Notes To Choose For a 12 Bar Blues (Easy RH Improvisation Tips)

By popular request I filmed this tutorial exploring my easy go-to ideas a pianist may play over a medium-up tempo jazz blues in the key of F:

The original tutorial shown below was meant to be simply a lesson on a LH device called The Bud Powell Shell. Many of you then asked if I could share what RH “licks” I was using on my video, Improvising 28 Bars of Blues. 

I looked back and analyzed the ideas my RH originally improvised – broke them down, and explained the key note choices plus devices I used throughout the short 28 Bars of Blues video. All of these right hand tips are explained in great detail in the Notes To Choose For a 12 Bar Blues tutorial video above.

This tutorial video below focuses on the LH Shell device:


For further study look into 2 of my book/audio improvisation methods: Amazing Phrasing – Keyboard & The Aspiring Jazz Pianist. Both are loaded with tips on playing the blues, plus come with digital download tracks to encourage improvisation skills while playing along with a back up band!


Big Ideas For Small Hands: How To Write a Full Sounding Piano Arrangement

Let’s take the lovely ballad Skylark (by Johnny Mercer/Hoagy Carmichael), and learn how to enhance a ballad’s melody with beautiful chords and a foundational bass line. In this video observe how I took a chart from an old fakebook and updated some chords more to my liking, a process called reharmonization:

The music I used during the above tutorial was this messy looking chart:

It’s probably something only its creator could decipher, right? A few of my YouTube subscribers & students wanted me to share the written music with them, so I reverted to a technique I normally do when I wish to add my own chords to a desired tune – I write out just the melody, with no other chords to distract me, and start afresh:

Now if you weren’t familiar with this tune, judging by the key signature Skylark could either be in the key of C minor or Eb major, but since I knew in my head how the tune was supposed to sound I went with the latter key of Eb, figured out the tune’s skeleton structure (bare bones chords that give Skylark its characteristic sound). Next step was to add pleasing passing chords between the essential ones, keeping in mind how the melody might affect each chord’s quality (ma7, mi7, or chords with altered notes?) etc., while at the same time creating a strong bass line to move the harmony along from the bottom roots to the top melody note:


The final step is perhaps the most challenging – how to figure out the inner voice movement (inside moving notes in between the melody and the bass), all the while using good sounding voicings, divided up between the fingers which are full in tone, yet also playable by small hands! I enjoy using the Bud Powell Shell in my left hand for chords within a certain range. On ballads I intersperse LH shells with rolled or broken 10ths, mixed with single note left hand lines or the occasional low bass note for richness and variety! (You can find in depth demonstrations of these techniques in my book The Aspiring Jazz Pianist plus several video tutorials

It helps with expression to hear the lyrics of a song, even when playing instrumentally.  There’s a part where the lyrics “crazy as a loon” pop up, can you guess where? Great American Songbook composers and lyricists work hand in hand to bring out the best in a tune. In the video below I’m playing the above written out arrangement, plus a few ‘birdcall trills’ to top off this 2 handed piano arrangement of the beautiful Skylark:



Growing Up Around A Piano: Memories of My Brother

Frank Denton Denke (6/17/1934 – 1/29/2021)

I didn’t get the opportunity to ‘grow up’ with my big brother Denton and oldest sister Diane, since these first born 2 siblings had already left the nest. Our mother Virginia (singing in the photo) behind our father Frank R. Denke (playing the piano) really spread the 4 of us out in age: My brother was born about a year after our parents married, followed by my sister Diane (not pictured) a few years later. 10 years after Diane my sister Connie was born (the teen girl singing), and 12 years later I came along. I’m the little girl in this newspaper article, looking up at her big brother, who planned to leave for the following 3 years doing Catholic Charity work as a teacher in Chile.

My sister Diane was missing from this newspaper article because she was away in the convent, and at the time The Sisters were under strict rules about how often they could visit even their family members. Here is a picture of Diane a few years before I was born:

And here she is, a few years after (front row, second from the right):

Thankfully, restrictions loosened for Diane; after I became an adult I really got the chance to grow close to my oldest sister and brother! All of us had music and dance (mom Virginia was a stage dancer) in our backgrounds; Diane and Connie were drawn to singing, but it was my brother and I who inherited our father’s love of playing the piano. Which leads into an interesting story…

Daddy (Frank R. Denke) was an exceptional musician. He was not only gifted at playing the piano in many styles, but also a composer of symphonic & sacred works, a church organist, an excellent sight reader, a lover of jazz, and a first call musician because of his willing and dedicated dimeanor plus loving attitude towards all people. You can read more about our father in my article,

Make The People Happy

My father supported 4 families as a working musician during The Great Depression – it was an era where people saved their pennies to go out at night, forget their troubles, and dance as a fun activity. Daddy was employed by dance bands and other orchestras, during an age before people had home entertainment centers, tape or video players, internet TV, and the like.

