As a touring jazz pianist, I rarely have much time to practice when I’m on the road. If I’m lucky, I might get five minutes at sound check, so I need a quick and efficient warm-up routine to supplement basic scales and arpeggios. The following exercises are a great way to stretch my hands, get the feel of the keyboard, and engage my “jazz brain,” all in a limited amount of time.
1. It Takes Two
In Ex. 1, choose any two notes that are slightly more than an octave apart as a starting point. Then the right hand ascends chromatically, while the left hand follows the cycle of fourths.
2. Creative Chording
In between your “bookend” notes, fill in the gaps with chords, as illustrated in Ex. 2. There are no rules here—just trust your ears, creativity, and intuition, and strive for good voice leading. For example, in bar 1, the right hand’s thumb plays Bb-A-Ab-G, which corresponds to the seventh and third of each chord, respectively. Try to get an even intervallic spread that sounds good and feels comfortable physically.
3. Minor Chord Workout
Ex. 3 expands on our concept of creative chord motion. Note that if you choose bookend notes that form an 11th (like playing F in the right hand and C in the left hand), minor chords typically work better than dominant major sevenths. We’re not going for avant-garde sounds or unusual suspensions here, so keep your voicings fairly clear and simple. Start slowly, and when you feel comfortable with this exercise, gradually pick up the tempo.
4. Whole-Steps and Cycles
In Ex. 4, the right hand climbs by whole-steps while the left hand continues to cycle through fourths. This exercise opens up another can of harmonic worms because your voicings will spread out faster. If you have small hands, don’t worry about big stretches. Simply shift octaves wherever necessary to keep your voicings compact. Warming up should never be painful!
5. Change Partners
In Ex. 5, the right hand and left hand switch roles. Here the left hand descends chromatically while the right hand cycles through fourths. Remember that there are many other warm-up combinations you can try. Simply pick any two starting notes (try closing your eyes and plunking your hands down on the piano) and watch what happens!