Piano Lesson

5000 fingers

“The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T”

(Fall 2018: I’m headed back to my third year of private students at the New England Conservatory of Music. At this point I have a worked up a fair number of “riffs” that I automatically tell students, including the following…)

20th-Century jazz was the great music of the epoch, a combination of African and European elements brought to a boil in the New World.

21st-Century jazz is more diverse than ever, but for me all great jazz will always have elements that can be traced to Europe and Africa.

In the classroom, it seems like it is easier to talk about European matters, so jazz students usually have to dig deeper into the African side.

Somehow all great jazz is connected to the present day. What is happening right now informs relevant jazz.

Other elements are timeless. The blues doesn’t really change over time.

The blues aesthetic is often misunderstood by jazz students, who might think the blues aesthetic means, “no rules,” “avoid the point,” or “let it happen.” It’s helpful to remember a song from 1939 written by Sy Oliver and Trummy Young, “‘Tain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It).”

A jazz master can play the exact same material as a novice….

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…but in the hands of the former, it sounds like the blues. In the hands of the latter, it sounds corny.

It is helpful to work on simple, nearly corny material to get the general placement right before proceeding to, “no rules,” “avoid the point,” or “let it happen.”

Joss Whedon said there were no new ideas, just new ways of putting together old ideas. I don’t think Whedon is entirely correct: Once in a great while, there is a new idea. Still, Whedon must be mostly right.

Keith Jarrett said that to develop your own sound, you play stuff that you like and you don’t play stuff that you don’t like. That’s probably another way of saying the same thing.

I am suspicious of jazz methodologies that offer a schedule more strict than these banal Whedon and Jarrett aphorisms. Taste is up to you. If you love the music, you have your taste. You will sound like yourself.

In a classroom situation, I don’t want to interfere with someone’s personal taste. I prefer to work on the basics.


It’s very important to transpose, transpose, and transpose some more. Betty Carter would audition pianists by asking them to play “Skylark” in an unusual key. Get away from the tyranny of seeing the black and white keys, and open up your ears to harmony in the abstract.

The hardest set of chord changes is not “Giant Steps” or something that moves around. The hardest set of chord changes is “rhythm changes.” Anyone who studies with me is told to play rhythm changes in all twelve keys as much as possible. Nothing has helped me more than that basic exercise.

The left hand should know something about ragtime, stride, boogie woogie, and walking bass lines. Lester Young once played for a dance with his unaccompanied tenor saxophone. That was in the 1930s, when every pianist played for dancing. If I could enforce such a policy, I’d have all my NEC students play for social dances.

Ragtime, stride, boogie woogie, and walking bass lines might seem anachronistic. They are also technically difficult, and of course these days more often used solo than with a band.

For “normal” modern jazz piano left hand it is good to practice certain classic patterns over and over again, especially patterns derived from clave sentences.

In each case below, a certain sentence offers a certain feeling. I named them for famous pianists to help organize my own practice, but they were used by all the 20th-century jazz piano greats. In the earlier era these sentences were in the right hand against a stride, blues, or boogie bass. Beginning in the 50’s, they were in the pianist’s left hand, working especially with the drummer’s left hand on the snare drum.

Good drummers got good by practicing their patterns, rudiments, and ride cymbal beats, over and over, for hours.

These four left hand piano patterns should be rigidly adhered to until they become second nature. You should be able to have a verbal conversation with someone else while playing these musical sentences accurately. In African music, there is less separation between “living your life” and “making music” than in European music.

Once the patterns are second nature, the left hand will be much more free to play whatever the hell it wants.

LH rhythms

I advocate reading through piles of sheet music by obvious composers: Bach, Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, Debussy, Scriabin, Ravel, Bartok, Schoenberg. One doesn’t have to try the harder pieces, and you don’t have to get through anything on a professional level. But many of the secrets of harmony are right there.

Sight-reading has been important to my career. I’ve gotten a few gigs because I could read something down when the next person in line couldn’t. On the other hand, many of my all-time favorite jazz musicians couldn’t read music at all, let alone read quickly. However, I think those non-paper people (Erroll Garner and Chet Baker come to mind) were obvious geniuses. I guess if you are not such an obvious genius, brushing up on your sight-reading is a good idea.