My father and a musician friend/collegue had a hard talk with my brother, who also inherited the ‘music gift’ from our dad. They told my brother, in the most kind and upfront way, that although he had a lot of talent at the piano, he probably should choose another line of work, just because times were harder for musicians to make a living, and my brother might want to raise a family with a “real job” someday. (My parents on the other hand, didn’t try to discourage me from pursuing piano with a passion, because in a kind of reversed way they expected I’d marry a ‘well established businessman’, who might ‘let me do my music’, after I took care of the housework, meal cooking, packing of his suitcase… I’ve only been attracted to musicians, so you can see how that idea played out 😉

Here’s a photo of my brother Frank Denton Denke with our father Frank R. Denke:

Now as things happened, my amazing brother listened to the advice. He had many interests in addition to music – one of them being languages. Bub (as I affectionately called my big brother), already was fluent in 4 languages: German, Russian, Latin, English. (His army service time was spent as a translator for the  United States Government). As a last resort before “settling down” and doing his volunteer work for the Catholic Church, my brother decided to learn Spanish before he was stationed in Chile as the teaching part for a Christian school charity/evangelist team. Truth be told, he didn’t make it as far as the newspaper article predicted.

My brother stopped in Mexico to learn Spanish to prepare him for his mission work, and fell in love with his Spanish teacher along the way!

They got married while my brother was flat broke. To make their way as a couple back to the United States my brother supported them by playing piano in restaurants and hotels, just so they had a place to stay and food to eat.

My dear brother and sister-in-law raised 9 children, part of the time spent on a farm raising chickens for eggs to eat, goats to milk, a 3 legged Collie who brought in the sheep when called, and a cow who came home from the field when my oldest nephew Paul blew his trumpet. Bub got a job as a top salesman for IBM, working for 27 years at that job!

But one of the most amazing things to me was how my brother could efforlessly pick up the piano, without touching it for 6-12 months, and play tune after tune as though he never left the instrument’s side! True Confession: I, on the other hand, must constantly practice or I’ll forget most everything!

Later in life Frank Denton Denke and his “pretty gal” (as he affectionately called his wife) moved back to Mexico, where my brother would send me his amazing photos of flowers he took in their home garden. I shared many of my brother’s lovely flower pictures on FaceBook, which I called “Bub’s Buds”, using some of the most stellar ones to set to my piano, creating videos to add another dimension in the joy of sharing flowers plus music to others!

My posthumous “Bub’s Buds” final video is called To Be There. When I saw his Fortnight Lily appear as a recent memory, I felt it was beckoning to be brought to musical life, a fortnight after his passing:

Denton was a devoted family man and husband. My brother would send out monthly birthday notices, each with a personal mention, to keep our growing family updated. He and my sister-in-law Ginnie celebrated 58 years of marriage, through thick and thin. They truly loved each other, as you can see in the last 2 photos comforting each other after medical procedures – if you turn the photo sideways you can see how they form a heart:

This article ends with my brother Frank Denton Denke playing the piano from his heart while visiting family. You’ll see Bub playing freely for one of his many musical grandsons, after not touching a piano for at least a year or more, in his own sweet way:

An Experiment With ‘Rhythm Changes’ (Skeletons Dance at Midnight)

Ever wonder what would happen if you took Rhythm Changes and put them in a minor key? You just might get a spooky October surprise!

First, let’s define “Rhythm Changes“. (It has nothing to do with a rhythm changing or any meaning close to that. This jazz musician term is simply a shortening of the phrase, ‘Play the same chords (aka the changes) that George & Ira Gershwin used for their popular tune, I Got Rhythm’. Knowing how to improvise over Rhythm Changes (especially in the key of Bb), is an expected part of every jazz musician’s repertoire, next in line after being able to improvise over the 12 bar blues form. Continue reading “An Experiment With ‘Rhythm Changes’ (Skeletons Dance at Midnight)”

Explaining the Greek Modes

Observe today’s music theory illustration pictured above. Notice the photo of these colorful Four O’clock Flowers – each bloom is unique, but they all are linked together as a family that grows from the same parent plant.

This week one of my newer adult piano students eagerly read ahead in my book Amazing Phrasing – Keyboard, and got a bit confused trying to understand the Greek modes/scales we refer to in both jazz & traditional music theory. During her first lesson this enthusiastic lady Continue reading “Explaining the Greek Modes”

What Do Jazz Musicians Think About When Improvising?

 What goes on in your head when you improvise? Are you thinking about something in particular, or just playing “anything” and not really thinking at all? How are you able to improvise with other musicians you’ve never played with before and sound so good together?

The orthopedic surgeon who was vacationing on a recent Jazz & Wine Riverboat Cruise sincerely wanted to know what goes on inside a jazz musician’s brain. Continue reading “What Do Jazz Musicians Think About When Improvising?”

Doxology: The New Old 100th – An Advanced Reharmonization Tutorial

The following video demonstrates how I came up with new chords using an old hymn as an example. It involves first stripping away the music to discovering the essential chords which give a tune its basic identity – I call these the skeleton chords – usually they are the I, V and perhaps IV chords of the tune. Continue reading “Doxology: The New Old 100th – An Advanced Reharmonization Tutorial”