Add Jazz Pizazz To Holiday Hits: Play by Ear & Improvise Piano Tutorials

December is the perfect time of year to develop one’s ear training skills. We’ve been by saturated listening to Christmas & Holiday tunes playing all over the place since Halloween, and know those familiar jingles a jing-jing-jingling quite well by now, so well in fact we can’t seem to get them out of our heads! So you may as well face the music and do something creative with these tunes as long as you are hearing them over and over, right?

During most years (2020 excluded, except for the few outdoor gigs our Jazzy Bellz Quartet above is doing this season), December is usually my most busy month for concert performances, church services to play, private parties in homes, and other year end gigs. It is also for many music teachers a busy recital month. Piano teachers might like to share these fun ideas during student’s lesson times and be encouraged to try their own hands at playing by ear and improvising!

Here, in a Nutcracker shell, are my tips for playing by ear:

  1. Decide upfront what key you’ll play your piece in. (This will establish the scale notes the melody will most likely use.)
  2. Play the I (one) chord in your left hand. (If you are in the key of C, play a C major triad in your LH.)
  3. Figure out which note the melody starts on: (For most easy holiday tunes in the key of C the melody will either start on the Root (C) Third (E) or Fifth (G)
  4. Go ahead and pick out the rest of the melody in your right hand.
  5. Find the LH “basic skeleton chords” These will be the I, IV, V chords of your key, in this case C, F, & G. Apply these LH chords while playing the RH melody, and change chords when needed.
  6. Now you have the basic skeleton to your tune, and it’s time to dress it up! Add extra notes to your chords (ma7 or ma6 to I & IV, the V becomes a V7 and may sound good with certain 5th & 9th alterations, just as long as it doesn’t conflict with the melody). Add extra passing chords if you know how (you can watch my second tutorial for some hints). Add a device such as broken 10th, swing bass, boogie-woogie, or walking bass line etc… many ideas are taught in my book The Aspiring Jazz Pianist.  You can also view my playlist: Easy Tips For Piano (8 Short Left Hand Ideas) below:

This year I asked several students to pick out by ear God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen in the key of A minor, and they did a great job getting the melody by ear! Below find 2 instructional videos of my harmonizations to this timeless classic carol:

This first video is God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman using just the white keys! (Note, I do not feel the white keys are any better or easier to play than black keys for improvisation – it’s just a “no brainer” to give a student who ‘forgot’ to practice something to improvise over while spending time at the piano lesson). I made up a way to harmonize the whole piece so it sounds good using the A natural minor scale:

Next, here is more advanced video tutorial adding in certain black keys, explaining jazz reharmonization techniques for a completely different version of God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman:

The above video, made December 2020, shows easier white-key version followed by the more jazzed up advanced in a performance setting. Wishing you all the music filled joys you are able to have this Season! 2020 feels like it has hit the pause button for so many of us trying to meet with loved ones and do ‘normal’ things. I’m so grateful for the dedication of people from all professions, trying to make our daily lives move forward as best they can – it’s become so clear how we all need each other. Let’s hold out hope for learning a few things from 2020, and moving into a safe, healing, prosperous New Year with good reason to celebrate 2021 being right around the corner! -D.D.



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