Idiomatic Gestures, the Economy of Motion and Jazz Piano Improvisation

Dec. 5/18 edit: I’ve updated the article and images in “A Scale for Ascending” to include anchor points. It’s also more succinct and organized, without the digressions into alternative fingering exercises.

Nov. 27/18 edit: I’ve improved my explanation of anchor points and hand positions while playing the chromatic scale.  Specifically, how they can played as 3-note and 4-note clusters.  Because I believe this chromatic scale fingering is foundational for understanding good hand positions at the piano, I’ve also shown how they can be used as the basis for fingering other scales (major scales, bebop scales etc.). 

Sept. 21/18 edit: Based on feedback from students, understanding the idea of good fingering, hand positions and anchors may be best demonstrated first using the chromatic scale. I’ve also come to think that playing the chromatic scale with good fingering is foundational for understanding idiomatic hand gestures in general. So, I’ve added a short section below (before the scale exercises) that outlines the process of discovering the anchors in the chromatic scale and using those anchors as the basis for designing exercises.


Idiomatic Gestures, the Economy of Motion and Jazz Piano Improvisation

Before I get into the exercises, I’d like to share a few (incomplete) thoughts and observations that I’ve had over the last few years.

(Thanks to Scott Suttie, John MacLeod, and Trevor Giancola for the inspiring conversations while I was writing this!)

Playing the piano part for Rhapsody in Blue sounds harder than it is.  The most technically sounding sections are very idiomatic to playing the piano.  Just as we can analyze and simplify the music into chucks of logical harmonic progressions, pianists can also analyze and simplify the music into chucks of logical hand positions and gestures.

This sequence of hand positions may vary slightly between pianists (using the 3rd finger instead of the 2nd for example), but generally, we can say that there will be an agreement among pianists about the most physically optimal way to play Rhapsody in Blue, or any other written piece of music.  The more technically demanding a piece is, the more important that pianists draw upon idiomatic gestures and an economy of motion during a performance, lest they run out of energy or hurt themselves.

From another angle, some music may not be ‘optimally’ written for piano in the first place.  Perhaps it was written by a violin player, or by someone exclusively using harmonic theory, with no regard for idiomatic gestures. This would be akin to writing music for trombone in B major.  No doubt there are players who would perform it perfectly, but at the cost of less optimal economy of motion (especially compared to performing it in Bb major).

Performers are constantly navigating this evolving relationship between their instrument, technical abilities, and the music they want to play.  Unfortunately for pianists, these idiomatic gestures aren’t always explicit when reading music.  Even if the score has fingerings, those fingerings don’t always encourage the player to visualize, analyze, and simplify the music in this way.  So, part of learning a piece of music is developing your own ‘interpretations’ of what these idiomatic gestures are.  Considering the number of ways you can physically play a single passage on the piano, inexperienced pianists will often create strange fingerings, odd hand positions, and bad habits. These can lead to an uncomfortable relationship with their instrument, poor performances, and eventually injury.

For improvising jazz pianists, the issue of idiomatic gestures is more complicated.

When jazz musicians play together, they’re drawing from a common body of harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic language.  I suspect that because this language is shared among so many different instruments with different physical gestures, the music is often communicated through music theory and an aural tradition.  After all, piano fingerings and hand positions are not relevant to playing the saxophone (and vice versa). Chords, be-bop scales, swing, jazz standards, playing together, using your ear, and having musical conversations are relevant to ALL instruments.

It’s encouraged that everyone learns Charlie Parker solos, no matter what instrument they play.  It’s encouraged that you learn tunes in all twelve keys.  D Dorian is a common scale to use when improvising over Dm7.  But don’t just play the scale, listen to how it sounds in relation to the harmony. Or better yet, before you play, try to hear a melody first, then play it.

In this aural tradition, all semitones are equal. However, physically, that’s not the case. On the piano, E-F feel (and look) different than D#-E.  It’s much easier to play A-Bb on the trombone than it is to play Bb-B.  One of my favourite examples of this is shown on the piano, with this melodic pattern.

The top example (in Gb Major) is very easy to play with good fingering.  The bottom example (in G Major), despite being an exact transposition, has a higher learning curve. In fact, it took me four tries to find the most ‘optimal’ fingering for myself. And even with this fingering, it took a while to internalize the hand positions.

