For many years, I thought I was being a good student by dutifully practicing my technique: scales, arpeggios, Hanon, Behringer, I did it all. And call me crazy but I actually liked it – it was sort of meditative for me, a nice way to start a practice session, to focus in.
But I soon realized I was spending all this time on technique but I wasn’t getting anywhere. Sure, I could play a major scale at breakneck speeds but couldn’t play an uptempo rhythm changes to save my life. What was the disconnect?
My thinking first started to change when I was fortunate to take a lesson with Jason Moran several years ago. He told me: “I never worked on technique. I just spend my time working on difficult solos and that did it for me. Learning McCoy Tyner lines was all the technique practice I needed.”
I quickly realized that I needed to be practicing the types of melodies I actually wanted to play at uptempo speeds rather than technique exercises. What Jason Moran was suggesting was to use pieces of musical phrases (a.k.a riffs, licks, language – whatever you prefer to call it) as vehicles for working on your facility at the piano. This way you’ll be working on your technique in a way that applies to what you’ll actually play in a performance setting.
And there’s a huge bonus to practicing technique when you are using lines you’ve transcribed from the masters. You can copy their technique – the way they phrase the line, their articulations, their dynamics. This is what makes the music come alive. When you are practicing scales and arpeggios, you can try to be musical about it, but you have nothing to model you practice after.
This new concept about technique started to come together for me when I was working on a solo by Oscar Peterson: C-Jam Blues off of his classic record “Night Train.” Check it.
I’ve been recently working on technique in this matter with the first 4 bars of Eternal Triangle. Here are the steps I took:
1. Sing melody slowly --- make sure you really hear all the intervals (i.e. in Eternal Triangle, hear the first part of the phrase as a major 7 arpeggio, and really think about what the leap down a 4th sounds like in measure 3.)
2. Play along with recording (I used Transcribe to slow it down at first so I could make sure I matched the phrasing of the players)
3. Play the melody in 12 keys, gradually increasing speed. As always of course, don’t strain! (I highly recommend doing this in both the left and right hands. This doesn’t mean your left hand has to be as fast as the right hand, but don’t just relegate it to playing bass notes and chords all the time!)