One person especially great to sight-read through is Scott Joplin. His harmonies and melodies are exquisite and eternally fresh.

Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, Hank Jones, and Mary Lou Williams all recorded Joplin with a swing beat. Indeed, I think ragtime performers from over a century ago generally did not play Joplin with an even eighth. Playing Joplin with an even eighth might have gotten firmly established in American culture with Marvin Hamlisch’s score to the hit movie The Sting. Try swinging a bit as you leaf through a Joplin book.

Speaking of Mary Lou Williams: In addition to being a wonderful pianist, Williams was a real historian of the music. Her 1979 History of Jazz tree is profound document.

Mary Lou tree

There are a few dead branches, including “classical books.” Mary Lou Williams always said that jazz was a feeling, and she was undoubtedly right. However, there’s no way she could have written all those terrific arrangements for large ensembles without training from “classical books.”  Perhaps by the time of her History of Jazz tree she was frustrated by the some of the overtly European jazz sounds of the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

At any rate, as much as I adore European classical music, I always try to bear Mary Lou’s perspective in mind. One doesn’t want to kill off the jazz feeling with too much European aesthetic.

The metronome does not exist in classical African musics. If you can already groove, never pick up a metronome. A metronome does not help you swing. Milford Graves says a metronome will give you a heart attack.

However, for most of us students, a bit of metronome can be a fun way to check ourselves and keep focused. I don’t have an exact statistic at hand, but something like 99 out of 100 student jazz pianists rush a bit.

There’s no reason to have the metronome clicking away on every beat unless you are true beginner. For the more advanced, I recommend two approaches, “slow” metronome and “fast” metronome.

“Slow” is where there is one click every bar, or even every two bars. It is good to put that click on “4” because it imitates Philly Joe Jones’s side-stick on many tracks with Miles Davis.

Modern digital metronomes go down to 10 BPM. One click every six seconds: That’s pretty slow. But 20 BPM is common in my own practice. It’s good to play a mix of 3s and 4s “against” it. After doing this for years, my time is definitely better.

The point is not to have precise time. Most of the people we really love to listen to do not have precise time. Working with a metronome is an intermediate step. Clave sentences are more important.

on “4” (40 BPM):

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even better, on every other “4” (20 BPM)

teaching 4

“Fast” metronome puts the click on the upbeat. Playing a Charlie Parker bebop head like “Ornithology” is revealing. This looks easy but…check it out. If you can do it at 200 BPM I’ll be genuinely impressed. After practicing this for a few months it was much easier for me to play with experienced drummers, like Billy Hart, who play a lot of upbeats.

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Ben Street taught me an exercise called “feet in three.”

When we listen to a great bassist or drummer play straight quarter notes, there is something besides accurate time that makes their beat feel so good. It seems like there is a “glow” around their beat. Buster Williams and Ron Carter have this glow in a particularly obvious way; so do Tony Williams and Jimmy Cobb. It’s not the skip beats. You can find examples of Tony and Jimmy playing quarter notes on the cymbal with no skip beats and the “glow” is still there.

In many classical African musics, there is a simultaneity of duple and triple.

So: If we are in 4/4, what about a “phantom” cross rhythm in 3?

Here’s the basic idea. Play the duples with your hands and the triples with your feet. (I wrote in “left” and “right” here to make it extra clear but you could also start with the left or tap with one foot.)

Listen to yourself play just the quarter notes with the hands, then add the triplets in the feet. When the feet come in, it seems like the quarter notes take on another kind of “glow.”

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This might look easy, but I found it very hard to master. I don’t think any of my students have really gotten it together yet.

I can personally attest that it helps. I was in some despair when I first started playing with Tootie Heath, but after doing feet in three for a while, it was easier to hook up with Tootie’s magnificent constellation of drums and cymbals.

A good “cheat” while getting it together is counting all the small value triples phrased in four in the feet:

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After you can pull off straight quarter notes in the hands, try some clave rhythms against the feet. Ouch. It’s also good to move the feet between four and three. Double ouch.

feet 3 3

Eventually you can try playing stride piano or bebop heads with the feet in three. It really taught me something about swing. Indeed, I think this exercise borders on pure magic. (This exercise can be done by any instrumentalist or singer with at least one foot.)

feet moose

Forgetting feet in three:

Should you tap your feet on the beat while playing? Some famous jazz piano teachers say no. On the other hand, almost every truly great jazz pianist does, especially the ones that swing the hardest. Check the videos.

