“Practice!” That’s what piano teachers always tell their students, or “Practice makes perfect,” spout many. But practice what? Practice how? If practice makes perfect, then it is also true that imperfect practice makes imperfection! And we don’t want that. To become really good at our craft, i.e. piano-playing, it is important to know what and how to practice. Hence, to me, the saying should really be knowledgeable practice makes perfect.
Here are the seven important areas to cover and to diligently practice in order to become a better pop and/or jazz pianist.
- Scales – All contemporary piano players know that scales are the basic building blocks in music. The notes of a melody come from a scale, as are improvisational lines in jazz solos. Essential scales to master are: major (ionian mode), melodic and harmonic minor, modes (dorian, phrygian, lydian, mixolydian, aeolian [natural minor], locrian), major and minor pentatonic, major and minor blues, diminished and whole-tone.
- Chords – From scales, we build chords. It’s vital to memorize all the diatonic chords of the major and minor scales. Diatonic chords are chords that are built on every note of a scale and whose notes come from that very scale; there are seven altogether for each scale. Learn up its chord quality and function within the scale or key, regardless whether the chords are triads, sevenths, or 13th chords. Essential chord families to master are: major, minor and dominant.
- Rhythm – The best melody and harmony in the world will be quite boring without a hint of rhythm that goes with it. Rhythm gives life to music. Inherent with rhythm is feel, i.e. the interpretation of rhythmic units. Essential rhythmic feels to grasp are: straight and rolled 8ths, straight and rolled 16ths, swing and triplet. Additionally, it is also important to work on other rhythmic aspects such as syncopation and anticipation.
- Cycle of 5ths – Imagine the face of a clock and instead of the hourly numbers, replace these with the 12 notes in music, i.e. starting at the top at 12 with C, then moving clockwise down five steps to F, then Bb and continuing this until you end back at C. This is what you will get: C-F-Bb-Eb-Ab-Db(C#)-Gb(F#)-Cb(B)-E-A-D-G-C. Memorize this movement because a lot of chord progressions in songs move naturally in this way, either down in perfect 5ths or up in perfect 4ths. For example, the A section of “Fly Me to the Moon”: Ami7-Dmi7-G7-Cma7-Fma7-Bmi7(b5)- E7-Ami7. The roots of the chords move perfectly around the cycle, diatonic to the key of C major!
- Form – All the elements of music – melody, harmony and rhythm – will be pointless or meandering if not held together or structured in specific forms. Pop songs are known for their verse and chorus structures, or AB form. It is also common to find modern pop songs these days with the following form: intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-outro (ending). Blues music, of course, has its 12-bar structure, and its less common 16-bar form. And the 32-bar song form in jazz with its many variations, i.e., AABA, AABC, et cetera, are all important to note and remember.
- Styles – The beautiful thing about contemporary music is its many styles: pop, rock, R&B, reggae, gospel, bossa nova, swing, bebop, et cetera. Each and every style has its inherent melodic, harmonic and rhythmic characteristics. Break down every facet of a style and learn how to interpret it correctly. Master the styles and make your playing more colorful and multidimensional!
- Listen – Last but not least, because contemporary music comes in many genres, styles, shape and form, we need to develop a healthy listening habit. Every area from 1 to 6 above can be consolidated through a good listening session. As you listen to a piece of music, be it something from Coldplay, Sara Bareilles, Michael Buble, or Keith Jarrett, look out for and analyze all the elements – the melody/scale, chord/harmony, rhythm/feel, form and style. Music is an audible art. Hence, as a musician you need to build up your analytic listening skills!
Since there are 7 areas to work on altogether, these can be put to efficient practice, one for each day of the week! And remember only knowledgeable and perfect practice makes perfect. Have fun!
I have been teaching piano for more than 20 years. Although classically-trained, I have always loved contemporary music. I grew up in a household filled with all types of music, from classical to jazz, Pavarotti to Sinatra, Goldberg to Grusin, pop, rock, etc. Currently residing in Singapore, I conduct private piano lessons in pop and jazz music to students of all ages, ranging from music enthusiasts, piano teachers to professional musicians. I also write a blog especially for pianists who find themselves rhythmically and harmonically challenged, and also on other interesting music and piano-related stuff.