The point is this: transposing a melody, chord, or harmonic sequence will require different physical gestures, some more idiomatic than others.  Sometimes this is a compromise: sacrificing economy of motion to learn a shared language.

This relates to an issue concerning what inspires improvisation.

It occurred to me that when I play the piano, my improvising is being inspired by many different streams, not just theoretical knowledge, what I’m hearing in the moment, or what my fellow musicians are playing.  Sometimes I’ll play something because it physically feels good to play. Or because it visually creates an interesting pattern of white and black notes.  Or because it’s going to be difficult and I want to take a risk.

All of these streams of inspiration are working, fighting, and dancing together until ultimately resolved in the act of playing.  If this is the case, some streams may be more dominant than others.  Personally, I’m more likely to practice permutations of fingering patterns than melodic patterns.  There’s cross over between the two, sometimes one informing the other, but generally, I’m a physical learner and enjoy analyzing and simplifying piano music into chunks of fingerings and hand positions.

This includes transcriptions of improvised solos.  The most technically proficient jazz pianists most definitely use idiomatic gestures and have a developed economy of motion.  When I look at an Oscar Peterson transcription, I primarily see shapes and patterns of white and black notes and imagine how Oscar’s hands fit on these patterns.  It’s possible that Oscar’s improvisations were being conceived this way in the first place, as well as being complemented with ideas of harmonic and melodic patterns.

In fact, I know they were. Because in the act of playing, you can’t separate theoretical content from physical gestures.

But transcriptions of improvised solos almost exclusively focus on harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic content (sometimes they don’t even include the left-hand!). Rarely do they include an analysis of possible fingering and hand positions.  Once again, jazz pianists are forced to develop their own ‘interpretations’ of what these fingerings and hand positions are, often leading to strange fingerings, odd hand positions and bad habits.

The following exercises are the beginning of a personal exploration of practicing jazz improvisatory language in conjunction with physical gestures at the piano.  They’re treated as equal partners.

Exercises, patterns, and permutations that are conceptualized from harmonic/theoretical ideas will include particular fingerings and hand positions. Similarly, exercises that are conceptualized from physical gestures will fit stylistically within the jazz music paradigm.

I once heard about a jazz piano player who practiced all scales with the same fingering. So, try playing the Db Major scale with the fingering you’d normally use for C Major.

I respect the value in this, but this is not the approach I’m taking here.  This is like driving a car with your feet on the steering wheel, and your hands on the pedals. This approach is certainly within the realm of creative possibilities, but it doesn’t align with the design of the instrument.  I’m interested in creating exercises and music that feels good and natural to play on the piano. These exercises strive to link the design of the piano to the design of your hand.

A few obligatory notes:

Obviously, these exercises are for piano and keyboard players.  As these exercises develop, they may include theoretical material that would be interesting to other instrumentalists.  The actual methods of developing the exercises may be applicable to their practice also.  But primarily, the most value will be gained by pianists and keyboardists.

The piano has a long tradition, and there are hundreds of exercise books formalizing idiomatic gestures on the piano.  I’m familiar with a few of them and they’re somewhat relevant (Rafael Joseffy’s School of Advanced Piano Playing, Hanon exercises, and Moszkowski’s Scales & Double Notes). But as far as I know, these books aren’t made for improvising jazz pianists, so their methods aren’t wholly relevant.  I admit though that I’m mostly naïve to the field of idiomatic gestures and piano pedagogy. So, if you’re aware of other books, research and pianists that explore these ideas, please share!

These aren’t musical exercises, they’re physical exercises. For that reason, they’re fairly maximalist, often encouraging a steady stream of 8th notes, with little rhythmic variation.  The idea is to become proficient at an exercise and unlock a particular potential in your playing.  With musical discretion, it’s easier to take all those notes out than put them in.

I can’t emphasize enough how much physical repetition is required to incorporate this into your playing.  This is grunt work that follows a simple two-step loop:

  • Repeat until it’s too easy
  • Make it slightly more difficult

Personally, I know I’m making progress when I’m away from the piano but can still visualize the notes and hand positions as if I’m playing them.  This usually takes a few cycles of practice and rest to achieve this.  With regular practice, I’ll notice it coming out naturally in my improvisations after about three months.