Probably you don’t want to tap on two and four. It is better to tap on one and three or every beat. Two and four is already a “displacement,” and you want to feel steady. Check the videos. I don’t think you can find a consecrated legend who taps on two and four. (Let me know if you find one!)

I guess you don’t want to tap too loudly, unless it is an intentional special effect. When Duke Ellington played solo or duo, he often tapped so loud that he had a percussion section to bounce the syncopations off of, and I suspect that effect was intentional.

On a related topic: When leading a group, don’t count off in a big fashion. Be discreet or just start. It’s what the masters did.

For DTM I have done a fair amount of transcribing and it has helped my ears improve. I regret not doing more transcriptions when I was younger.

It also helps to sing solos. Lee Konitz and Henry Threadgill both told me to sing. I’m a terrible singer, but now I can scat many Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and Bud Powell solos. In the 21st century, it is easy to make a repeating playlist of just the solo or solos you are learning and walk around humming them softly with your earphones. You might look like an idiot but the musical benefits are undeniable.

Piano technique is a difficult topic. I rarely address it with students because there is so much to do with just musical content. Also, I think that most jazz pianists sort of find their way with the instrument.

I am the most un-athletic person in the world, but I have been blessed with some great technique teachers, especially Sophia Rosoff (a disciple of Abby Whiteside) and John Bloomfield (a disciple of Dorothy Taubman).

In the end we want to play the piano with our whole body, not just our fingers. The image of a small gear and a big gear might be helpful.


If you want to spin those gears 10,000 times, you would instinctively grab the bigger dowel to attach to the camshaft. Yes, you could attach the smaller dowel, and it would probably work for a while. But for 10,000 times…

The little gear is your fingers, the big gear is the arm. The most obvious way to power the fingers from a bigger gear is rotation from the wrist, although the whole arm has to move laterally as well.

“Reaching” with the fingers (disconnected from the wrist and arm) should be avoided as it really prioritizes the little gear. If someone is reaching a lot with their fingers I think of them as a “digital” kind of player.

A lot of the greatest pianists are digital players. Genius does what it wants. Sports doctors talk about how many of the best athletes have the most astonishing “work-arounds” within their body, doing things all wrong from a holistic point of view, yet somehow generating maximum strength and speed.

Athletes quit early. In most of the performing arts, youthful virtuosity gives way to the long grind. Many pianists play in a “whatever works” sort of fashion in their teens and twenties. When they get past thirty, the youthful virtuosity fades away and is replaced with either mature confidence or something more like struggle.

Bud Powell and Herbie Hancock have a good relationship to the whole mechanism. Their fingers look like they fall easily on to the keys without strain. Herbie brags about not practicing very much, but it seems like he can always sit down at a moment’s notice and deal out some burning jazz piano.

No one played better than McCoy Tyner, but he based his technique on furious finger strength. At some point he just couldn’t keep it up. More recently, Geri Allen also offered the most beautiful playing of her illustrious career early on.  In the mid-1990s something quicksilver and abstract in her sound was replaced with something comparatively restrained. Many people think it was a stylistic choice but I suspect simply the way her hands felt over time was also a factor. To be clear: I love all of McCoy Tyner and Geri Allen…but they are also two who also look exceptionally digital on video when young.

In classical music, both Glenn Gould and Vladimir Horowitz had frankly terrible digital habits at the keyboard, and the way they struggled had an adverse influence on their enormous careers. Whatever you do, don’t imitate the physical characteristics of Gould or Horowitz! (But it is perfectly OK to be inspired by their stunning discographies.)

Arthur Rubinstein and Martha Argerich are two who look much more relaxed, controlling the sound from the bigger muscles. Like Herbie Hancock, they both bragged about not practicing very much.

This topic is a bit less important in jazz overall. Indeed, one way to get a more African kind of aesthetic out of the instrument is to treat it as tuned percussion. Sophia told me she thought Thelonious Monk was a tap dancer at the piano. Still, we all want to play in a healthy fashion for our whole lives. If one feels uncomfortable tension while playing, it is something to be addressed sooner rather than later.