“Aaargh!! I see my pupil for such a short amount of time every week! There’s hardly enough time to do everything as it is. Do I really need to include improvisation as well?”

improvisation in piano lessons

Does this ring a bell? This week the 10 contributors to our Curious Improvisation Symposium make it quite clear: improvisation in piano lessons is not an optional extra.


To play music well an understanding of how music works is very useful, perhaps critical: and by using improvisation we can take the student along a path of knowledge usually found only in the dry textbooks of music theory or analysis. Improvisation brings theory to life.


Bradley Sowash’s 10 Benefits of Creative Music Instruction:

Students get to:

  1. Feel more engaged with learning music.
  2. “Own” their music because they are encouraged to personalise it.
  3. Appreciate playing music as a means for self-expression rather than only as a domain for “right or wrong” notes.
  4. Enjoy a wider variety of contemporary styles that appeal to their peer group.
  5. Perform with friends in non-traditional settings outside of the concert hall such as coffee houses, talent shows, church, or jazz groups.
  6. Maybe even pick their first paid gigs.
  7. Become better interpreters of written music.  That’s because rather than merely reproducing the notes on the page, creative students can better understand how they came to be there in the first place.
  8. Utilize their whole brain by reading and improvising.
  9. Listen more when improvising since creative music making sensitizes the ears.
  10. Understand that great music wasn’t always “just there.”  Composers and improvisers had to make it up using the same techniques “back then” that creative musicians use today.

Teachers get to:

  1. Enjoy teaching more engaged students.
  2. Replace the antiquated “teacher knows all” philosophy with a new paradigm of shared exploration with their students.
  3. Discover that there are “riches in niches” as word gets out there’s an improv teacher in town.
  4. Retain students through the quitting years since students who make their own music have more staying power and ownership of their music skills.
  5. Demonstrate that music theory is not really theory but actually a set of “practical” tools for making music.
  6. Keep current by helping students play contemporary tunes they request.
  7. Teach with motivating software, apps, videos, and backing tracks.
  8. Enhance group lessons through jam session conventions i.e. “you play the bass line, and you play the harmony, and you play the melody on top.
  9. Watch students make connections between their improvisations and composed music.
  10. Learn from their students whose creative explorations stimulate all kinds of questions and discoveries.


Improvisation allows students to have a degree of freedom. When improvising, they’re not “tied” to the printed page. Improvisation – compared to reading music – is much like having a blank canvas to paint versus a color-by-numbers kit. Improvisation is great for students who like to “color outside the lines,” but it’s important to realize that some students really prefer structure and are quite resistant to improvise. My suggestion for these students is not to push the issue; let them stay in their comfort zone, while incrementally introducing some very easy improvisational exercises.

I recommend something very basic like having students choose from only 3 notes, and providing rhythm patterns for them to choose whichever notes they’d like to play in rhythm. I often play a 12-bar blues in C, and have students choose from C-Eb-F (it forms a little triangle on the keyboard, so no hand movement required). On the music stand, I put a 3-4 rhythm patterns as suggestions, and do this exercise for a few minutes.


  1. It encourages students to explore their instrument.
  2. It helps students to start to think like composers – to invent and assess ideas and to develop, repeat and vary them (and contrast them with other ideas).
  3. It brings out the “inner voice” – the distinctive musical personality of each individual.
  4. It helps sight-reading – pattern-recognition is enhanced.
  5. It helps time playing.
  6. It encourages a curiosity about sound


Improvisation teaches students to think independently and creatively.


There are many, many reasons. Some of them are:

