Idiomatic Gestures, the Economy of Motion and Jazz Piano Improvisation (Exercises)

A continuation of the previous post, this will be my dumping ground for more jazz piano exercises.

A Scale for Descending

Dec. 13/18 edit: I’ve updated the article and images in “A Scale for Descending” to include anchor points. It’s also more succinct and organized, without the digressions into alternative fingering exercises.

In the previous article, I explored this scale in C Major:

In this article, I’m going to do the same, except using this scale for descending motion (Actually, these exercises are mostly inversions of the ascending scale).

The stable tones make a C6 chord. Each chord tone is approached chromatically above, which all form a Db6 chord.  There are five anchor points, on C, E, F, G and A.

As indicated by the red boxes, these clusters can be visualized and physicalized like this at the piano:As in the previous article, now we can create exercises with different sequences of anchor points.  Here are a few for the right hand:

These anchor points are always spaced four notes apart.  To mix it up, we can create a six-note sequence:

As seen in the previous article, when skips occur in the above exercises, they always occur in the same place metrically, landing on a non-chord tone, on a weak beat:

So, we can create more variations by shifting the skips by one note:

Let’s looks at some left-hand patterns.  We can start by creating different sequence of anchor points.  These examples include the six-note sequence:

Again, by shifting the skip over by one note, we get some more exercises:

Now that we have scales for ascending and descending, the next step is putting them together and creating exercises that change direction.

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Exercises for Changing Direction

January 19/19 edit: Now includes a section at the end called “Practice Goals” which has an exercise that’s a good summation of the whole article.  Also includes a simple chart for keeping track of progress. 

Dec. 19/18 edit: I’ve updated the article and images in “Exercises for Changing Direction.”  It is now ONE article, in two parts. The first part is a shorter explanation of the exercise using the chromatic scale. The second part explores the bebop(ish) scale I introduced in the previous article. It’s more succinct, organized, and the images include anchor points. 

Here’s our scale, ascending and descending:

For students of classical music, exploration of the scale stops here.  The points from which you ascend and descend the scale are always on the root.

But in jazz and improvisatory music, it’s important to practice and explore the scale in a variety of ways.  One area of practice could simply be changing direction at different points in the scale. For example, why not practice the scale like this:

Practicing scales in this way serves a few purposes. Obviously, for improvisatory music, it increases versatility and range of motion.  Ideas are less likely to be restricted because of physical and technical limitations.

More specifically, it develops the skill of playing the scale more horizontally rather than vertically.  I’ve observed that when students first learn a scale or chord, they’re conceptual, visual and physical references always begin on the root.  It’s only by starting on the root that they can vertically build the rest of the scale or chord.  This ‘crutch’ often translates into their playing.  When the harmony changes, you can hear interruptions and hiccups in their phrasing because they’re searching for the next scale, which for them, begins on the root.

Removing this crutch requires us not to play chords and scales from the root (vertical), but from where we are at any moment (horizontal). The exercises below are my attempt at doing this in relation to changing direction in a scale.  As we’ll see, changing direction at different points requires a variety of fingerings and hand positions.

Chromatic Scale Exercises

Before examining the scale above, we can uncover some of these fingerings and hand positions by using stepwise motion and the chromatic scale. The following exercises use only this sequence of notes:

Assigning different fingers to playing C will require different fingerings, hand positions and crossovers.  Here are some possibilities in the right hand:

For best range of motion, the thumb is always on anchor points and preference is given to larger note clusters.  The bracketed fingering (3)(4) also leaves open the possibility of continued descending motion from Ab.

In the left hand, all of the fingerings and hand positions above can be duplicated using piano/hand symmetry and playing the chromatic scale between E and G#:

The next step to this exercise is transposing these five notes to different places on the keyboard.  This will create new sets of white and black notes which will require new sets of fingerings and hand positions to play comfortably.  To use practice time optimally, it makes sense to avoid practicing the patterns that are visually and physically similar to each other. For example, ascending chromatically from C to E is physically and visually similar to ascending chromatically from F to A.  Here is a chart that maps the patterns of black and white notes of the chromatic scale, up to five notes:

For the right hand exercise above, you only need to practice it from C, C#, D, D#, E and A# to cover all the possible combinations of white and black notes.  In the left hand, E, D#, D, C#, C and F#.

