A fun pentatonic improvisation and finger exercise for smoother, quicker piano playing


Today I’ve got a nice little exercise for you that you should find useful if you’re just starting out on the piano Or coming back to it after a long time away Or, if you’re one of those learners who has trouble with finger dexterity and getting your fingers around quickly, especially when you’re playing melodically. The fundamental problem of playing the piano is that you have 88 keys, and on your right hand you only have five fingers, or four fingers and a thumb. So if you have a melody or a scale involving more than five notes that are more than a stretch apart, you have to move your hand and your fingers in some way to get up there. So say for example we’ve got a major scale of eight notes, if you want to play that comfortably you’ve got to do a big jump. That’s kind of awkward, so what we typically do is use a bit of finger agility to either move our thumb under or our fingers over, depending on whether we’re going up or down. So the classic way of playing the C major scale is like this: And coming down: Third over, fourth over, third over, back at the beginning again. That kind of skill, moving your thumb under and your third and fourth fingers over the thumb is really, really essential. It’s not the only way of manipulating your fingers up and down the keyboard, as we will see shortly, but it’s the most important one, probably. The way that it is traditionally taught to piano learners, especailly child piano learners, is in the form of scales. If you had piano lessons as a kid, you’ll know that you were expected to spend quite a long time every day blasting scales up and down the piano. That’s the kind of brute force method of ramming it into your head. Now, I’m aware that you guys often have much more limited practice time. Maybe you only have twenty minutes or half an hour a day. Which is fine – the important thing is regularity. Better to do half an hour a day than four hours once a week. But if you’ve only got half an hour a day, you don’t want to be spending ten or fifteen minutes of that half an hour playing through all of these scales. To play scales is important, I think you should play one or two scales everyday, but I think you should look for more efficient ways of practising your finger dexterity. That’s what this exercise today is about. It’s a really simple one – it only uses two chords. We’ve got the chord of C, and the chord of F, and we’re playing them in those positions in the octave immediately below middle C. We’re in the key of C major. That’s the tonic chord, C, and the F chord, which we’re playing in that inversion. So rather than playing it there… we’re playing it there. Exactly the same notes but a different inversion, a different position. If you know a bit of theory, you’ll know that’s the tonic chord of C major and the number four chord, the sub-dominant chord. The chord built on the fourth note of the C major scale. If you don’t know that stuff at the moment, I’ve got loads of other tutorials explaining it. It’s not what we want to talk about today, but just so you know: C, the number 1 chord. F, the number 4 chord. Now, the beauty of this tutorial, the simplicity of it, is that you don’t have to count, you don’t have to mess about, you don’t have to think “I’ve got four bars, then I have to change, then I’ve got another four bars, one, two, three four…”. You can change chords whenever you like. Okay, whenever you feel like it. You could just stay on C if you wanted to, or stay on F if you wanted to. That’s not important. What’s important is what’s going on in the right hand, where we’re going to be improvising on the C major pentatonic scale. That is the C major pentatonic scale. Now, just compare it to the regular C major scale. Regular C major scale… C major pentatonic. You’ll notice it has fewer notes. Specifically, it’s the first, second, third, fifth and sixth notes of the regular major scale, before it starts again up here in the next octave. One of the ineteresting challenegs of the pentatonic, is that the pentatonic scale in whichever key you play it in is not easy to wrap your fingers around. That’s because, unlike the major scale where you’ve got eight notes and you can comfortably thumb under and finger over, with a pentatonic you’ve only got five notes, which is the same number of fingers as on your hand. You’ll find if you try to play it with a regular finger pattern, each time you hit C, suddenly you’re on a different finger. So typically what most improvisers do when they play the pentatonic is mix and match the finger patterns around. You can actually find regular finger patterns for pentatonics, I should say that. For example, if you use your first three fingers then you can play it perfectly regularly. But that’s not good for what we’re doing because we want to exercise our fourth and fifth fingers as well. You can also work on finger patterns that cover multiple octaves, but I don’t want to dig into that right now. What I want you to do is improvise your own fingering on the scale. The actual exercise itself is very simple. All we’re going to do is play these chords quite randomly in the left hand, while improvising on the C major pentatonic scale in the right. Something a bit like this: Did you see the amount that I’m having to put my thumbs under and my fingers over? There was an awful lot of it. So a typical one, quite a stretchy one, is from my third on the E to my thumb there. Remember you