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
First: Learn single line song melodies with a
You never know when you might
want to quote something.
Second: Keep a notebook of your favorite licks
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.
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
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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