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Lesson 36: Right Hand Fingering, Part Two (Improvising)

In our last lesson we were discussing strategies for fingering in the right hand. We mentioned there were separate issues of fingering for pre-learned songs or patterns as opposed to improvising. We gave several guidelines for the former category. Now let's talk about fingering strategies for improvisation.

First of all, this is not a discussion in how to improvise. Most of our courseware products guide you toward improvising to some degree or another. Chances are if you've played with our programs for more than a month or two, you are doing some kind of improvising right now. If not, you can save these strategies for the time that you do start improvising. But these ideas are good to keep in mind until that time comes.

Improvising, loosely defined, is the art of playing the piano without a predetermined plan. It's making things up as you go along. Yet the veteran musician knows that there is nothing that's absolutely new under the sun. Improvising is to a large degree shaped by the judicious use of pre-learned information. That information can include scales, etudes, licks, or borrowed passages from the recordings of other artists. To the listener, the improvised line sounds brand new. But to the improvisor the improvised line is often a collection of borrowed material strung together.

EXAMPLE: The blues pianist often creates improvised lines from the notes of the blues scale. In a sense the improvised lines he creates are fresh, new, unique, and creative. But look deeper, and you'll find that the lines he creates are largely taken from the six notes of the blues scale (as we teach it in our blues audio and video programs).

In a sense an improvised blues line is brand new and creative, yet at the same time it's derivative. As for the fingering of these blues lines, since they've never been fingered (or even played) before, the pianist must come up with a brand new fingering scheme on the spot. On the other hand (pardon the metaphor) he has played the blues scale a million times before, using consistent fingering. He has walked the territory, so to speak, so his fingers feel comfortable blazing new trails within that territory.

A jazz pianist might study be-bop etudes. He'll play these etudes with consistent fingering so it makes a mental imprint on his brain. Then, in an improvising situation when he quotes a phrase from the etude, his fingering is right there.

In the Part One of this article we gave you five rules for intelligent fingering in a non-improvising situation. All those rules will still apply to improvising as well. But here are some more strategies that will help you become even stronger as an improvisor.

First: Learn single line song melodies with a consistent fingering.
You never know when you might want to quote something.

Second: Keep a notebook of your favorite licks (phrases).
Write them down in music notation the best you know how. Be sure to indicate fingering and practice them the same way every time.

Third: Practice SCALES with consistent fingering.
I already mentioned the blues scale. Learn the twelve major scales too. Work out of a book so that you'll get the benefit of the best possible fingering suggestions. After a few months of scale drills, you should be comfortable playing in almost any key. I use Hanon for my scales, but any scale book should do.

Fourth: [For advanced students only.] Transpose exercises.
This is a good one. Take a familiar exercise or etude, for example, Hanon Exercise #1. Once you have learned it really well, see if you can transpose it into other keys. Start easy with the keys of F and G. That will add one black key to the mix. Gradually work in the other keys. These patterns will sometimes give you challenges, both mental and physical. Once you have a fingering figured out, be sure to write it down so you won't forget and so you can practice consistently.

Perhaps the best over all strategy for using good fingering is common sense. All these rules and guidelines are there to lead you into making common sense decisions about your fingering. There will be situations where the fingering demands seem (and are) impossible. So think of the best strategy you can, write it down, play it a lot, and always be looking for a better answer.

For some basic ideas on blues improvising, refer to our DVD video program Blatantly Basic Blues.

If you already have an understanding of the basic blues form and want some more ideas on improvising, see our CD program Blues Improvising Techniques.

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