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Piano Improvisation in Three Steps

Oct 12, 2007
Because of the technical virtuosity and skill of famous jazz, blues, and classical improvisers, many beginning pianists mistakenly assume that improvisation is to be learned in the distant future, when one's piano abilities are more developed. On the contrary, though, most contemporary piano teachers feel that improvisation is a huge part of playing piano at all skill levels, not just for experts.

In fact, with the influence of jazz on modern pianists and tutors, improvisation is now considered to be a huge part of learning how to play piano. It hones the beginning pianist's feel for her instrument, and it strongly reinforces what the student has learned about music theory, keys, and scales.

The best advice for a beginning improviser is to just start playing -- and to have fun with it. However, for students looking for a little more guidance, here is a brief tutorial on piano improvisation.

Three Points:

1) Learn and practice your keys, chords, modes, and scales. Outside of certain advanced jazz music forms, most improvisations work within a pre-decided key. For practical reasons, C Major is the first key most beginning pianists learn, because it includes all of the piano's white keys, and no black keys. Even if C Major is the only key you've learned so far, you can use it to improvise for hours. Meanwhile, for a moodier improvisation, the pianist who can play in C Major can play just as easily in A Minor. To do so, simply shift the focal point of the improvisation from the C chord to the A- chord.

After the student begins to learn keys that incorporate more sharps and flats, improvisation is a great way to internalize those keys. For instance, after you learn which notes make up the G Major key, try improvising within G Major, using no notes that don't fall within the key. After a while, G Major will be burned into your mind. Although playing scales is still an important way to internalize keys, improvisation is an equally valid way to learn, especially after scale-running becomes boring.

Modes usually come later in a pianist's development, and one doesn't need to know about them in order to improvise. Essentially, modes shift the focal point within a key. For instance, when you improvise in C Major, you'll find that your ear naturally wants your improvisation to return to the C chord. However, in the Dorian mode, for example, the improviser resists the urge to return to C, instead using the D- chord as the focal point. Each of the conventional modes -- Ionian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian, and Locrian -- is associated with a unique emotional range, which provides the improviser with a set of short-cuts to desired musical moods.

Again, the beginning improviser doesn't need to know about modes, but they will become very useful down the line. Find a chord progression. After you have chosen a key -- and if you only know C Major, it's as good of a key as any -- either find or create a chord progression within that key. For example, a common chord progression in blues and folk music is C F G C, which is simply repeated over and over. In general, the best way for beginners to improvise is to play the chord progression with the left hand, while improvising with the right hand. You're probably already used to this dynamic, as most piano pieces for beginners utilize the left hand for chords, and the right hand for melodies.

2) To internalize your chord progression, simply play it over and over. The goal is to be able to play the progression without any conscious thought, as automatically as breathing. Once you've achieved this, you're ready to improvise.

3) Improvise. If you've done the first two steps, this one will not be as difficult as it sounds. In fact, more than anything, it will be fun. The key to remember is that there is no pressure, and that you're not playing for an audience. In other words, once you have your chords down, you can spend hours upon hours exploring the harmonic and melodic possibilities of your chosen key and chord progression.

It doesn't have to sound beautiful right off the bat, but if you're doing it right, it won't sound terrible. For example, if your key is C Major, practically anything you play on the white keys will sound okay -- that is, it won't sound like you're making any huge mistakes. Many improvisers think of it like talking; just sit down at the piano, and say what's on your mind.

Now, as your piano playing skills progress, you'll learn more theoretical and technical tricks to incorporate into your improvisation. However, the important thing to remember is that improvisation is possible at all skill levels. Whether you are just learning the ins and outs of the C Major scale, or you are learning to appreciate the emotional qualities of the various modes, improvisation is always a productive and useful skill.
About the Author
Duane Shinn is the author of the popular course on piano chords titled
"How To Play Chord Piano...In Ten Days!"
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