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I’m an aspiring jazz pianist, playing tunes without sight reading of any kind (once I’ve learned it), in ensembles and solo.

I have for long had the problem that my chords are staggering. Once I’ve nailed the current, I’m perplexed and surprised by the next chord which catches me off guard — I was not prepared at all.

One approach which has improved this quite a bit is to almost forcibly think about the next chord — where I’m going — while I’m at the current chord. This is essentially a revelation to me, that one must detach from the present, and intellectually plan what one is currently and is going to play.

Maybe it tells that I simply doesn’t know the tune in question sufficiently; if I’m so occupied by the current chord that I can’t think ahead, it means I need to learn the tune better. Maybe the problem is that I play without score.

Is this obvious? How do you more experienced carry out your chord playing in this aspect?

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  • Does this happen 1) when playing the main tune (the "head"), 2) when improvising, or 3) both?
    – Aaron
    Aug 21 at 19:08
  • Without knowing what the next chord is there is no target to aim the notes you're currently playing at. It's like getting to a junction in the car, and then needing to look at the map to decide left , right, straight on. Pointless.
    – Tim
    Aug 21 at 19:23
  • @Aaron, it happens when improvising, but that's ok, it's understandably added complexity/simultaneous things going on and I have a path for that by practicing to iReal Pro and in ensembles. But it happens also more generally, when playing head or soloing.
    – Frans
    Aug 21 at 19:27
  • As a clarification, it seems you make a distinction between "improvising" and "soloing". I think of those as the same, so could you say a bit more about the difference.
    – Aaron
    Aug 21 at 19:32
  • @Tim I think I see your point. That one should see the "logic" of the chords, how/why they are together, tension, progression, and so on. Function analysis, is one way.
    – Frans
    Aug 21 at 19:36
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How do you more experienced carry out your chord playing in this aspect?

P.R.A.C.T.I.C.E

I doubt if any of us can pick up a piece of music, particularly a complex piece, and play it well without a lot of practice.

I’m perplexed and surprised by the next chord which catches me off guard — I was not prepared at all.

That is exactly the feeling I get when I haven't practiced very much. I don't know what is coming next and it comes as a surprise to me. How do I fix it? I do a lot more practice.

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  • There are many musos who can pick up a complex piece and play it well first time, they're just good sight-readers. Yes, practice, which involves lots of repetition, is the next option for the lesser endowed amongst us!
    – Tim
    Aug 22 at 5:51
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This is essentially a revelation to me, that one must detach from the present, and intellectually plan what one is currently and is going to play.

The present is not the chord you are currently on. The present is playing the entire composition as a whole, either from memory or by reading. It is navigating through the melody and the harmonic progression of the piece, understanding the relationships between the chords and how they flow from one to the next. A chord may only last one or two beats. If you are perplexed and surprised by the next chord then you have not truly learned the music. Think of a song as a single thing, not as a bunch of chords you play one after the other.

Maybe it tells that I simply doesn’t know the tune in question sufficiently; if I’m so occupied by the current chord that I can’t think ahead, it means I need to learn the tune better. Maybe the problem is that I play without score.

Other answers mention practice which of course is very important but I say gather knowledge. Learn a good system for playing chord voicings and progressions. Play common chord progressions in different keys to help with recognition and reaction skills. Improve your understanding of harmony so you can know how chords function and interact with each other. Don’t just learn tunes, try and understand them. Whether or not you read music when you play is a personal choice, try both ways and see what works best for you.

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Full marks for over-thinking :-)

(And another time we'll tell you 'Analyse the problem and you're most of the way to solving it'. Not fair, is it!)

It'll come with practice and experience. Really. Once you stop having to think about 'nailing' a chord and just play it.

I like to have at least a chord chart in front of me, even when improvising. Perhaps it would help you too.

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Looking one chord or one bar ahead is way too shortsighted. And whatever the next chord is, it really shouldn't be a surprise to you. It may be because you don't know relationships between chords that well. This often happens when people learn song after song: the chords are in that order for that song, but no pattern is perceived between the chords themselves, only the pattern of those chords for each song.

Knowing what the I chord is - the tonic - in a piece, and especially in a key, is paramount. From there, each of the other chords will have a relationship with that I.

