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Herbie Hancock’s Jazz Piano Improvisation Tips & Tricks

Written by MasterClass

Nov 1, 2018 • 4 min read

If you want to learn jazz piano improvisation, first learn the rules—then break them. The truly great jazz pianists, like Oscar and Grammy-award winner Herbie Hancock, are the ones who take the time to learn and practice their craft.

Herbert Jeffrey (Herbie) Hancock was born on April 12, 1940 in Chicago, Illinois. He was named after the singer Herb Jeffries. He started playing classical piano at age seven and switched to jazz in his teenage years after being amazed at watching a classmate improvise. He is credited with introducing the use of synthesizers into serious jazz playing. Herbie has collaborated with a diverse group of musicians, from jazz greats like Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea, to Joni Mitchell, Christina Aguilera, and Flying Lotus.

As a classically trained pianist, Herbie has a lot of respect for formal piano technique. He believes in the importance of scales, drills, and lessons, and he thinks learning to read music can be a tremendous advantage. The jazz standards provide a great starting point for beginner jazz musicians, as they’re available as either full sheet music collections or as fake books which separate chord progressions by right hand and left hand.

However, you need to balance those structured forms of engagement with a personal and childlike relationship with your instrument. Don’t be afraid to spend time just messing around. That’s where the magic of piano and jazz improvisation starts to appear—in the moments were you let yourself let go of the rules and play.

Follow these three tips and exercises for learning jazz and piano improvisation.

Written by MasterClass

Nov 1, 2018 • 4 min read

1. Piano improvisation: Start With Practice

When it comes to practice, everyone’s philosophy is different. There was a period where Herbie practiced three hours a day, seven days a week. Some players practice considerably less.

However you choose to approach it, be careful of your practice becoming a crutch, something you can’t play well without. Your practice routine should help you feel creative and spontaneous when you’re playing in the moment, not just when you’re replaying what you practiced. Get into the feeling of the music, not just the technique.

Pay attention to touch and feeling when you practice. That includes dynamics, articulation, and expression, “milking the notes,” as Herbie calls it. When you practice your scales, play some quietly, then some loudly, some staccato, and others legato. The more you develop your touch, the more of an emotional impact you’ll make with your music.

2. Piano Improvisation: Play Solo

So much of improvisation happens with other musicians, but most piano players learn how to play solo first. Learn the building blocks of piano while playing solo; this helps you gain the confidence and skills you need to be successful with a band.

Herbie had a realization that forever changed the way he approached solo piano playing. It sounds simple, but it opened up worlds of complexity for Herbie: if you’re playing alone, you can do whatever you want. Unlike playing with a band, where you usually stick to a certain tempo and a certain key, in solo playing you can change tempos and keys at will. You can mess with the form of the song, repeat parts, and leave parts out. You can add completely unrelated improvised sections. Challenge yourself to see how much you can make someone else’s composition your own by playing it alone.

“You don’t have to follow any particular tempo,” Herbie says. “You can speed up; you can slow down. You don’t even have to play any particular harmonies.”

So how do you get started on practicing solo piano improvisation? One way Herbie approaches solo playing is to use thematic material from the original song and interpret it in different ways. For instance, he might latch on to a few chords or a section of the main melody and transform it across different keys or over different periods of time.

3. Apply Music Theory to Exercises

Growing up in Chicago in the ’40s and ’50s, there weren’t jazz classes or teachers Herbie could look to for musical guidance. He had to learn his early lessons about jazz on his own. He did this by listening to records, taking them apart, and trying to copy what he heard. This is still a great way to learn to play jazz. It can teach you about basic ideas common to all jazz playing, and it can also show you the unique approaches and individual styles the greats have brought to the genre.

Next time you’re listening to a record and you hear something you like (whether it’s a bluesy little riff, like Herbie heard in George Shearing, or a whole solo passage), get your piano and start trying to pick out what you hear by ear. This exercise also doubles as great ear training. If you start transcribing what you hear into musical notation, your sight reading will also improve
by leaps and bounds.

Try to pay attention to more than just the notes. Think about tone, phrasing, dynamics, the subtleties of rhythm—all the elements and choices that transform a set of notes on the page into a unique and personal musical performance. Identifying those unique elements of music theory helps you figure out how to create chord changes and musical phrases on your own, which is the key to piano improvisation.

Ultimately, a great jazz pianist is one who studies and loves his craft not only at a technical level, but at a gut level. So if you’re trying to learn how to play jazz piano, follow Herbie’s lead and start with the basics. Then, don’t be afraid to get a little wild.

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