Bebop Scale Exercises

Once again, here’s our scale ascending and descending:

One way to isolate ‘changing directions’ is to break the scale down into smaller clusters.  These clusters can be defined by the distance between chord tones.  For example, if you’re changing directions between two neighbouring chord tones, there are only four possibilities:

Because these clusters have no context, we can assume that there are a variety of fingerings and hand positions that could comfortably play them. For example, all of these fingerings could work on the first cluster:

Likewise, for the other three clusters, there are probably three or four fingerings that would be comfortable.  I’d encourage everyone to play and repeat these clusters to discover a few different ways to play them.

Let’s expand these clusters and add approach tones to the top and bottom chord tones:

Now we can combine these clusters and create more complex exercises.  We do this my repurposing the notes of one cluster to fit another.  For example, with the four-note cluster C-D#-E-Db, the note E can be repurposed and used as a pivot to move to the next cluster E-F#-G-F:

With all these clusters, there are many possibilities for combining them.  Here are a few:

In the left hand:

All of these exercises involve changing direction in and around two consecutive chord tones. If we add a third chord tone, our chunks will look like this:

Again, I’d recommend playing and repeating these chunks to discover some comfortable hand positions. With these longer chunks, we can string them together and create many different exercises:

In the left hand:

After practicing these for an hour or so, I added a fourth chord tone. I also started combining these exercises and improvising direction changes. Eventually, I noticed that even though these patterns are already built on specific fingerings, hand positions, and anchors, I began to simplify them further into groups of chord tones. For example, while playing this:

I may be thinking and visualizing this:

And maybe this:

This supports my observation that stable chord tones, played on stable beats not only sound stable, but physically feel stable too. The notation above references Schenker graphs, which I’m somewhat familiar with. If Schenkerian analysis reveals the underlying tonal structure of a composition, it seems reasonable that compositions and improvisations have underlying physical, gestural structures too.  The symbols used in Schenkerian analysis may not entirely appropriate to express physical gestures, but I’m further convinced that these structures exist and can’t be separated from the tonal and theoretical structures.

Practice Goals

All of these exercises are their own little black holes. There’s no limit to how deep you can explore and refine them.  Because of this, I’ve been experimenting with setting goals that once achieved, give me permission to move on to the next challenge.  When it comes to changing direction, the following exercise is a good summary, and requires many of the physical gestures learned above:

I have three tempo goals and a chart with all the scales and keys. 

3 stars is extremely difficult and requires a deep understanding of all the fingering variations and hand chunks.  The tempo goals are also reflective of what you hear in jazz music.  Straight No Chaser, from Miles Davis’ Milestones, is approximately quarter note = 180, where Coltrane and Cannonball are playing double time (sixteenth notes).  That’s about as fast as it gets. 

My goal isn’t necessarily to achieve three stars.  Generally, I can easily get two starts with my right hand, sometimes three.  I can easily get one star with my left hand, sometimes two.  After spending a day or two investigating a scale and exploring all the exercises above, I’ll spend 20mins practicing the finalexercise with a metronome.  If I only get 1 or 2 stars, I’ll try again the next day.  But after two days, if I haven’t achieved two or three stars, I move on. 

How do you know which scales to practice?  Any scale I practice must be related to a tune I’m working on. For example, while learning Donna Lee, I’ll practice and eventually test myself on AbMaj7, F7, Bb7, DbMaj7, Eb7, C7 and any others associated with the chords of that tune.  The goal is to learn these in all twelve keys, but I don’t enjoy practicing without an immediate application.  The next tune I play will have scales I haven’t learned yet – S’wonderful in E major for example – which has new chords/scales but also has crossover with the chords/scales in Donna Lee.

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Exercises for Changing Scales

February 1/19 edit: Now includes a section at the end called “Practice Goals” which includes exercises that are a good summary of the entire article.  Also includes a simple chart for keeping track of progress.  