  1. It brings joy, creativity, and surprises into the lesson. For so many musicians (including me), creating music spontaneously is the most joyous musical act.
  2. Creativity is a natural human desire, and many students will quit if they are not encouraged to create something unscripted. Don’t we all wish to be able to speak words freely without relying on a script?  In the same way, I believe all musicians secretly wish to have the same kind of ability at their instrument!  To improvise is to be able to “speak” music freely without such a musical script.
  3. It is a wonderful way to introduce musical materials such as scales and chords, and teach music theory in a lively way.
  4. An excellent way to teach flowing technique in a musical way.
  5. Duet improvisations are a natural and highly effective way to teach rhythm.
  6. Duet improvisation offer an immediate way to make music with nearly anyone.Improvisation provides a foundation for composition and interpretation. All the greatest composers from Bach to Bartok were master improvisers at a keyboard instrument­ – it is the source of much of the music we play and hear today, the wellspring of our classical tradition. The ability to improvise was considered the essential music act.  Contests such as those between Mozart and Clementi or Beethoven and Hummel were centered around determining which musician was better at improvising on the same theme.  In modern times, we have such a wealth of literature, we have forgotten about the primacy of musical speech.
  7. Improvisation allows us to play spontaneously from our own feelings, to play in an intuitive and personal way whenever we choose.Improvisation encourages us to listen deeply to tones from the beginning, and RESPOND to them. That is the essence of musical artistry: listening and responding.
  8. With improvisation, we can teach these essential skills and sensitivities from the first lesson onward.


Neglecting music improvisation is a bit like being able to write, read aloud, and recite from memory in a language, but not being able to verbally communicate using that language. Unfortunately, over the past century or more, formal music study commonly neglects this component of music literacy!


I have found improvisation to be a highlight of the lesson for many students. It is a time when the students are free to express their creativity, and I am often surprised at the interesting musical ideas they create. Just as learning to read music takes practice, learning to create music also takes practice. Since inhibitions are low with younger students at the beginning of study, this is the ideal time to start a student’s creative training. Students gradually grow in their improvisation skills as they explore sounds and patterns and listen to how their melodies fit with the teacher accompaniment. Improvisation is a crucial part of becoming a musical pianist, and one that most students really enjoy. Black key improvisation is my favorite way to start beginners off. As the teacher plays an accompaniment in Gb Major, such as I, iv, I, vi, IV, V, I, the student plays on black keys. Here is an example of a spontaneous Black Key Improvisation from my recent studio recital:


It is very satisfying for any piano player to be able to sit down and play the piano spontaneously especially when they don’t have their books with them. It is also great fun to be able to have musical “conversations” with others. In the days before printed music was easily available, pupils were taught to play the piano by “preluding” on chords –or playing broken chords in chord progressions. So they learned to hear and understand musical structures harmonically, and could then create their own progressions. Armed with this inner hearing and understanding it was then very easy to improvise with other musicians -much as pop and jazz musicians do today. The training then did not tie pupils to the written note in the way that so many of us are tied today. (Can you imagine only being able to have a verbal conversation by reading written words?!)

Also, improvising, which involves mainly ear-finger coordination, and playing from notation, which involves mainly eye-finger co-ordination, require the development of different neural pathways. The skills are not easily transferable. If pupils are to have the chance of developing all-round musical skills they need to be taught in both ways. Otherwise eye-finger coordination is likely to be developed to the exclusion of ear-finger coordination, or vice versa.


It is an important way for students to explore their instrument, to develop their inner ear and to find a musical expression for their imagination AND there are great opportunities  to interact with others, to have fun!


Here’s a starter activity from Elena Cobb to get you started!

Elena says:

Here is a link for the video tutorial ‘How To Play Tremolo, or Noodling in Higgledy Piggledy Jazz’. This is a very useful starter idea for somebody who never tried any kind of deviation from the written script, improvisation or playing by ear. The tremolo technique that I show in the video can be successfully used at the end of any jazzy piece.

CLICK HERE to get more inspiration from Elena Cobb.

So improvisation is vital component to learning when teaching the piano. As well as being the highlight of many lessons it helps students to develop independence and listen more carefully to the sounds they produce.

NEXT WEEK: our experts discuss why our own musical training has made so many of us scared of improvisation!

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


  1. Ellie Hallett

    Being able to improvise is like being given the ‘keys to the city’, the city being the full expanse of sound potential a piano has within it as it passively waits to be activated. Give me any two notes, and my brain immediately hears a melody take off, complete with an orchestra-sized range of harmonic colour – only possible to be realised and expanded on a keyboard. Which makes me realise that improvisation, for me at least, is cerebral to begin with, but as soon as the fingers become involved it explodes into a new life form, an invention, a doodling, an intricate soundmap of a brand new city. Musical freedom!


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