These exercises are primarily relevant to my own practice.  I won’t claim that my fingerings and hand positions are the most optimal for all pianists.  Actually, I’m sure better fingerings will be discovered days, weeks, and months after I publish!  So please, share your own!

Lastly, as I mentioned above, this is the beginning of a personal exploration.  I have no idea where all of this will take me, but I’m going to go with the flow, and document it as best as I can.

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The Chromatic Scale and Anchor Points

When it comes to fingering the chromatic scale, the following is common among my piano students:

This fingering is superior:

The hand positions not only optimize playing the chromatic scale itself, but they’re foundational for understanding idiomatic hand gestures in general and can be applied to playing almost anything that includes stepwise motion.

From C, the right hand fingering can be simplified as a sequence of 4-note and 3-note clusters starting on the thumb (4-3-4-3-3-4-4). When ascending the scale, the placement of the thumb looks, feels and acts as a kind of anchor for the entire hand. These clusters and anchors could be visualized like this:

Or this:

When you look closer, you’ll notice that fingerings and hand positions in the second octave are different from the first octave. In the right hand, the 3rd finger plays D, but in the second octave, the thumb plays D:

This opens up an opportunity to practice the chromatic scale in an interesting way.  A major theme to these exercises is that physical gestures at the piano are treated as equal partners with jazz improvisatory language.  Often, harmonic and theoretical ideas dictate the rules and goals of certain exercises.  We physically conform to these goals and learn the gestures needed to play them.

But what if that relationship was inverted?  Rather than learning to play sequences of semitones ascending and descending, why not also learn to play sequences of hand positions ascending and descending?

If we look at all of the thumb placements in the right hand, they fall on C, E, G, B, D, F, and A (all the white notes):

If we order these thumb placements in the same manner as a scale (C-D-E-F-G-A-B), we get this sequence:

Though the above example looks complicated, it’s extremelyeasy to play, so let’s formalize it.  If I’m going to set ‘rules’ for good piano fingering, this would be one: The right hand is strongly anchored when the thumb is positioned on a white key. These anchors will be represented with a clear note head. With thumbs on white keys, the player has good range of motion in both directions.  Of course, thumbs can play black keys too, but then descending motion is restricted because crossovers on black keys are awkward and uncomfortable.

From these white keys, the right hand can comfortably form 4-note, 3-note, and 2-note clusters:

The above forms a kind of hierarchy of hand positions.  Using 4-note clusters will be more optimal than 2-note clusters.  But sometimes 3-note or 2-note clusters are necessary to connect anchor points (as in the chromatic scale).  Good fingering will use a combination, with a preference for 4-note clusters because they offer the best range and economy of motion.  5-note clusters, which include the 5th finger aren’t included here because they’re limited in their range of motion. Crossovers using the 5th finger are uncomfortable, so playing the 5th finger in the right hand likely leads to descending motion.

It may be too early in my explorations to mention this, but it’s possible the above fingering chart is the underpinning for all good fingering and idiomatic gestures at the piano.  From what I can tell, all exercises from here out will be founded in some way in these hand positions and anchor points.

So far, the notes have been ordered by ascending steps.  The notes in these clusters can also be reordered to include skips, direction changes, and descending motion.  A few examples, using 4-note clusters:

In the left hand, all of the fingerings and hand positions above can be duplicated using piano/hand symmetry.  The piano keyboard is a mirror image from the notes D and G#, so right hand fingerings can be easily translated into the left hand. The mirror image of the ascending chromatic scale starting on C, is the descending chromatic scale from E.

For the sake of demonstration, the examples below only include right hand fingering. Left hand fingering will be included again in the next section.

Because all the notes are spaced one semitone apart, these patterns are easy to play and visualize at the piano.  The next step is to combine semitones with wider intervals.  This will create different visual sequences of black and white notes, but once those are familiar, they should still be easy to play because the clusters are always grounded in the anchor points.

For example, ascending 4-note clusters, ST-WT-ST, with ascending anchor points:

Descending 4-note clusters, WT-WT-WT, with descending anchor points:

Using wider intervals:

Let’s take a look at a scale, and see how anchor points can be used to play them.  The F Major scale has six possible anchor points on F, G, A, C, D and E.  4-note, 3-note and 2-note clusters would look like this:

When we play the F Major scale ascending and descending, the traditional fingering uses a 4-note cluster starting on F, and a 3-note cluster starting on C.  One reason for this is because the F Major scale has seven notes, and it’s easier to visualize and play these 4-note and 3-note clusters when they’re consistent every octave.  Ascending the F Major scale using only 4-note clusters means thumb placements and anchor points are different every octave.