Dec. 19/18 edit: Updated the images to include anchor points (clear note heads)

Up to this point, we’ve mostly covered stepwise motion in our scale. There are still many more ways I’d like to explore this scale, but for now I think it’s important to write about a method to combine scales.

For jazz musicians, different scales mean different chords, so practicing can be more relevant to playing tunes.

Before trying these exercises, I highly recommend having at least two scales under your fingers. This means practicing all the hand positions, being fluid in all of the previous exercises and being comfortable improvising using stepwise motion.

For demonstration, I’ll be using two scales that can be used for a G7-CMaj7 (C6) chord progression.

For CMaj7:

For G7:

As in previous exercises, chord tones are always played on strong beats and approached from the chromatic tone above or below.

There are three main variables that these exercises are structured around:

  1. Rate of change
  2. Approaching the first chord tone from above or below
  3. Logical sequences of chord tones

Rate of Change

Rather than organizing these exercises in relation to some meter, it’s easier to change scales based on the number of chord tones.  For example, changing scales every 2nd chord tone would look like this:

Every 3rd chord tone:

The slurs show the duration of each scale (including the chromatic approach to the first chord tone).  A few observations on these two examples:

Firstly, there are definitely alternative fingerings (right hand staring on 3 for example).

Secondly, as seen with the double Bs in the first example, when switching scales, sometimes the last chord tone is the same note as the first approach tone.  While this can be interesting to practice, it can also feel awkward.  The exercise can be changed so that the first chord tone of the next scale is approached chromatically from above (discussed below).

Lastly, and more importantly, the 1st example isn’t a very interesting exercise. The points at which the scales change are the same every time.  After eight notes, the sequence of notes, fingerings and hand positions are repeated an octave above.  This 8-note loop may be a good place to start practicing and exploring these scales, but it has very little depth, and doesn’t touch on the range of possibilities inherent in switching chords and scales.

When creating your own exercises, it’s important to observe and control the frequency at which an exercise loops.  Shorter loops are easier than longer loops, so adjusting a loop’s frequency is key to skill development. By contrast, if I wrote out the second example to its end-loop point, it would be a 36-note loop spanning four octaves.

Approaching the First Chord Tone from Above or Below

As mentioned, the first chord tone of the next scale can be approached from above or below.  In the above exercises, the first chord tone is always approached from below.  To create variation and avoid repeated notes, you can approach the first chord from above:

These variations beg the question: Why not vary approaching ALL chord tones from above and below?  I’ve played through a few exercises like this, and it increases the difficulty significantly.  Eventually, I’ll compile a collection of advanced exercises that include this variation. For now, I’d like to maintain a more gradual pace of increasing difficulty.

Logical Sequences of Chord Tones

Using the notation from the previous article, we can simplify these exercises as a sequence of chord tones.  Changing scales every two chord tones:

Changing scales every three chord tones:

This notation helps us in two ways: For one, when a player becomes more fluent in these exercises, I believe it represents a simplification that happens on a higher order while improvising.  Especially at faster tempos, lengthy passages of notes need to be visually and physically chunked to points of stability (chord tones) in relation to harmony and meter.  Secondly, as I demonstrate below, creating patterns of chord tones at this level of abstraction opens up an extremely wide variety of exercises.

It’s also important that these chord tone patterns follow a certain logic of motion that determines how they will unfold.  This eliminates improvisational possibilities so that the player can focus on refining physical gestures and practicing scale transitions at every point.  Incorporating improvisational possibilities into practice structures can follow logical rules as well, but for the sake of brevity and clarity, I’d prefer to leave them out for now.

With these three variables, we now have a check list for designing new exercises.  Below are four examples.  I realize that the exercises as notated below look overwhelming and complex, but I assure you that they look (and sound) harder than they are.  The physical gestures required to play them are simple, especially if the player has already practiced the exercises from previous articles. Here’s the first one:

  1. Changing scales every two chord tones
  2. Approaching the first chord tone from below
  3. Using the following sequence of chord tones:

The above exercise is a good example of short loops that can occur in fingering (exercise loops aren’t restricted to a sequence of notes). In the right hand, there is a 4-note fingering loop of 1-3-4-2 that occurs frequently.  Below is an alternate fingering that is more complex and difficult, but ultimately, more elegant.

