How do you eat an elephant?
It’s a question that we often pose at The Curious Piano Teachers. It’s also the reason why Ed the elephant travels everywhere with us – along with elephant sweets! The answer is of course that you start with one bite at a time. Some folks might start with the tail whilst others begin with the trunk.
It’s similar when improvising – we all find our own way to start. So far in our improvisation symposium our contributors have shared with you their thoughts about what improvisation is, why it has to be included in lessons as well as giving you lots of ideas of how to get started in lessons. Yet for many of us who have been traditionally taught via notation it might still seem like too big a challenge. So here’s some advice – it’s up to you where you start!
Start somewhere – a chord progression or a melody or an ostinato bass: or someone else’s progression – enjoy the sound the piano makes and listen very carefully. Do not judge the quality of the music made but the understanding of the process: it is like story-telling, not everybody can be brilliant but we can all learn how to do it. And we can get better. If you play something you like – write it down – this way you can revisit.
My favorite starting improvisation tune is Gershwin’s Summertime. It’s short, medium slow, all in one key, has approachable 7th chords, and has that sultry minor sound that inspires creativity. A lot of people start with Blues but I find it problematic since it breaks so many theory rules (i.e. a dominant 7 tonic chord?). Blues is great but belongs down the road.
Less is more, remember that you are not paid by the note and there are no wrong notes in jazz. If it sounds good – keep it!
Play freely each day with joy and without judgment, and then this will naturally develop over time into something quite lovely! You will find that the Patterns start to naturally vary under your hands, and you start to do things you didn’t practice. The magic starts to happen, but you have to do it.
Remember, the focus here is not on “correct” notes‑‑it is on exploring sounds, on finding sounds that fit one’s feelings. So it is very important not to judge one’s music by the same standards that one applies to literature. Our improvised music is probably not going to sound like Chopin! Yet, improvised music has a special kind of beauty because it is created for the first time, and often fits one’s feelings.
Keep the analogy mentioned before in mind! If we compare the process of learning music to learning language, what is improvisation?
Set a steady pulse and keep going rhythmically –whatever happens! Don’t hesitate and definitely don’t go back to correct yourself. If you play a note you don’t like, or didn’t expect, slip to the note next door. Or play it again, making a feature of it, as though you meant it all along.
Have courage to experiment and don’t be afraid of what might sound like ‘wrong’ notes – every note in an improvisation can be ‘right’!
Don’t be afraid to try anything. We may not all be Oscar Peterson but we all have something inner to express. Improvisation is one of several conduits which enable us to display this. There is no right or wrong way but as you learn and develop you will discover, with discernment, that some attempts at interpretation will be more successful than others.
I love the way so many of our contributors have the same ideas: start, start simple, have courage, keep playing. Forrest’s lovely words are worth keeping in mind: ‘Play freely each day with joy and without judgment’.
In next week’s blog post we find out what one resource all our experts recommend – do join me then.
This blog post was compiled by Dr. Sally Cathcart, Co-Founder and Director of The Curious Piano Teachers