This is an interesting exercise to practice, but it’s more difficult and may not be entirely practical.  After all, because anchor points represent points of physical stability it’s useful to connect them with points of harmonic stability.  Harmonically, F is the most stable note in the F Major scale so it makes sense to prefer anchoring the thumb on F.  If you were playing the G Dorian scale, the natural inclination would be to place the thumb on G, even though the notes and anchor points are the identical to the F Major scale (We’ll see in later exercises that it’s also important to consider connecting points of physical stability with points of metric stability).

Of course, aligning points of physical stability with points of harmonic stability isn’t always possible, like when playing the Db Major scale.  The Db Major scale only has two anchor points, on C and F.  Regardless, I think the natural preference will always be to connect stable anchor points with stable harmonic points.

This introduces a conflict that can exist between physical stability and harmonic stability – physical stability may be felt in the thumb, but harmonic stability may be felt in another fingers.  This is an important observation that should be regarded when creating exercises.

I should also mention that in improvisatory contexts, there isn’t anything inherently beneficial to being able to ascend and descend a scale by step.  There are countless other ways to improvise using the notes of a scale. Practicing scales in this way (as is often required in classical music) is just one of many sequences of notes and anchor points. Nevertheless, because practicing scales this way is deep-rooted, I include them in how I determine fingerings and anchor points.

Lets take a look at a couple more scales:

The C Major bebop scale has seven anchor points on C, D, E, F, G, A and B.

Harmonically, the most consonant and stable notes, in relation to CMaj7, or C6, are C, E, G, A, so building clusters from these notes is preferred.  Conveniently, with the thumb on these notes, and the scale’s unique sequence of black and white notes, there’s no need for 3-note clusters to connect anchor points.

In contrast, if you built a 4-note cluster starting on D, range of motion is limited because the thumb can’t comfortably crossover and play the G#.  For ascending motion, with the thumb on D, you would have to use a 3-note cluster (D-E-F) and place the thumb on G.  But as mentioned above, 3-note clusters aren’t preferable because they’re less economical.  Likewise, with the thumb on D, descending motion is limited to crossing over with the 3rd finger and building a 3-note cluster anchored on A.  Crossing over with the 4th finger and building a 4-note cluster would result in the thumb on G#, which isn’t an anchor point.

There are certainly improvisatory circumstances that could lead to the thumb on other anchor points, but in this case, 3-note or 2-note clusters can be used for realignment to get the thumb back on C, E, G or A.  Overall, it seems that with the C Major bop scale, the hand gravitates towards anchoring on C, E, G, and A.  They make good points for starting to play and explore the scale.

One more scale:

This is the Db Major bebop scale.  Learning to play and improvise on the Db Major bebop scale is uniquely challenging, especially in comparison to the C Major bebop scale.  For one, there are only three anchor points, on C, F and A.

Secondly, only one of these anchor points are on a consonant note in relation to the root (F).  This means that physical stability and harmonic stability in the hand are sometimes in conflict.  For example, when the thumb is on F, physical and harmonic stability are aligned.  But when the thumb is on C, harmonic stability is on the 2nd and 4th fingers (Db and F).  With the thumb on A, harmonic stability is on the 2nd and 4th fingers (Bb and Db).

Lastly, the scale’s unique sequence of white and black notes means using a less optimal combination of 3-note and 2-note clusters to ascend and descend the scale.

Considering all this, I think the Db major bebop scale is inherently more difficult to play than the C major bebop scale.  This is a good example of sacrificing economy of motion for the sake of playing in different keys on the piano.  As a result, more time and repetition may be needed to fully internalize them.

From here, we’ve laid the groundwork for exploring scales.  In the next section, we’ll look at a more difficult scale more thoroughly.

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A Scale for Ascending

Here’s a scale in C Major:

In this section, I’ll be exploring this scale more thoroughly.  I’ll start with identifying anchor points, 4-note, 3-note and 2-note clusters.  From this, I’ll derive different patterns for repetitive practice to help pianists get more physically comfortable improvising with this scale.

