Tag Archives: left-hand

"Gotta get to my study room!"

AC #22: Block Chords: What are they? How to use them?

While recording “You’re My Everything” during a recording session on October 26, 1956, Miles Davis whistled during the song’s intro to stop the recording and said to Red Garland, his pianist, “Play some block chords Red… Alright Rudy?… Block chords Red”.

This instruction was left in the mix and can be heard on the commercially released recording. What did Miles mean when he said that? What did Miles want from his pianist?  The song’s intro starts at the video’s 19th second time code marker and as you’re listening, pay special attention to the difference in Red Garland’s playing before and after Miles’ instruction.


“Block chords” is a harmonic device that calls for all harmony being played, during the spans-of-time that block chords are engaged, to be delivered within certain close-position voicings and rhythmic parameters.  When block chords are applied to melody and/or single-note improvisation lines, a more impactful, “phatter”, richer sound results! I’ve seen Phineas Newborn draw actual gasps-of-excitement from audiences with his highly skilled block chord use!

There are several types or variations of block chords but the one on which I’m going to focus in this workshop I’ve named “book ends”.  Book ends call for 5-note voicings with a numerical schematic that spells voices 1 through 5 the from top to bottom with the melody or lead always being note 1 or the top-most note. Note 5 always doubles note 1, one octave lower. Notes 2, 3, and 4 are harmony notes which must be placed in between or within the one-octave span of notes 1 and 5 (the “book ends”) at all times.

Since this is a tall order, I highly advise you to do yourself a favor before moving on to blocking melodies and improv lines. Do the prep work of  making sure that you can play all Major7, Dominant7, Minor7, Minor7b5 and Diminished7 chords in all four of their positions in the 5-note block chord style! It’ll make what follows much easier!!!

As I always say, don’t hesitate to contact me if you need some assistance. I’ll be glad to hear from you and glad to help. Let’s Skype!

Where did block chords come from? Who invented them?  

I recall having read somewhere in the past that pianist/organist Milt Buckner was given credit for starting or inventing block chords!

I’m not going to co-sign such an absolute statement but I will go along with acknowledging the fact that Milt Buckner is one of the first musicians to be widely noticed and recognized for bringing this style of playing to the “forefront”.  George Shearing credited Milt Buckner and the big band sounds of Glenn Miller as his two major influencers along the lines of his developing the block chord “George Shearing sound”.


Erroll Garner also credited the sounds of big bands as his main influence in the development of his signature style which uses block chords. There are many other musicians who cite Milt Buckner as a main influencing source along these lines but as to whether or not Milt Buckner actually invented block chords, I choose to remain a non signatory.

John Lennon once said that if you had to rename rock and roll, you’d have to call it “Chuck Berry!” However, in Chuck Berry’s autobiography, Chuck thanked J.L. for the statement but spoke up right away saying that the whole “Chuck Berry” concept and sound was not actually his! It came directly from his being influenced by his local peers, the great boogie-woogie players, and people like the great Nat “King” Cole!

I like to think that if Milt Buckner were around today, he might thank all of his fans and “influencees” before giving the same kind of cautionary statement the C.B. gave J.L.

And so the story goes… Because of the influence factor, it’s usually inaccurate at best to try to trace and pinpoint something like a trend or a style in music down to one person. What is more important to me is finding out how to do it and how to use it in my playing.

With that said, let me draw your attention to the 7/22/13 update release of “Block Chording Short Scales” in my store.  It is a rudimentary block chord drill system that focuses on block chording 3-, 4-, and 5-note scales of the major and minor varieties and it has MIDI accompaniments to help your practice move right along. If you do the work, this updated package can be very helpful to you in getting block chords “together”.  Contact me if you need assistance.

See you next post.


"Gotta get to my study room!"

AC #14: Reading Piano Music – Need Help? – Read This!

Learning to read piano music can be one of the most challenging tasks that faces every piano student. 

Although one person might find this task to be less difficult than the next person, the fact remains that in order to learn to read music, you have to actually spend some time reading lots of it. It’s like you’ll never learn how to swim if you never get in the water!

Short Story

My first car was a 1955 Chevy that looked very much like the one pictured just below.

 1955 Chevy

It eventually developed transmission trouble and it wouldn’t move. James Ballard and Emmett Kendall, two mechanics who’d given me a job as a teenager in their gas station / car repair business, came to my house and towed the Chevy back to their garage, which was only a half-block away from my home. While I was working hard at tending to the pump customers that day, they disassembled the transmission, then they showed me the malfunctioning parts that had caused my car to break-down. By the time I got off work, they’d fixed my car and I was “back in business” cruizin’ and playin’ the radio with no particular place to go!

End of Story

Now you might ask, “What does that short story have to do with reading piano music?!”

