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I play piano, and when I am playing a gospel or a blues song, I always improvise with my right hand. I have been practicing major scales and pentatonic scales for a while now, and when I play, i usually just play the scales up and down the keyboard. It does sound good, and I switch the scales with the modes and stuff, but how can I break out of this habit and explore new stuff with them?

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    Just don't allow yourself to play consecutive notes! – Tim Feb 11 at 18:25
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    What approaches to breaking away from playing scales up and down have you tried so far, and what problems have you had with them? – piiperi Reinstate Monica Feb 12 at 7:09
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Try working around chord tones.

Three things you can add to playing only chord tones are auxiliary tones, passing tones, and enclosures.

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The enclosure example shows enclosures targeting each tone of a major scale, but you can use an enclose to target chord tones.

All three can be modified in various ways...

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If only the various figures for auxiliary and passing tones are used, it will provide for lots of interesting lines. The nice thing is it's easy to remember the basic approach: focus on the broken thirds that make up chords and either: play a chromatic auxiliary tone under it, or fill it in with chromatic passing motion.

Those examples show only swing eight notes, but you should try playing other rhythm patterns too, things like syncopated quarter notes, and triplet figures. Start figures on or off the beat for variety. You can omit a note hear or there to suite the rhythm.

When you put it altogether you can get lines like these...

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...of course those could be adapted to solo keyboard.

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  • +1 IMO, rhythm-guided emphasizing of chord tones is the correct answer, because that's the way to create new melodies and riffs. Even if you create melodies by instinct without explicitly thinking about chords and rhythms, every melody and riff implies some chordal harmony and rhythm, so it's better to try and see and control the "master ingredients" behind the scenes. And it's important to not fall victim to pre-written chord changes and rhythms. You can and should improvise your own chords and rhythms by playing things over what others are playing. It's like live arranging and composing. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Feb 12 at 9:43
  • This kind of music is homophonic. If you are improvising over chord changes, it's backwards to think scales to derive chords. One way I like to think of is: fill in passing tones on a seventh chord and you get a scale. – Michael Curtis Feb 12 at 13:40
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    I tried to say, it's better to think about playing over chords as "what can I turn this into" rather than "I must emphasize and obey the chords that were given to me". If everyone else is playing a C major chord, you can turn the harmonic situation into lots of things by imagining different notes and chords over it. For example Bb, D, Db, A or F# major chords. The piano keyboard offers an excellent birds-eye view for seeing what happens. Your answer about working around chord tones is great, but I'd add: "the chords don't have to be the ones that are written, you can imagine your own chords". – piiperi Reinstate Monica Feb 12 at 14:32
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Two broad strategies:

Since you're familiar with scales, keep practicing them, but in different patterns

  1. Break up the scales into different patterns
X: 1
T: Scale in 3rds
M: 4/4
K: C major
L: 1/8
"C"CEDF EGFA | GBAc Bdcd | ecdB cABG | AFGE FDED | C8||
X: 1
T: Scale in 3-note groups
M: 4/4
K: C major
L: 1/8
(3CDE (3DEF (3EFG (3FGA | (3GAB (3ABc (3Bcd c2 | (3edc (3dcB (3cBA (3BAG | (3AGF (3GFE (3FED C2 ||
  1. Combine scales with chord outlines
X: 1
T: Chord/scale combination 1
M: 4/4
K: C major
L: 1/8
"CM7"CEGB AGFE | "Dm7"DFAc BAF^F | "G7"GBdf- ffed | "C"c8 ||
X: 1
T: Chord/scale combination 2
M: 4/4
K: C major
L: 1/8
"CM7"CDEF GEC^C | "Dm7"DEFG AFDC | "G7"B,CDE FDGB | "C"c8 ||

Play familiar tunes/licks

  1. Over chord changes where they work
X: 1
T: "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and "New World Symphony" over Blues
M: 4/4
K: C major
L: 1/4
"C7"C C G G | "F7" A A G F | "C7"E3/2 G/2 G2 | G3/2 F/2 E2 ||
  1. Over chord changes other than expected (with adjustments)
X: 1
T: "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" in C, over F7
M: 4/4
K: C major
L: 1/4
"F7"C C G G | A A G2 | F F _E E | D D C2 ||
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  • IMO you should attempt to see chords behind all these lines. The sequential step-by-step lines outline chords as well. For example the latter half of bar 1 of "Chord/scale combination 1", A-G-F-E outlines a Dm or F chord, because the note pair A-F probably gets more emphasis than G-E, due to their rhythmic placement. The pitches in scales are only palettes or toolkits for painting harmony. If you play C-D-E-F-G-A-B, its harmonic effect depends on where you start. Starting on C, you play a C major chord, but if you play it with an anacrusis, C | D-E-F-G-A-B ... then it does a D minor'ish thing. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Feb 12 at 10:13
  • I've been searching the internet for practice ideas like this. What is the source of these examples? If it's a book, I might like to buy it. – Wayne Conrad Feb 12 at 17:24
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    @WayneConrad I wrote these examples myself, but I can recommend the book "Patterns for Jazz" by Jerry Coker. Its whole purpose is to give exercises like these that take you through a variety of chords and chord changes in every key. – Aaron Feb 12 at 17:35
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Learn riffs, and licks. Try developing a set of these by listening to other's and transcribing their work. Scales and arpeggios are the foundation of melodies, some might say the interval is the foundation of melody since that is more primitive than a scale (which is a sequence of intervals). Rhythm is an important part of melody as well. So playing fragments and letting in some space could help break that habit.

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There's a structured series of books for piano by Bradley Sowash that will probably be helpful for you. They're really fun to work with and will help you work with patterns and little riffs.

You could make some transcriptions of some solos that you find intriguing.

You could experiment with some blues improvisation.

Do you ever sing the same line you are playing with your right hand? Or perhaps I should say, do you ever improvise with your voice, and let your right hand double what your voice is doing?

You could cross-pollinate by improvising with the left hand.

Take a little figure (short riff) and play it going around the circle of fifths. The next step is then to play it (in the appropriate key) for each chord in your tune. How do you choose the little riffs? By listening to recordings and bringing your favorite riffs into your riff repertoire.

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When you improvise, you call upon a personal vocabulary of phrases.

The way you build that vocabulary is not necessary via improvising though.

You can work on developing some new phrasal pattern deliberately, in a slower tempo. Then rehearse it up to tempo, and then try mixing it between your existing improvisational phrases that you can play in "auto pilot" mode. By doing that you find ways to nicely transition into the new phrase from existing phrases and the best situations for using it.

In improvisation, you might start and end a solo using material you know very well. In the middle somewhere, you transition into some of this new stuff. If it looks like it's not working out, find a way to exit to familiar territory.

When you're working on developing new phrases, you're not doing it all in real time, so you have time to think. If you're tired of scalar patterns, you can consciously break out of it. "Write" a pattern that includes some non-diatonic leaps in it, and rehearse it.

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