V>I is a common enough change, and probably the most common. IV>I is another. By being able to map out the whole sequence of just one well-known song, you should be able to find, for starters, those two changes. Listen to what happens, to the feel of the changes, to what happens when I goes to somewhere else, to what happens when one chord is lingered on for longer. Does it feel like the harmony has moved upwards, downwards, a couple of notes haven't changed, all of them are different in the next chord?

You say jazz piano. Sounds like you need to pare back the chords to simple triads initially, as most jazz chords won't be the simple triads we all know and love! But do that, C13 still works when it's played as its base triad of C E G. Won't sound so jazzy, but will give you more information that you need right now: it's major. So, an idea: re-write one of the songs, taking the chords back to bare bones. That may take a bit of doing with some jazz chords, but when it's done, play simply, and listen to what the changes do. Relate those to other keys, so you start to understand the relationships - C>F is the same as F♯>B, as A&flat>D♭, etc.

And, as John says, don't just look at the next chord, but map out at least full lines, if not eventually the whole thing. But try not to think of it as 'that bit goes C>G>Am>Em. More along the lines of I>V>vi>iii. So you're not thinking key-centrically.

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Notice the ii-V progressions and the V7/V, train playing the fingerings in all keys, many chords are just a half tone aparte of the antecedent (tritone substitutions) Mark them as such and you don't have to waste any thought about them later.

If you have done this analysis you can mark them with 3 different colors (ii7-V7,V7/V7 or bII-I), all the others you have to mind specially, by this way you'll save a lot of time when playing (reading or by heart).

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If you are surprised by the next chord while playing the current one - if you had not an iota of an idea what any of that next chord's notes were, including the root - you haven't learned the piece well enough. You may be able to fake, improvise, or comp a left hand adequately enough with only root notes, though remembering major/minor/sus in addition would be preferable. But if you can't remember any of the notes in the next chord, and if you also can't remember that next chord's harmonic function and the tonic of your current section (e.g. "it's the IV chord in a B flat major section" - note that you can derive all that IV chord's notes from that information alone), then you haven't learned the piece well enough.

Memorization requires thinking about the entire piece's chord progression, or at least notes, in advance. Even if you haven't analyzed the piece's chord progression (say you come from a classical music background, where analyzing the chord progression is never brought up during piano lessons and is implied to take up too much time when you could be memorizing the 5-minute-long piece instead), if you've memorized the notes, you've memorized enough.

Even stock chord progressions to improvise on such as the 12-bar blues and any variant of the 8-bar blues require you to memorize that stock chord progression in advance.

It's easier to figure out that next chord so you can commit it into memory later with the sheet music, even if this means transcribing the sheet music yourself. Note that real-life jazz sheet music is often found in the form of lead sheets, which give you melody lines as notes and chord symbols as text.

As others have mentioned, practice helps you hammer the piece and its entire chord progression into memory so you eventually memorize the entire piece, including its chord progression.

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  • I think, in jazz, that the chord sequence is the most important part to know well. That's the part that gets addressed most for the majorrity of the performance of a song.
    – Tim
    Aug 22 at 14:18
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You have answered your own question:

"Maybe it tells that I simply doesn’t know the tune in question sufficiently; if I’m so occupied by the current chord that I can’t think ahead, it means I need to learn the tune better".

When you know a tune 'sufficiently', your left hand may either be:

A) Automatic: It provides a reliable, rhythmic foundation for right-hand work, or

B) Integrated: You will be able to improvise with your left (rhythmically, via inversions, arpeggiation, bass lines and/or simultaneous melodic lines).

'A' is the first step; simple voicings learned so well that your hands simply shift from chord to chord as you need them. Note that this is not the end goal. There is a danger that once chords become automatic, that you play them without feeling and/or variation; that they become entrenched to the benefit of your right hand, but to the detriment of your musicality and potential progress.

If you are willing to put up with a bit of initial relative boredom, you can 'cement' your chords relatively quickly with the technique outlined in this answer:

Piano: getting chords up to speed

Once you can play through your tune using 1st(root)-3rd-7th voicings in the left, learn rootless voicings (no root note, often a simple 3rd-7th or 3rd-7th-9th voicing) and perhaps tenths (1st-7th-10th) if you can make the stretch. These three variations alone provide you with a range of colours with which to add variety to your playing. The rootless voicings are important when playing with a bassist, who will usually cover the root note territory.

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