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1 minute reading time (285 words)

Pencil Practice 101

Recognizing chord symbols is one of the biggest obstacles faced by beginning improvisers learning to play from lead sheets. Just as foreign language students write conjugations to become better speakers, pianists can improve their chord fluency with pencil practice away from the piano.

Writing chords by key

Follow these steps together with your students. Once they catch on, you can assign it as homework for each new key/scale studied.

1. Choose a key and mode (major or minor) to write at the top of the page.

Key of C Major

2. Write the notes in that key in the Scale/Roots row. 

3. Next, stack thirds onto each scale/root note to create triads.

4. Write the specific chord symbol for each triad in the top row. Capitalize all of the root names, but use a lower case "m" suffix or a dash (D-) to designate minor chords. For diminished chords, write the suffix "dim" or use a degree sign.

5. Finally, write Roman numerals in the bottom row. Use upper-case numerals for major chords and lower case for minor chords. 

When the chart is complete, point out that when it comes to chord qualities, what's true for one key is true for all keys. To emphasize the point, you might highlight chord columns of the same quality with a colored marker. For example, the major I, IV, and V chords could be red; the minor ii, iii, and vi chords could be yellow; and the diminished vii° chord could be blue. 

Next time, we'll look at other ways to facilitate pencil practice, Until then, enjoy your creative music-making journey.


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