PIANO GRIP SYSTEM
The grip system for piano is categorized by a variety of four-note seventh chords, called grips, which can be played by a single hand. The system is a method for learning harmony and theory to aid in improvisation. Since these chords can be “gripped” by a single hand, the system is defined by relating numerous types of grips to a variety of chords. The grip system is primarily based in the melodic minor tonal system and operates where there are no passing tones; each note has a distinct color and can be suspended, even though it may cause some dissonance.
An Approach to Jazz Harmony
Many sources were collected in order to clearly understand, define, and explain the piano grip system as utilized in the teaching of Whit Sidener. Personal notes from Sidener’s advanced improvisation course in the fall of 2012 have been used as a reference to create examples and figures detailing the grip system in a clearly notated format. Video recordings from the spring 2013 semester were used to modify and enhance clarity from the author’s personal notes. Multiple interviews were conducted with Sidener to ensure absolute accuracy of the codification of his approach to the system. My contribution has come from the transcription of clearly notated examples and figures in combination with explanatory text methodizing the entire grip system.
I want to emphasize, especially to theory enthusiasts, that the grip system is designed using chords, scales, and structures which jazz artists and educators in the field are fluent in. “It’s about the approach—it’s just a way to deal with this stuff,” said Sidener regarding the grip system. Rather than add to the jazz vernacular, it provides an alternate perspective when dealing with jazz theory and piano. The approach through the grip system was developed to be accessible to students without overwhelming them with massive and complex philosophies.
Awarded a full-time tenure track in 1975 at the University of Miami, Sidener became an important jazz educator which contributed to the creation and evolution of many great artists and educators. A few of them include Pat Metheny, Maria Schneider, Roger Ingram, Ed Calle, and Jonathan Kreisberg. Over the years, Sidener received the International Association of Jazz Education (IAJE) Award for Outstanding Service to Jazz Education and the Phillip Frost Award for Excellence in Teaching and Scholarship. For over twenty years he directed the University of Miami Concert Jazz Band, one of the most recognized institutional jazz ensembles in the country. The ensemble recorded five single albums, two double albums, and four CDs under Sidener’s direction. They also toured Europe, the Middle East, and both Central and South America.
While Sidener’s method is greatly influenced by the teaching of Jerry Coker, it also uses concepts derived from George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization. David Baker, who was a student and performer with Russell, is the most likely indirect influence on Sidener’s grip system. Even though Sidener never studied with Baker, he received many of the concepts through those whom were studying with him. Gary Campbell, who studied with Baker in the 1960’s, had a large influence on Sidener’s concepts within the grip system. When discussing his education, Sidener said, “I learned a lot from Gary Campbell. When I went back to Indiana the second time, I kind of taught myself some stuff, but then those guys were going to Indianapolis…he [Campbell] and Randy Brecker were taking lessons from David and they would come back and I’d pick up as much as I could off of them.”
Though Sidener acknowledges learning from Gary Campbell, he sought a way to discover and comprehend everything in a simpler way. “He [Campbell] sees things a little different than I do. I came up with my system, when I knew those guys when I was young, to try to see what they were seeing—if I could take what they did and simplify it.” Sidener’s approach utilizes corresponding scales which are represented by a grip, a chord’s upper structure seventh chord. “This is sort of like George Russell simplified,” Sidener exclaimed when discussing the scale relationship between a chord and a given grip.
Benefits of the Grip System
Advancing from a simple to intricate fashion, the organization and approach of the system provides the individual with:
a development of jazz piano skills specifically for the non-pianist
a comprehensive understanding of chord-scale relationships
various ways to understand chord structures and scales, including their applications
terminology for labeling upper structures of chords
additional aural acuteness related to jazz harmony and chord progressions
visualization skills in relationship to chord symbols, intervals, and transposition
tools for learning improvisation
Describing the grip system, Sidener said, “You’re going to get much better at intervals. You’re going to get much better at recognizing triads, triads in inversions, and in your head and in your ears—visualizing and hearing."
Concepts within the Grip Method
Using the grip system the student will learn a variety of:
chord structures including major, minor, dominant, half-diminished, diminished, altered, augmented, whole tone, suspended
scales including the modes of major, melodic minor, diminished, augmented, pentatonics, tritone
piano voicings including closed, drop two, quartal, "Red Garland", "So What", "Bill Evans", "salsa"
jazz standards such as Body & Soul, Stella by Starlight, Giant Steps, Dolphin Dance, Someday My Prince Will Come, Very Early, Invitation
other concepts related to improvisation such as inversions, triad pairs, common chord progressions, chord substitutions, enharmonics, and transposition
Sidener’s method addresses many of the major concepts within jazz theory which can aid an individual in successful improvisation. When discussing how deep and detailed his concept is, Sidener responded, “Once you start to deal with it, it’s all there.”
"The class has been fabulous and helps me in several different areas at once. While training me to be able to play through a tune's changes on the piano (which I couldn't do before and now can do), the class has also really helped my ear, especially in recognizing extended, complex harmonies, given me a better understanding of those harmonies and their uses, and has given me a lot of insight into ways to approach those harmonies on my horn to boot."
-Eric Beck, Jazz Night School Student, Winter 2016
“I received so much out of this class. It opened up a whole new world of harmonic options for me. It is also terrific ear training. I feel I can take what I learned and expand on it to aid me in finding more scale types to create interesting solos. I have a year’s worth of material to practice on! Thank you!"
-Linda Hubert, Jazz Night School Student, Winter 2016
"I took a grip system piano class with Jared, and it was a fantastic and very practical overview of voicings for those of us who weren't trained in jazz piano. Jared was always incredibly patient, kind and knowledgeable as our instructor, and created a friendly and supportive learning environment for trying new things. I would definitely take another class with him!"
-Deb S., Jazz Night School Student, Spring 2016
Before You Get Started...
Before pursuing this method, students are encouraged to have prerequisite music theory knowledge including intervals, triads, scale degrees, seventh chords, traditional harmony, and the major scale tonal system. Any student pursuing the grip system approach to playing piano must have a basic knowledge of the piano including knowledge of the names and written notation of notes in relation to the keyboard.
Learn The System
The Piano Grip System is currently taught through clinics and private studio instruction. This course has also been taught at the Jazz Night School in Seattle, WA.
About The Book
The Piano Grip System: An Approach To Jazz Harmony is a 177-page book, co-authored by Whit Sidener and Jared Hall, featuring this method. Five years in the making, featuring original concept art, and currently in editing, the book is slated to be released for sale in late Spring 2019.
My 305-page dissertation, completed at the University of Miami, can be downloaded for free online. It includes research related to the history of jazz pedagogy and education, jazz theory resources, a small portion of the piano grip system’s method, the domains of learning, interviews with Whit Sidener, and much more. Click HERE for the free PDF download.