Have you tried to improvise yet? Have you taken that first, vital step to give it a go?
If you’re struggling to get started I want you to stop reading right now! Grab your diary and schedule 3-4 five minute appointments with yourself over the next week. These are your improvisation slots – your moments to get started.
Now read on to get inspiration on exactly how to start. Choose three of the ideas below and write them down, one for each appointment.
Learning to play simple chords using their symbols only (C, amin, Dmin, G7) in various ways (arpeggios, Alberti basses, waltz patterns) may help free them from the tyranny of notation. Then slowly introduce ‘lead’ sheets where the vocal melody can become a right-hand melody, and the chord symbols can become the left-hand accompaniment. Learn to love the sound of music – even the simple notes of a chord can be beautifully uttered (listen to the opening of Appalachian Spring [CLICK HERE] for example – just simple triads or ‘white ‘ key music as Copland calls it) Do NOT simply teach the 12-bar blues and the blues scale, let them find that for themselves much later.
The easiest way to start improvising is to embellish simple melodies. That way, they are working within known territory. But that can only take one so far. The absolutely essential ingredient to increase one’s improvisation skills is to develop “chord fluency.” I’m not talking here about being able to construct chords but rather, the ability to recognize and play any chord without hesitation.
By starting with just rhythm before going to the piano. The simplest tapped or clapped rhythm can be a direct way into your own ideas. Then go to one note, playing the same rhythm. Then two notes…
The hardest part is to make a decision to try, and then I would recommend finding a resource that would suit their ability level and style. For example, I can identify four typical styles of improvisation but the list can easily be much-much longer.
- Jazz improvisation is the most obvious but at the same time would be the most difficult.
- Pop improvisation might require reading chords from Charts or Lead Sheet.
- Classical improvisation can be seen in Variations by classical composers, or in cadenzas.
- General improvisation can be created on a chord progression or a melody.
Anyone with a desire can learn to improvise, just as nearly anyone can learn to speak with words. Improvising is simply talking with tones, having conversations. As with most things, learning to improvise is not a matter of “having talent” but of simply doing it over time with joy and care.
I think the best way for teachers to learn is to start playing duets with teachers who have some experience. In my way of teaching improvisation, it’s all about the duet experience first, then the solo comes later.
I encourage teachers to also learn to improvise along with their students by playing duets. (All the pieces in my new Create First series and also the Pattern Play series begin with duets first.) Don’t worry about being an expert. Say to your students, “Let’s learn this together.” This will help your student relax and take risks because, for once, the playing field is leveled. Don’t feel guilty about learning on the job because you are modeling for your students an extremely healthy attitude about learning: “I’m an adult AND a teacher, yet I’m willing to try something new and take some risks. Learning is fun!”
Traditionally, improvisation was taught after one learned to play tunes and understand harmony enough to make accompaniments. Improvisation then consisted of making variations on tunes, particularly on the repeats. However, this approach meant that those students in the beginning years of study were not encouraged to improvise. So, by the time they were ready, most people were so fixed to the page they found it difficult to explore without crippling self-criticism.
What we have needed in our tradition (for centuries!) is a comprehensive approach to improvisation that can be done from the first lesson onward. I wanted to create such an approach and that is why Pattern Play was born.
Embrace the discomfort of being outside of your comfort zone! And then don’t fall into the trap of thinking of improvisation as a distinct “subject” that must be addressed separately during lesson time. Although ability to improvise requires a distinct skill set, it can be nurtured naturally during learning moments that are already happening during lessons. It can be as simple as asking students to initiate something musically in response to something you’ve done, much like conversing through speech, or asking students to change specific aspects of pieces they are working on. Ask students to use and play with concepts you’ve just introduced and exposed them to during lessons. Keep it simple.
From the beginning(!), in simple steps.
Black note improvisations are often best to begin with as all black notes can be played at once without sounding “wrong”. It can be a good idea to begin with a LH repeated bass pattern over which the RH improvises in a five-finger position.
If beginning with black notes, the LH could play a repeated bass of alternating Open 5ths (F# C#) and Open 6ths (F# D#), holding each chord for one bar (two, three or four beats). And the RH five-finger position could be C#D# F#G#A# where F#, under the third finger, is the tonic. It is important to set a steady pulse, and a good idea to play a four-bar LH introduction before the RH enters.
Perhaps surprisingly, the most effective improvisations are the simple ones in which the RH plays mostly by step, up and down, or down and up, within the five-finger position. It can also be helpful to draw inspiration from a piece or song you know and like, setting the pulse in line and imitating the rhythms. In fact, playing in the rhythm of an entire section or verse of a piece or song that you know well (on different notes) will help give your own improvisation length and structure (usually at least four phrases).
Baby steps! The first step is to become more comfortable moving away from the written music – but it won’t happen all at once! Here’s a simple exercise to start you off… Try memorising any simple melody – for example, ‘Half A Pound Of Tuppeny Rice’. Once you can play it without the music, try playing the original melody but using a few different rhythms here and there. Go slowly and see what you can come up with. Don’t worry if you end up changing the melody a bit – that’s improvisation!
There are some good beginner improvisation tutor books around (check out Pam Wedgwood’s ‘It’s Never Too Late To Improvise’ – available soon from Faber Music) and you may find my ‘Improvisation for Beginners’ practical videos useful over at OllysPianoSheets.com :).
You probably won’t improvise well if you don’t have a sufficiently well developed ear. Picking out well-known tunes on your instrument will enhance your aural ability and is an excellent starting point for establishing a sense of freedom in using your instrument (i.e. a freedom which is often not attained whilst being shackled to a score)
So there you have it. Start small, with tiny steps, with known material. The important thing is to get started! If you think it’s going to feel a bit uncomfortable then take Forrest’s advice and turn it into a duet. Here’s an example of one his pieces, World Piece from Pattern Play 1.
This blog post was compiled by Dr Sally Cathcart, co-founder and Director of The Curious Piano Teachers.