don’t have to start on your thumb. I could start on a different finger altogether, if you find that stretch a bit much between the E and the G. We’re using another way of moving our hand around, which is to squash our hand up. Okay, so I’ve ended up with my fifth on the A, but now because I want to go further up the keyboard, I’m going to put my thumb on the G. So, as well as crossing over and going under with your thumb, you can squash up like that. Playing around with this exercise will teach you, or should teach you those techniques kind of instinctively. Now, if you’re new to improvisation, I’d recommend that you do the usual thing – what I always suggest, I should say – and limit yourself to just a few notes at first, and don’t do any fingers over, thumb under, hand squashing, whatever. That’s not a technical term, by the way, ‘hand squashing’. That’s just what I call it. Just limit yourself to a few notes at first. Maybe even just three notes… …before going up to four, to five, and soon before long you find yourself wanting to go higher. And that’s when you’ll have to make a decision about how to get there. This exercise kind of forces you to do that. But it does it in a relaxed way – you don’t have the “What am I doing, gotta get it right” of the scales, because if you make a mistake it doesn’t matter. Just start again or pick up where you left off. So play around with it. Two important things to remember: First of all, listen to what you’re playing. That sounds so obvious, but it’s important. As pianists, it’s very easy for us to just concentrate on pushing the notes and not really pay much attention to what the sound is like. If you play the violin or the trombone, you have to listen to what you’re playing to make sure the pitch is right. But the piano pitches for us, so it’s easy for us to get lazy. So always listen to what you’re doing, and even though it’s an exercise try to make it muscial. You can achieve an awful lot musically just with those two chords and a bit of pentatonic improvisation. That’s because the pentatonic is kind of universal. It’s hard-wired into everyone’s brains, unlike the major scale, which is very much a Western scale. If you’re playing a chord progression in the key of C, providing it just uses chords that are natural to the key of C, then improvising over the pentatonic in the right hand is always safe ground. It will always sound kind of okay. There are a few instances where it won’t, but they are quite unusual. So the pentatonic is a really, really important one to learn if you are new to improvisation. I should say that I’ve got loads of other tutorials on this. Do look back in my timeline if you’re inetrested in more on the pentatonic. The second thing you should do, and this is if you’re a more advanced player, is do it in other keys as well. I’ve talked before about not getting stuck in C major. C is fantastic because it’s kind of a sandbox where we don’t have to worry about black notes and we just play around, but out there in the real world if you’re ever a performer or you’re just playing other people’s songs, you’ll want to be playing in other keys. So work out the pentatonic scale and the chords in, for example, E flat. You’ll find if you start doing that, that pentatonics in different keys suggest different patterns of improvisations and different sounds. So play around with that. Let me know you get on. As usual, a couple of quick plugs. The first one’s for my book, ‘How to Really Play the Piano (the stuff your teacher never taught you)’, which has all the basics in there about chords and harmony. So if you don’t know what I’m talking about when I waffle on about inversions, it’s all there. It has a whole chapter on getting started with improvisation which uses 12-bar blues and the blues scale as a way into improvisation, which I think is a really good way to improv. It’s got various other tips and tricks, like how to use lead sheets and all the rest of it. You need to be able to read basic music, but only quite basic. So a quick plug for that. Digital edition, and print edition both available, look at the top of the screen for the links. Also a quick plug for my patreon crowdfunding campaign: See what’s going on there. Just trying to see if I can do the channel full-time if possible, if I can make it earn its keep, as it were. And there we go, that’s kind of it. Just one housekeeping announcement for regular viewers, the new book, Seven Studies in Pop Piano, should (fingers crossed, providing nothing else goes wrong with it) be out next month. I’ve got my head in InDesign and Sibelius the music notation program at the moment, desperately trying to get everything right, sorting out the layout, so that it is ready for next month, so watch this space for that. That’s kind of it! As usual, comments, questions, whatever, the place I’m most likely to see it is a comment under the relevant video. If you put it there it’s public and other people can see it and benefit from it as well. I try to catch up with my comments once or twice a week. It’s a little bit slack at the moment because I’m working so hard on the book, but if you ask a question there it will get answered, and if I don’t answer it just drop me an email and say “Hey Bill, I posted a question, what do you have to say to that?”, just in case I’ve missed it. I get a lot of messages! So there we go, I hope you have a great week, a great weekend, and I will see you again soon.
 

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