Keeping Practice Interesting

July 25, 2012

by Helen Sung

TIME IS PRECIOUS, SO IT’S IMPORTANT TO LEARN TO PRACTICE EFFECTIVELY. ALTHOUGH I NOW PLAY MAINLY jazz, how I practiced as a classical pianist has always stayed with me. In classical music, much of practicing is repetition. So to avoid boredom and stay focused, I learned to vary the repetition in my jazz studies. One of the main things I try to impart to my own students at Berklee College of Music is how to break things down into single elements that they can focus on over a sustained period of time. As a student, a chord progression I always wanted to solo better over was the iimin7b5-V7, which I first encountered in the Dizzy Gillespie tune “Woody ’n You.” To make practicing more interesting, I’d write songs containing elements I wanted to work on, as it’s more fun to practice in a musical context. My song “The Waiting Game” starts with this progression: F#min7b5-B7-Emin7b5-A7. Here are five ways to keep practice interesting over the iimin7b5-V7 progression.

1. Scales
The iimin7b5-V7 progression is a mainstay of bebop, so a good option for improvisation over it is the bebop scale. Barry Harris helped me understand a great deal about bebop, including helping me overcome “root tyranny” when playing over iimin7b5 chords. I noticed my solo lines often started on the root of that chord. Barry told me, “Since the notes of an F#min7b5 are also the third, fifth, seventh, and ninth of a D9 chord, one can play the dominant bebop scale of that chord over F#min7b5.”

2. Arpeggios
Bassist Ron Carter, whose ability to play beautiful bass lines is legendary, advocates knowing a chord in all its inversions and permutations. Ex. 2 gets us practicing our chord progression using arpeggios. This can be varied by starting on different notes of the chord, as well as different parts of the measure. It’s helpful to practice these ideas “in time,” so get out your metronome!

3. Guide Tones
Guide tone lines give us a framework for solo lines. The more “active” notes of a key are usually the guide tone notes. For example, the fourth and seventh scale degrees are both harmonically active and want to resolve to the third and root, respectively. E minor is the key center for F#min7b5-B7, and D minor is the key center for Emin7b5-A7. So one can make the guide tone lines in Ex. 3.

4. Practicing “in Rhythm”
Sir Roland Hanna always encouraged me to focus on context when practicing. “Bad” notes played with strong rhythm still sound better than “good” notes played with weak rhythm. The lines for Ex. 4 are based on the rhythmic shape of some of Charlie Parker’s classic sax solos.


5. Writing Out Solos
Jazz pianist Danilo Perez taught me to write out solo lines to practice various concepts. The idea was to try and create my “ideal” solo line over a given harmonic progression or situation. Improvisation is spontaneous composition, and so the idea of “composing” a solo can be extremely helpful in refining what you like to hear and play. Ex. 5 contains two four-bar examples of “ideal” solo lines that use the ideas we’ve already discussed.

Counter Point
“I recommend taking a counterpoint class if possible,” says acclaimed jazz pianist Helen Sung. “Music is about notes ‘finding their way home,’ and counterpoint teaches this in a very intriguing way.” A graduate of the Thelonious Monk Institute, Sung won the Kennedy Center’s Mary Lou Williams Jazz Piano Competition and has worked with Clark Terry, Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter, and Regina Carter. In addition to her own band, Sung can be seen in the Mingus Big Band, the T.S. Monk Band, and Terri Lyne Carrington’s Grammy award-winning Mosaic project. Learn more at

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