitutions for the harmony, deviations from it, anything you feel like, but don’t forget you’re trying to mimic a horn.

A good horn player can convey the harmony completely in a single-note line – could you? Could you really? Raise your right hand and swear…

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Posted in a) Soloing Scales & Modes
3 comments on “Right, Said Fred
  1. Adam Cole says:

    All good points. And yet…AND YET…I spent a lot of my formative years playing mostly right hand with little support from the left. I found over years that a) the band was lest respectful of my right hand only work because the texture was too thin to hold their interest, and they would play the heck over me. b) My right hand was much smarter when it was part of the integrated body that included those left hand punctuations. In other words, I discovered that what was missing from my right hand lines was my left hand, and without it, I just wasn’t as good. I’m not disputing your claims, which are great for people that overuse their left hand. I came from the opposite place, is all.

  2. Joanna says:

    I’m not an advanced jazz player. My goal is for my right hand to solo in a single line, to play what I hear in my mind, and most of all to sound “deliberate”, and not like I’m desperately playing anything that fits in with the chords. Great post. Thank you.

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