One piano improvisation technique that you absolutely want to make a regular part of your practice routine is the use of chord tones. Please don’t make the mistake of underestimating the power of this improvisational approach.
If you know the chords to a tune you are playing, then you’re already half there. Of course, knowing what they are and using them to their potential are two different things. Let’s face it: there are people who might say, “Yeah, I know how that works” and there are people who will actually make it work.
Become acquainted with the chord changes to the point where you are not only able to play those chords as the accompaniment to a given melody but you are also able to play them as arpeggios. Let’s take a look at a few measures from a popular jazz standard tune like All The Things You Are by Jerome Kern (lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II) in Ab:
/ Fmin7 / Bbmin7 / Eb7 / Abmaj7 /
Now let’s consider how this piano improvisation technique can really work for us once we establish what the chord tones are for the chords in these four bars of this great standard. The chord for each of these chords are acknowledged here…
Fmin7: F Ab C Eb
Bbmin7: Bb Db F AbEb7: Eb G Bb Db
Abmaj7: Ab C Eb G
With your right hand, play each of these chords as arpeggios (one chord tone at a time from bottom top). Then reverse this by playing the arpeggios from top to bottom. Play these arpeggios in a rhythmical fashion. One way you can easily approach this is playing each chord tone as an eighth note while both ascending and descending. For example:
If you play the Fmin7 chord as an arpeggio in eighth notes ascending, that completes two beats. Starting at the top of the chord and descending completes the measure with another two beats.
/ F Ab C Eb Eb C Ab F /
Following this, treat each of the other chords the same way…
Doing this for the entire tune will accomplish a couple of great things:
1) You will learn the chord changes in a way that you didn’t before
2) You will come up with some really great piano improvisational ideas in the process
I will acknowledge here that, at first, you may feel as though this may sound rather “robotic” or redundant. You would be right about this; however, keep in mind the reason you are doing this. You are opening your ears in a way that you really get to hear those chords as arpeggios and doing this will lend itself to your coming up with different ways of playing those chord tones as you create your own improvisations. For example, you can change the order of those chord tones anytime you please. Perhaps you will start the improvisation for one chord on one of the middle chord tones and climb up… then climb down… etc. For Fmin7, this could mean you play Ab F Eb C. As you proceed to the next chord, mix it up as well. The combinations are endless!
Your ears will open up in a way they never did before. Also, those improvisations will really begin to take on some interesting shapes!
Have a ball exploring this piano improvisation technique and as you do so, remember…
PLAY WITH PASSION!