Here’s another:

  1. Changing scales every three chord tones
  2. Approaching the first chord tone from below
  3. Using the following sequence of chord tones:
  1. Changing scales every four chord tones
  2. Approaching the first chord tone from above
  3. Using the following sequence of chord tones:
  1. Changing scales every two chord tones
  2. Approaching the first chord tone from above
  3. Using the following sequence of chord tones:

Creating exercises with these three variables opens up a wide range of patterns and exercises for switching scales.  Though the above only use two different scales, it’s possible to apply these variables to three scales, a chord progression, or an entire tune.  The most practical progression from these two scales would be to incorporate a scale for Dm7, and then A7, but incorporating more unconventional harmonies would be beneficial as well.

Practice Goals, Black Holes and the THREE TRIALS!

There are two skills I’m trying to refine with these exercises: 1) changing direction at any point in a scale, and 2) changing to a different scale at any point in the current scale.  Even with only two scales (V-I), the possibilities are significant.  This makes it difficult to create one “final” exercise that acts as a good summation of the skills acquired from the exercises above.  Further, any exercise that tries to accommodate all the possibilities has overly complex logic that’s difficult to internalize and is unreasonably difficult at fast tempos (quarter note = 150+).

What’s the difference between reasonable and unreasonable difficultly?  

I love difficult challenges, but as I mentioned in the previous article, each of these concepts and exercises are their own little black hole.  Practicing exercises that are unreasonably difficult is akin to going too deep into the black hole, where skill acquisition suffers from diminishing returns, practical relevance and possible burnout.  This is why achieving clear practice goals is important – it gives permission to “leave the black hole” and move on to another challenge.  It’s also important to remember that learning isn’t always linear.  Black holes are mysteriously connected to other black holes. Moving on to focus on other skills could actually be beneficial to learning previous skills.

After wrestling with this for a few months, I’ve settled on three exercises (three trials!) that focus on stepwise motion through a V7-I progression (motion that includes skips will be explored in another article).  I’d also encourage using these exercises on ii-V and I-VI7 progressions.  Tempo goals are the same, quarter note = 120, 150 and 180 for one, two and three stars.

The first exercise uses the following sequence of chord tones:


  • Very logical. 
  • Sequence of chord tones are easy to internalize. 
  • Chord tones of a scale are “arpeggiated” ascending (measures 1-4) and descending (measures 5-8)
  • Encourages the visualization of all chord tones in a scale


  • Changes in direction and scale always coincide at the same point. 
  • Chord tones are always in grouped and arpeggiated in four.  

The next exercise solves the two cons in the previous exercises.  Chord tones are grouped 4 + 3, and ascend & descend within a specified frequency range – in this case, between two C’s, two octaves apart: 


  • Lots of variation ascending and descending
  • Easy to create variations (groups of 3 + 4, different frequency ranges) 
  • Encourages the visualization of longer stretches of chord tones


  • Very difficult to internalize
  • Easy to get trapped in shorter loops where ascending and descending is the same every time

The last exercise is to IMPROVISE!  When practicing, improvising isn’t a good way to acquire new skills, but it canbe a good way to observe certain tendencies and bad habits. A few questions to ask yourself:


  • Do you generally move and change direction over small or large distances?
  • Do you always change direction at the same times and the same places?

Visualization and Planning

  • How ‘far ahead’ do you plan your lines?
  • Are you visualizing the chord tones of a scale before you play them?
  • Can you improvise using these scales with your eyes closed?


  • Why do you stumble?
  • Do you always stumble in the same place?
  • Are you using the best fingering?

At the time of writing this, I’ve been practicing V7-I in a variety of keys, designing these exercises, and playing them over tunes. Even after 2-3 months of solid practice, obtaining three stars (quarter = 180) is monumentally difficult. Admittedly, 2-3 months isn’t very much time in the grand scheme of things. But I’ve given myself permission to move on with one star. I’m hoping that as I spend more time with these scales, practicing them in different ways, in different keys and over different tunes, I’ll start simplifying and chunking these exercises on a higher order, allowing me to play at faster tempos.

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