Weekend Chops Builder: Pop Organ Workshop by Bill Irwin - Whole-Tone Runs

March 25, 2016


Continuing our celebration of 40 years of Keyboard, we'll present some of our old -- but still very relevant -- lessons for our Weekend Chops Builder exercises. Enjoy.


It's the time of year to think of giving gifts, and I want you to know that those of you, who have written me during the past year, expressing interest in my workshop column, have given me lots of nice gifts. Another gift is the announcement that we'll be meeting every month starting with the January issue. My New Year's Resolution will be to try to keep the workshop interesting and give you the material you ask for.

To answer the inquiries about my 'live' workshops: It's difficult to give schedule information in this column because of the length of time between my deadline and when the magazine appears, but if you're interested in attending a full day workshop in your area, drop me a letter with your name and address; when I plan to be in your area I'll personally let you know in advance.

Now I want to give you a present by showing you a great way to use whole-tone runs in fills, improvisation lines, introductions, and endings. First, look at the following whole-tone runs. (See the scan below for the musical examples.) Study the notes played in each (for example, notice that the first run contains the group of two black keys and the second run contains the group of three black keys). Slowly try each run, using the suggested fingering, and don't go on to the next step (adding chords and pedals) until you can play both runs with a fair amount of dexterity.

The runs can be started and stopped on any note. The suggested fingering should be maintained. Notice the finger groupings indicated.

Next, practice the same runs, but this time use different note values—add syncopation, mix values, add rests, try various rhythmic phrases to stimulate melodic improvisation. Here are some suggestions:

Before showing you how to harmonize each run with 9th chords, I'd like to explain the term moving 9th chords. When 9th chords are used in parallel or chromatic motion in a chord progression, it is easier to physically move the fingers and to avoid discord with raised or lowered 5th steps in a melody, when the 9th chords are played in their root position with the 5th step omitted. These are called moving 9th chords. Practice playing moving 9ths up and down one octave, first chromatically (as shown below), and second in whole steps (using the notes in each of the whole-tone scales as roots).

Rule: Each whole-tone run can be played against any 9th chord whose root is part of the run. For example, to harmonize the run in Ex. 1, you can use G9, F9, Eb9, Db9, B9, or A9. To harmonize the run in Ex. 2, use C9, Bb9, Ab9, Gb9, E9, or D9.

Now try playing each run while holding the various 9th chords whose roots are contained in the run. Play the melodic variations again, using the moving 9th chords whose roots are in the run in Ex. 1 with variations 1, 2, and 3, and the moving 9th chords associated with the run in Ex. 2 behind variations 4 and 5.

Space limits the number of examples I can give you, so try working with these suggestions: Change chords shown as 7th chords in sheet music to 9th chords, and use the matching whole-tone run to create melodic fills by playing up and down, using various note values, adding rests, and skipping intervals in the runs. The same technique is used to create a melodic line in improvisation. However, don't use whole tone runs throughout a song, as it will get monotonous. You can use the runs as connections (slides) between melody notes that are a wide interval apart. For introductions, play the 9th chord a half-step above the tonic (I) chord of the key you’re going into, play the appropriate whole-tone run up or down, and pause on the lowered 5th step of the 9th chord.

(Example: Going into a song in C major, play Db9 and play the run in Ex. 1, pausing on the note G before starting the theme.) For endings, play the same 9th chord and its matching run, and pause on any note of the run. Then either move sideways by a half-step or remain on the same note to match the final major chord, which should be altered (to a major 6th, 7th, or 9th, for example) to include the final melody note. (Example: Ending in C major, play Db9 and the run in Ex. 1 ending on the note Eb, then move down to the note D to form a Cmaj9 to end on.)

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