Well, the lesson I took from that experience was that if there is a problem that has caused or is causing a break-down of any sort, somewhere in the mix of my life, deal with it by “towing” the problem into my figurative garage (my mind), take it apart, analyze it, identify the source of the problem, fix it, put it back together and move on!

By applying that very simple methodology to my teaching techniques, I’ve been able to help lots of people improve their music reading abilities for years and I can help you too.

During the course of my teaching career, I’ve found, more often than not, a major cause of my students’ music reading problems stemmed from their inability to read and play rhythms fluently!

Rhythm, rhythm, rhythm, rhythm, rhythm!

Reading rhythm is the sole focus of a class I teach titled, “Rhythm-a-ning”.  Understanding rhythms and developing the coordination to execute them with either hand is the center-stage activity in this class.  There’s a reason why the piano is considered a percussion instrument and sits in the percussion section of an orchestra and not the string section.

Reading music, even at its most elementary level, involves decoding information from two main streams of data synthesis, the rhythm stream and the pitch stream. If you’re having trouble deciphering and executing the data from both streams, your work on effecting a solution will be twice as difficult if your approach is to work on solving the problems you’re having with both streams simultaneously.

So the basic idea behind rhythm-a-ning and pitch-a-ma-ning is to separate and isolate the two main component processes of music reading, rhythm execution, and pitch placement, then reintegrate the two skills at a later point in time after thoroughly working on each of the areas of concentration. The separation and isolation approach allows you to then focus 100% of your attention on working to improve and strengthen your weaknesses in each one of those two main problem areas independently. 

I feel it is a lot easier to work on one problem at a time than it is to work on two or more problems simultaneously.  This is a less stressful strategy and with this approach, your probability of success tables are tilted more in your favor and the odds of your success rates are increased exponentially. 

Watch this sample video of Jason reading and playing the rhythms of a piece by one of my favorite classical music composer/pianists. 


With patience, determination and hard work, Jason is now doing a pretty good job of rhythm-only reading through many musical genres like classical music, ragtime, hymns, pop, and jazz. He can see and appreciate his own improvement in this area which, in and of itself, is a very powerful factor in keeping him self-motivated to continue his work in this area.

Now there’s no reason why the same thing can’t be happening for you too! So get in touch if you need assistance in this area. I can help you! The main provisory is that it is you who has to practice and do the work! This is not about me! It’s about you!  So contact me so we can get busy.

See you next post. 


"Gotta get to my study room!"

AC #11 (AC #7 Mystery Man Is Revealed – Contest Is Closed)

The AC #7 mystery man is the late Phineas Newborn, Jr. (Ta Da!)

Phineas Newborn, Jr.

A big thank you to all the contest participants but since no one correctly identified my mystery man, I’m going to post the winning prize link in this post along with a couple of other links that showcase this musical giant. That way, if you’re not familiar with Phineas, you can check him out a little then seek more if you like what you hear and see.

Phineas Newborn, Jr., was a piano genius from Memphis, Tennessee. Although he was very well-known and appreciated among his peers, devoted followers, and loved by his friends, he was an artist who deserved much wider general public recognition.

For me, one of his many career highlights was an album he recorded with strings titled, “While My Lady Sleeps” where he sight-read the whole date in first-takes, and the orchestra gave him a standing ovation after every song!

During his live performances, Phineas would often play a couple of songs at the front of a set or during a set with his left hand only–melody, accompaniment, improv-solo and everything would sound as if he were playing with two hands!!!. Words can’t describe the feeling that his attentive audiences would experience when he’d finally bring out his right hand, during the middle of one his deep single-hand explorations, and add it to the high-fever level of excitement that he would have already generated with his left hand alone! He’d raise his right hand and then down it’d come exploding onto the piano and BANG! The audience would collectively gasp in pleasure! I’d often cry out, “WOW!!” It was an emotional experience that you actually felt and you really had to see and experience it live! He was truly an awesome musician!

He loved to play piano, he loved to laugh, and I’m proud of the friendship I had with him for the short time I knew him. R.I.P. Phineas.

Phineas and Art at Boston's Logan Airport
Phineas (left) and Art at Boston’s Logan Airport                         –photo by Deb Claffey

Contest Winners Link (audio) – Phineas made this recording in 1951 with “Lou Sargent”, which was a pseudonym for Luther Steinberg. Phineas was twenty years old on this recording and at that early age, you can hear his mastery of blues and boogie-woogie piano styles!

If you like boogie-woogie, blues, and jazz piano, I recommend you to listen to as much Phineas Newborn as you can find.

To all the people who didn’t win this time (everybody!), these types of contests and “Silly Games” will occasionally appear in Art’s Corner so spread the word and stay tuned.

Thanks again!