I should note that my intention here isn’t necessarily for pianists to become familiar with this scale specifically, but familiar with a method of learning any scale and creating their own exercises.  For this reason, the above scale is probably unfamiliar and difficult. I wanted to learn an unfamiliar scale for my own practice and test the limits of comfortable fingering as an experiment for uncovering this method.  Ideally, it should be applicable to any scale.

The scale itself is similar to a bebop scale, except every chord tone is approached chromatically below.  The chord tones form a C6 chord (C-E-G-A), and the chromatic tones form a B6 chord (it can also work over an Am7).  Similar to the melodic minor scale, this scale is meant for ascending motion.  In the next section, I’ll explore a complimentary scale for descending motion.

There are five anchor points, on C, E, G, A and B.


As indicated by the red boxes, these clusters can be visualized and physicalized like this at the piano:

From these anchor points and clusters, we can create exercises to explore the scale.  To start, these exercises are played with constant 8th notes (or 16th notes) and chord tones are played on strong beats.  The reason for this is to establish a physical relationship with harmony and meter.  As mentioned in the previous article, it’s important to connect points of physical stability with points of harmonic and metric stability.  Chord tones shouldn’t just sound harmonically and metrically stable, but feel physically stable too. Playing with constant 8th notes is also an opportunity to practice swing feel.  This is too broad a topic to cover in depth here, but I’ll briefly recommend an exercise:  The tendency will be to accent the chord tones on the strong beats.  But in swing music, 8th notes are actually quarter + eighth triplets, and the 3rd triplet is accented.  To practice this, put the metronome on 240.  Each ‘click’ is a triplet.  At first, exaggerate that accent on the 3rd triplet.Lastly, there should be general agreement among pianists that the anchor points, fingerings and hand clusters I’ve marked in these exercises are comfortable and offer the most economy of motion. However, I often find there are alternative ways to “interpret” these exercises.  Instead of documenting all of these interpretations, I’ve only included my preferences.   As you read and play through, I encourage you to play my fingerings, but also experiment and find your own that “fit your hand.”

Here are some exercises for the right hand, based on different sequences of anchor points:

These anchor points are always spaced four notes apart.  Another possible variation could look something like this, using 2-note and 4-note clusters:

The fingerings above feel rather heavy because of the use of 2-note clusters.  Here’s another possible fingering:

In terms of anchor points, this 6-note cluster could be interpreted in a couple of ways.  One way is that the 2nd and 3rd fingers on A and B are part of a cluster whose anchor isn’t played (G).  In this case, the red box above should be split into two red boxes and the thumb on C is a cross over from the previous cluster.  Another way to interpret this is that the 2nd and 3rd fingers are an extension of the anchor point on C, and the above is indeed a 6-note cluster.  Either way, I find this fingering is more comfortable to play than the previous.

All of the exercises up to this point mostly follow stepwise motion.  When skips occur, they always land on chord tones, on strong beats:

We can create more exercises by shifting the skips so they land on non-chord tones and weak beats:

Let’s looks at some left-hand patterns.  We can start by creating different sequence of anchor points:

These anchor points are always spaced four notes apart.  We can vary this by spacing anchor points six notes apart:

With these sequences of anchor points in left hand, we see another repeating pattern of steps and skips.  Skips always land on weak beat and on non-chord tones:

New variations can be created by shifting the skips to strong beats and on chord tones:

The last two exercises aren’t as intuitive and comfortable to play in the left hand.  One reason is because the thumb is needed to play black notes which, compared to playing anchor points, is both unfamiliar and uncomfortable.  When exercises are constructed based on varying musical structures (steps and skips) rather than physical structures (anchor points and hand positions), the hand is forced to conform and, in some cases, may have to play patterns that are unintuitive and less economical.  Sometimes the hand can easily conform (as seen in the right-hand example), but other times the exercises may have a steeper learning curve.

In keeping with the theme of these articles, my general advice would be that while it can be an interesting challenge to learn these patterns, it may be more useful to practice patterns and exercises that are more comfortable and economical.  While improvising, the hand will gravitate towards these patterns anyways.  Plus, having a more moderate learning curve makes practicing more efficient and ultimately, more enjoyable.

All of these fingerings and hand positions above should give a good amount of maneuverability with both hands.  There’s also enough variation to improvise with. In the next section, I’ll introduce a scale for descending motion.

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