Where do you get your improvisation inspiration from? What are some of your favourite places to go for a stimulus?

We asked the contributors to The Curious Improvisation Symposium this very question and, as you might have come to expect from the series, there’s something here for everyone!


When teaching students I use what they are learning: I am so surprised at how many great opportunities there are within the music they are playing (even exam pieces!) The Chopin Prelude in C minor, Op. 28 no. 20 is a regular. It lends itself perfectly because it is a chord progression – students love to ‘work’ this progression until it sits so well beneath their hands and in their minds the music becomes truly embedded. When they play the music in its original form again, it has so much more resonance.

For more advanced players perhaps the Valsette from Sibelius might provide inspiration – from a gloomy Nordic ‘Valse Triste’ it becomes a jaunty Galop.


I know there are prompts such as moods, movies, or accompaniments where students are asked to “play these 5 notes,” etc. These are likely very helpful for opening the door to creativity with beginners. However, I prefer that students understand what they are playing. Therefore, I advocate writing in chord symbols to any tune they are learning from method books to classical repertory, to pop songs. Then identify “safe notes” such pentatonic scales that will sound good over those chords. The next step is to investigate how to focus on chord tones in one’s improvising and then how to manipulate those chord tones with leading tones, etc. There’s a lot more knowledge and thinking involved than people realize. The good new is that this is stuff anyone can learn.

I believe musical creativity is 1% inspiration and 99% learned skills and knowledge.


Backing tracks, even just drum loops, work well with me. Also visual stimuli – I’ve just written a series of pieces for students at the University of Idaho based on videos of the students talking about themselves. I improvised musical sketches based on the videos.


For my book Improv Exercises for classically trained pianists, I developed a Twelve-Bar Blues Block Chart which is basically a blue print for the simplest form of the twelve-bar blues. CLICK HERE


Yes. Music itself!  There is no more powerful stimulus than music that the students enjoys, music that  excites a student, awakens their imagination and desire, that draws them into its world. So, the teacher first plays a rich-sounding duet accompaniment that awakens the student’s interest and desire, and then the teacher invites the student to join in by playing with a specific set of notes.

Many approaches to improvisation miss this essential element. The music must sound rich and inviting, not be something dry and theoretical.  Chunky sounding I, IV, V progressions just won’t do it!


I enjoy inspiring students with extra-musical goals or subject matter. Sometimes we use picture flashcards (CLICK HERE to see this on my blog) or Rory’s Story Cubes** to gain ideas. Sometimes, we use pieces students are currently working as a launching point for an improvisation activity.


No particular favourites, but I’m always looking for new inspiration, and can usually find it in the repertoire that my students or I are currently studying.

  • For example, two LH chords could be picked out from the piece and played alternately as a repeated bass.
  • Or a short four-chord progression could be extracted.
  • Or the chord progression of an entire section (for example Tchaikovsky’s Old French Song). And the RH could improvise with a lovely-sounding five-finger position which conveys the character of the piece, but is not necessarily diatonic (e.g. C Eb F F# G rather than CDEFG, or A B C D# E rather than ABCDE).
  • Also, I like to use imagery and will often google an image which reflects the title and atmosphere of the piece to help inspire a free improvisation.
  • Finally, it can be fun to base an improvisation on the character and structural analysis, or entire form, of the piece (as I did for Curious with the Chopin mazurka Op. 17 No. 4).


I like to listen to music at the piano and try to pick out the themes and play some variations on those themes – i.e. improvising. Any style of music will do – but personally I go for music with a melody in the jazz, soul, pop, latin or easy listening  genres.


So have a look at some of the pieces your pupils are currently learning and see what improvisation inspiration you can find! Here’s a Tuesday Teaching Tip I did a couple of weeks ago that illustrates the point. CLICK HERE

** I love Rory’s Story Cubes as well – join me for Tuesday Teaching Tips  on our Facebook page (CLICK HERE) next Tuesday (14 November) when I’ll be looking at the different ways Rory’s Story Cubes can be used for improvisation inspiration.

This blog post was compiled by Dr Sally Cathcart, Director and Co-Founder of The Curious Piano Teachers

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