Melody line practice


I am new to the community. I will be an active participant, and really appreciate all of the great posts on the forum. To keep my first question brief: are there any lessons or resources that would help me interpret and gain confidence in playing right hand melody lines? I think I’ve fallen into a rabbit hole in trying to understand chords, and I feel like I have neglected the basics of playing a tune with rhythm and swing,

Every REAL musician I talk to ALWAYS advises LISTENING to melody in as many versions of that song as you can find, LISTEN to good vocalists singing the lyrics, listen to instrumentalists as well as pianists and trios… listen when they play the MELODY. My boyfriend is a pro bass player and if you talk to him about solo or improv, he ALWAYS recommends you LISTEN to the melody. I try to just play the melody all by itself without my left hand involved, very slowly and see if my MIND and inner ear subtly suggest a slight variance that I might play.
As a music listener, I sometimes get bored when improv goes so crazy that I can’t feel or remember the original melody. Bill Evans and Chet Baker improvise quite close to the melody, always honoring it.
So let go of any pressure to “impress” with fancy right hand busy stuff… just play the melody in SLOW mo… and see what ideas come to you.
Get the book “Metaphors for the Musician”by Randy Halberstadt.
You will get great insight there.
Welcome to the forum and Pianogroove family.

  • work the melody
  • work separate hands (which is not necessary the same work)
  • imagine a singer or a violine playing the melody while you carefully listen to the structure (schizophrenia work)
  • imagine then you conduct a small orchestra (of your 2 hands)
  • go back to usual piano work, listening everything and choosing how works the dialogue or coordonate work between structure, accent, rythme, melody…
  • ))) go back to the first step as you’re not satisfied)))

Thanks for your great tips. I am transitioning to semi retirement and the piano in my house is no longer decorative. Playing using piano groove and working with a private teacher really complement each other. As for my goal: I also hope that I can go back to any of the hotels I stayed at when I was working internationally, and not get kicked out of the lounge at 2am.

Thanks for your guidance. I look forward to learning from you.

I just downloaded the book. Will let you know how it’s working for me. Thanks again.

Welcome to the PianoGroove community Sam.

Some great tips here already.

I agree with @LoriNelson that it’s very important to listen and play along with our favourite recordings. This is particularly important to absorb swing feel and articulation. Check out this video where we talk about the importance of listening and transcription

I also like Marc’s suggestion:

Thinking of our playing as an orchestra can help to make our melodies sing out above the chords. I often do this when playing solo piano.

I made a lesson on a similar topic here which you might find useful:


Hayden et al,

Again all great suggestions and appreciate your time. Just a quick note: before I started taking weekly lessons, I spent a while comparing a lot of web video sites. By far pianogroove was the best, in terms of content and comfort with Hayden’s style (not condescending and no BS) and ability to see the notation as the instrument is played.

That said, as I started my private lessons (at Mason Gross at Rutgers), I realized very quickly that while I could play a chord progression, for example Tune Up, I had trouble with the basic melody as I mentioned rhythm and timing and fingering, etc. As for listening to many versions of a song first, I think I’ve counted twelve versions of St James Infirmary bouncing around in my head! From Louis Armstrong to Hugh Laurie!

My teacher told me to strip everything down, forget chords, and perfect the line melody. So that’s where I am after about ten months. I can play chords, understand the difference between So What and Kenny Barron (I’ve even come to understand the circle of fifths and why they are good). I’ve also taken a Music Theory course at Rutgers (I turned 62 and they have a great Senior Audit program). Starting next week I am also taking a months long course on the history of jazz. I am also listening to a ton of different jazz styles and recordings (the Savory Collection on Apple) for example. Plus I feel like I wish I could have met Gladys Bentley and had at least one conversation with her. If that last sentence made no sense google her name and Groucho Marx. It will blow you away!

So I feel like I’ve taken an immersion but at this point I’ve gone down many rabbit holes. I started out last year with the goal of playing five tunes on my piano, but jazz piano is a huge forest which I only feel I can now speak about. But I still cannot play even one tune. Even though I probably have a sum total of six years of piano classes as a kid.

So my questions:

What keeps you motivated?
What are reasonable expectations for a beginner, or the next steps after getting a melody line down? For example, is it 1) melody line; 2) thirds and sevenths; 3) extended chords? Is this a good linear approach (or conversely should I attempt to master all major and minor scales in a silo and then take on more challenging stuff like a walking bass line?)

I am blessed to live near NYC, which has an almost infinite number of jazz clubs, and a wonderful museum in Harlem. That said., I am trying to take stock of where I am and wondering what my expectations should be? I have come to love Bill Evans, but should I even bother with going down that road attempting to play like him (metaphorically speaking), or develop a number of styles? And again, is there a roadmap I can follow.

Forgot to mention I am recently retired and have the time and motivation. I never wanted to leave college back in 1979, but after 40 plus years of a successful but otherwise not terribly satisfying career, really want to spend my remaining years learning the instrument and genre. All help and guidance will be appreciated, and I promise to give you and the community updates.

