How to practice ii-V-I effectively, or: all the things I aren't.
December 6, 2018 10:32 PM   Subscribe

I got to a point with jazz piano, at which I am not very good but crawling ever so slowly forward, that clearly what I needed to do next was really get my ii-V-I progressions around the ol' circle of fifths solidly in my fingers. Here's the problem.

I'm never sure how to practice these progressions effectively. I made flashcards but I'm not sure knowing the notes is very relevant to playing.

I can inch down the keyboard since playing the 3/7, 7/3, 3/7 over the progression just involves moving in regular little steps, but that also doesn't leave me able to say "alright, I'm going to play this progression for e flat" and then do it without lots of setup time.

It feels like a lot of moving parts, and I sit down at the piano to do it and quit fairly quickly because I don't know how to attack it.

Any pointers from fellow lousy piano players or piano players who can remember being lousy?
posted by Smearcase to Media & Arts (6 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Take a non-jazz tune you know the chords for, and replace each single chord with a ii-V-I. Then play the tune in different keys.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:06 AM on December 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

IANAPP but I practice ii V I’s. For me the trick is to treat the cadence as a little song, a single movement, not as 3 chords. Turn it into a 4-bar loop, 1 bar each for ii and V and 2 bars for I. There are lots of standards made entirely of ii V I. Perdido for example.
As a wind player I use backing tracks to practice improvising over various chord patterns. You can create an accompaniment with your left hand.
A good thing to practice is to hear how the different scale notes feel over the different parts of the cadence. Play a pitch - say, the 6th of the tonic Key - and try and hear how it feels over each of 3 chords and where it wants to go, what note wants to follow it. If you find a phrase that pleases you, play it in 12 keys.
That said, keep practicing the tritone (3-7) move as you travel around the cycle of fifths. Get it smooth. It can be very useful.
posted by Jode at 6:21 AM on December 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Also not a pianist but also seconding Perdido - on guitar I just practice that main riff and modulate.

Don't beat yourself up; this type of progression is famously more difficult on piano. IIRC no less a pianist than Tommy Flanagan was frustrated by it.

that also doesn't leave me able to say "alright, I'm going to play this progression for e flat" This is just a matter of practice. How long have you been playing?

Work on this every day for six months and you'll start to just feel it.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:22 AM on December 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

I don't think I've ever done anything special. I just run the progression around the cycle of fifths, so: Dm7-G7-CM7, Gm7-C7-FM7, Cm7-F7-BbM7, etc.,

Typically as you say there's one voicing (call it the "A" type) with the 7 above the 3, and one (call it "B") with 3 above 7. And if you keep them alternating then the voice leading is smooth. If you alternate A-B-A-B throughout that progression you'll find you end up with the same type. So I'll then repeated the whole cycle with the other type. (E.g. if I started out doing A-B-A-B..., I'll run around the cycle of fifths again, this time starting with B-A-B-A). So after doing that I've practiced every option in every key.

And of course you usually have to shift up an octave partway through to keep things in a register where they sound good.

I probably wouldn't do that till I had each individual chord quality nailed: so first I'd practice the minor seventh voicings on their own (Dm7, Gm7, Cm7, Fm7...), etc.

And, yes, the first time I ever did this (and the first time I do this for a new voicing that I'm learning now), it's frustrating and I have to go very slowly and stop and think about what I'm doing pretty frequently.

I wouldn't spend more than a few minutes at a time--if that means you only make it through a few keys the first time, that's fine, just note where you ended up and pick up there the next day.

Taking a break from it and coming back and having to puzzle it out again is part of how you train your memory. Over the days and weeks it'll gradually get easier.

(Pretty crappy jazz pianist myself, but I can e.g. sight-read a chord chart without thinking about where to put my fingers.)
posted by bfields at 9:51 AM on December 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

I probably wouldn't do that till I had each individual chord quality nailed


I always try to jump ahead with a new instrument, especially when I'm starting to feel somewhat fluid. I'm a halfway competent guitarist/upright bassist, so with banjo, piano, cello etc. the learning curve is somewhat lessened--lots of the theory and mechanical groundwork translate among instruments.

But because I know I can do X thing on bass, I want to try to skip ahead and do X thing on cello, and it just doesn't work that way - they're written in the same clef, but bass is usually tuned in fourths rather than fifths, and it's a different size and my bow technique is sloppy and etc. etc.

I'm finally coming around to the idea that I just have to regularly practice each of these instruments as though I'm starting . . . not from scratch exactly, but working up from fundamentals. Make sure to do a little at a time, every single day.
posted by aspersioncast at 10:59 AM on December 7, 2018

I think I’m a bit behind you in skill so I apologize if this is old news or boring.

But I am dabbling in that progression (and others) as well and 1: I don’t move on to different keys until I have one at least loosely/roughly ready to jam with. Yes this has downsides but I personally don’t think not being able to instantly transpose to any key should prevent me from getting decent at one or two keys per progression.

And 2: I start with relatively simple exercises like putting 1-2 notes in the left hand and doing arps through 3-4 with the right. And then I mess with inversions, moving the root up and down etc.

It also probably depends on what your goals are, mine is to be able to improv lots of stuff across genres, with myself or sometimes a few others.
posted by SaltySalticid at 2:29 PM on December 7, 2018

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