What the Fugue?

You go back to Bird and I’ll go back to Bach

Here’s a piano exercise I find really useful. I’ll run it down first, then tell you why it’s useful and how you can use it as more than just a practice drill.

We’re going to take the changes to a standard (one with quite slow moving harmony to begin with) and improvise in straight time… well, not exactly a fugue, perhaps something fugato or fugueish. Or at very least a two-part invention. Relax, it’s not as difficult as it sounds.

Obviously, there’s an art to counterpoint inventions. If you had a certain kind of music education, you might well have had the Bach Inventions (two-part) & Sinfonias (three-part) stuck in front of you at some point. If so, you might have endured them rather than enjoyed them, but you can’t deny that they were powerful medicine for chops, head and heart.

If not, they’re well worth studying, but we can also improvise in that spirit. In fact, old Johann Sebastian partially intended them as preparation for this kind of improvisation. Let’s not forget that in Bach’s day, in fact up to about Beethoven’s day, classical composers improvised. It was only around the turn of the 19th Century that the page became the law…


If you’ve done any kind of practice with right hand solo over left hand walking bass (the basis of Tristano’s teaching, for instance), you’ve got a massive headstart. There are just two changes you need to make.

The easy one is simply to move your left hand right the way up to the centre of the keyboard. The more tricky one is to “debassify” what your left hand plays. In general, you need to energise it, and there are a few things to bear in mind.

You’re not concerned with a constant pulse of quarter notes in the left hand anymore – it’s acting as a second, independent soloist (and don’t forget that your two soloists are listening to each other). You’re also not concerned with outlining the roots of the chords – in fact, it’s useful to deprogramme your left by avoiding the roots to begin with. Try hanging your left hand activity around 3rds, 5ths, 6ths and 7ths.

The approach with both hands is scalar, but with a mind to chord tones.

Remember we’re in straight time – imagine you’re in the 18th century, wearing a wig. Try to sound Bachish.

The two solo parts needn’t be particularly complex or fast. They don’t have to – the whole thing will sound good as long as they somehow converse and co-operate with each other. Some things to try out:

  • One hand holds a tone or plays two half notes, while the other is more active. Then reverse.
  • Mostly, the rhythms between the parts should be independent of each other.
  • One hand starts a motif, then continues while the other hand repeats the motif (or something similar to it, as dictated by the chord changes).
  • The hands continuously steal ideas from each other and vary them.
  • Copying an idea and playing it backwards is tricky, but playing it (or something recognisably similar to it) upside down is surprisingly easy.
  • Oh, and reference bits of the tune, from anywhere in the tune, at any speed, in either voice. Then muck around with inverting them and so on.
  • Extend lines from one hand to the other – eg start an upward run in the left and continue the same line in the right, while the left drops and does something else.

Give it a whirl and see what you come up with. It can be really quite fun practising this way, and I reckon you’ll be surprised how quickly you can produce cod Bach standards…


Now we try something extra. Do what you’ve been doing so far, but think in terms of mostly restricting your line playing to 1,2 and 3 of each hand. And start adding chord tones above and underneath the whole thing with the outside fingers. Maybe just one every bar or two to begin with. Again, we’re not necessarily going to always play the root on the bottom.

After a while, you can even start moving these outer two voices around as well, and get them involved in the same sort of ideas as the inner two are using.

Effectively, we’re now playing a rather gash form of four-part counterpoint. Why bother? Here’s why:

  •  You are really getting to know the scales and the way the tones together. This will feed into your more “normal” playing.
  • The two hands tend to have different ways of playing. Cross-fertilisation will open things up beyond the digital tendencies you might tend to have.
  • In some ballad settings and most Latin settings you can actually use this style when you’re soloing for real (I suppose it could be swung, but it’s never really worked out for me). Anyway, improvising pseudo-fugally is a great texture in a jazz context. It makes a wonderfully refreshing change from “crab’n’spider” soloing.
  • Dial back the rhythmic activity and you’ll find you’re playing a sort of chorale-like four part comping rich in inner voice movement and suspensions that works nicely in all sorts of settings. It’s certainly too contrapuntally rich for some situations, but if you’ve practised doing whole choruses full-on like this, you’ll develop an instinctive ability to sprinkle this stuff in when it feels appropriate.

PS I was writing about Bill Evans recently. He spent years practising tunes in chorales – even up to six voices. In fact, this kind of practice is where his extraordinary comping and arrangements mostly came from.


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Posted in a) Soloing Scales & Modes, g) Classically Inclined

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