Improvising part 1

Dear Piano Friends:

Today I would like to begin exploring the possibility of you improvising.

Don’t panic.

A couple of blog friends and several of my students have mentioned that they would like to be able to improvise, but don’t think they can. I improvise when playing jazz and I teach improvisation to my jazz students. But improvising is for all musicians playing any genre of music.

A brain study conducted by researchers from Imperial College London and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama revealed that both the listener and the performer show a huge increase in brain activity during an improvised performance. 

But we don’t usually improvise because of its brain boosting benefits. We improvise because sometimes we want to move beyond the printed page and create our own music.

Art students don’t just study the masters. They take out their paints and brushes and make their own art. Dance students get up and dance. So why don’t we piano teachers and students make up songs and pieces? For some reason colleges stopped teaching music majors how to improvise, leaving teachers feeling unable to teach it. Professor William Harris from Middlebury College explains,

Any amateur musician in the 18th century could improvise, but as methodologies for music teaching developed in the 19th century, reading and playing complicated scores became the focus of the teacher’s attention…

In her book, Improvisation: Music From The Inside Out, my former piano teacher Mildred Portney Chase said,

A common experience shared by too many students of music is that improvisation was… totally left out of their training…and in some instances was positively discouraged….

We improvise all the time; when we are having a conversation, deciding what to cook for dinner, or deciding what to wear. We don’t think about grammar or syntax when we’re speaking, we just let the words flow from our thoughts. We don’t think we have to be a chef or even look at a recipe every time we make dinner, we prepare food according to our desires. We don’t consult a designer before getting dressed, we put colors and styles together to suit our personality. These are all creative acts, but when it comes to music, we are often too embarrassed to create our own. Mildred said,

The fortunate thing is that the ability to improvise lies within each of us and it only takes a reversal of thought to begin to bring it to use.

Starting today I’d like you to open your mind to the possibility that you can improvise a bit on your piano or keyboard. That you can tinkle a few keys until you find 3 or 4 four in succession that sound good to you. Just sit at your piano and play around a bit. Go up, go down, skip around, play a broken chord then see where it leads you. Play a few notes with the right hand, then answer with the left. Just try it for a few minutes. Have a little fun with it! Break down those barriers of self-consciousness and just play. You’re not trying to be Mozart or Charlie Parker. Georgia O’Keefe was not trying to be Rembrandt or Picasso.

Tomorrow I’ll talk more about why improvising is a worthy activity, and how to get started. Go to Improvising Part 2 here.

With love and music, Gaili

10 Replies to “Improvising part 1”

  1. I would love to improvise and also, to play by ear. Are they related somehow? I am mystified by the process of how a jazz musician can play cohesively with a group, then break away and improvise in the middle of a piece. Sometimes it seems to stray almost too far from the original piece and then turn into something seemingly unrelated, but then return to the piece and continue playing, like coming full circle.

    Can’t wait to hear more!

    With much gratitude and anticipation, Nancy

    1. They can be related. You can use your ear to “hear” melodies in your mind that you play on the keyboard. People use different techniques. Improvising on scales, or chords, or close to the existing melody line. Sometimes jazz musicians play “outside” meaning that the improvised lines don’t seem to fit with the chords, they they move back into the scale/chords. Jazz musicians like to shake things up a bit! Either that, or they haven’t got a clue and they’re just playing any note fast 🙂

  2. Good morning Gaili, I will certainly try that. It’s true for me that improv. was never encouraged when I started my piano studies in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Neither was pedagogy. I had to take 3 months of pedagogy from Judy Baker. This was before my heart attack and I never finished the 4th. quarter. I am learning a lot from you. Thanks Aimee

    1. My ex-boyfriend ( who was an accomplished Jazz pianist) and I would play together. He would play the R. Hand improv. and I would find the chords to go with it and visa versa. We had a lot of fun together. I should start doing that again. Aimee

  3. Last night I played around with improvisation for a while as you suggested, playing L hand chords based on the I IV V chords and R hand melodies based on those chords and scales. What a thrill! The melodies were very simple and when something seemed to clash I could fix it by finding notes within the scale. What an “ah haa” moment!

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