Sorry for the lengthy email and these are questions I will ask my piano teacher this week as well.


Hi Sam,

My recommendation would be to take one of Hayden’s beginner songs and stick with it until you learn it. Then, start on another one. The theory is wonderful, but for me, it did not begin to cement until I experienced it in the context of songs. Also, an amazing thing happens as you begin to learn different tunes…it becomes easier!

I am sure many will have good advice. This is what has helped me.

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Hi Sam :wave:

Exactly as @celia mentions, for beginner jazz students it’s important to learn jazz standards.

Learning jazz theory in isolation has no contextual relevance and so it’s difficult to see the fruits of our labour from drilling theory around all 12 keys.

The goal for many of us is to learn to play from lead sheets and so we must aim to build out our repertoire as quickly as possible in addition to learning the theory.

I’ve just updated the Foundations Practice Planner:

Foundations_Practice_Guide.pdf (3.5 MB)

It now lists the 8 jazz standard lessons which are all very accessible for beginners. “My Funny Valentine” incorporates some more advanced theory, but it’s still one of the more accessible tunes that we cover.

The jazz standard covered can be found in these 2 beginner courses:

Here’s what I’d recommend for you:

  • Split your practice time broadly in half. For a 1 hour practice slot, that’s 30 minutes on theory drills, and 30 minutes on jazz standards.

  • If you can get 2 hours practice per day you will see much more rapid improvement. I find an hour in the morning, and an hour in the evening to be particularly effective.

  • Start your practice time with the theory drills and just spend 5 minutes on each theory area.

  • Make sure you are evenly covering all of the keys. ie. don’t start with C major every time! Split the keys into groups of 3 or 4 and alternate each practice sitting so that within 3 or 4 practice sessions you have worked on all 12 keys for the exercise.

  • Choose multiple jazz standards to work on. Perhaps choose 3 from the list in the PDF above and spend 10 or 20 minutes per day on each one.

  • Revisit them everyday and within the space of a few weeks you will be comfortable with the chords and the melody.

  • Then move on to new tunes and set a goal of learning 20 or 30 arrangements.

  • I guarantee that once you can play 20 or 30 tunes from a lead sheet, your understanding of jazz harmony, chords, scales, progressions, 251s, etc… will have drastically improved and you will feel a new found freedom when sitting down at the piano.

Above anything else, enjoy the process Sam. It certainly isn’t easy so keep that in mind and don’t be discouraged by slow progress. Ensure that you are committing yourself to a consistent daily practice routine and you will see rapid improvement with the PianoGroove teaching method.

Hello @sam3

so much as been already said …

in addition i just encourage you to play with other musicians as soon as possible . But maybe you already do it in your music school ?

Take pleasure and take your time … and make your journey in music a lovely ballad.

This brings about a big question for me. Should you memorize songs or is it better to lean on the lead sheet so you can focus on the chords and notes? I have been memorizing. I am up to 28…not all in hand, but I am working on them. For me, one of the pros of memorizing is that it has helped me with needed hand dexterity on some pieces…Unforgettable is one! Additionally, I find it easier to get into the music if I am not looking at notation. However, I wonder if I am handicapping my ability to quickly read lead sheets? I know that I as I am playing, I do think about the chord changes that I am playing. Would be interested in your take Hayden…or anyone else. I have questioned whether I should memorize everything even though I love the freedom to engage in the keys and emotions of the music. But…maybe I am limiting myself as well. What is your experience?

Hi Celia :wave:

Yes I certainly recommend memorising tunes. Exactly as you say, it frees up the mind when our eyes are not glued to the lead sheet.

Memorising the form of the song can make this task much easier than one would imagine.

We have a lesson on common jazz forms where I discuss how I visualise standards for memorisation:

It’s also worth noting that the more we play these songs, the more familiar they become and so the memorisation happens naturally.

We’ll be playing these tunes for the rest of our lives and each time we learn new theory we can revisit previous tunes and find new ways to play and arrange them. That’s one of the fun things about learning jazz; there is a potentially infinite number of ways that we can play and arrange the same song.

Another consideration is our aims and goals. Check out this forum post where we discuss in more detail:

We all have different goals and aspirations as musicians, and also different commitments outside of playing music. I think it’s important to take that into consideration when deciding how many tunes to learn and memorise.

That’s my take on it - hope it helps :grinning:

Thanks Hayden. Your comments do help. I am glad you agree with memorizing. I have a spreadsheet with all of the songs listed, so I can be sure and hit all of them within a two to three day period. Thankfully, I am at the stage in life that I am able to devote myself to my music. That would not have been true three years ago.

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That sounds brilliant Celia.

It could be nice to add additional columns such as the form of the tune (AABA, ABAC, AB, ABCD) so that you are reminded of that information when you see the song name on your list.

The spreadsheet is a fantastic idea to keep track of tunes you have learnt, and also to ensure you are revisiting them on a regular basis.

Great idea! I will add the key signature too.

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