Finger painting (Improvising, part 2)

Hello Piano Lovers:

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Today I’d like to delve further into the question, why should we improvise?

Firstly, if you read my post from yesterday, Improvising, Part 1, you know that brain scans ( fMRI) show that improvising activates a whole other part of the brain. It is called the Brodmann 9. The Brodmann 9 deals with short-term memory, verbal fluency, error detection, empathy, attention to emotions, planning, calculation and a host of other brain functions. Brain stimulation alone is reward enough. But improvising brings other gifts:

Once you become more comfortable with improvising, you’re able to cover up memory slips in your playing much more easily. You trust that you can fill in a couple of notes while you recover and keep going.

Recent studies show that improvising has a “releasing” effect on your creativity and originality in general. When you practice improvising, you are practicing letting go, opening your mind, inventing, risking, and imagining. You are becoming more adaptable. Adaptability is an important component of aging well.

As Sophia Loren said,

There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.

Let’s face it, studying the piano can be tedious. Practicing an exercise and playing a piece is challenging, and coming up against a difficult passage can be frustrating. Sometimes we just need to let loose and play something with no right- or wrong-ness to it.

Being creative is tapping into our humanity. It is an expression of our inner experience and our uniqueness. It is like a spoken history of who we are, and where we have been. Let the piano be your palette; paint a picture with your music.

Have I convinced you that improvising is at least worth a little experimentation? If so, try this:

BLACK KEY IMPROVISATION

  • Hold down a low F# octave (the two lowest F#s on your piano) with your left hand. Keep repeating the octave whenever it starts to fade away. With your right hand, play the black keys from the C# below middle C, moving up the keys for a few octaves. Then play the black keys moving back down to where you started. Next, move up and down within one octave.
  • Continuing to play F# octaves with your left hand, have your right hand skip around amongst the black keys. Play some that are next to each other, and some out of sequence.
  • Now vary the rhythm. Imagine that some are quarter notes, some are eighths moving twice as fast. Play some half and whole notes. Form a pattern with your rhythm such as quarter, quarter, eight, eighth, quarter, across the keys.
  • Repeat any phrases that you like, and make a mental note of them. Experiment with different key patterns such as moving up two keys then down one, over and over.
  • Now vary your dynamics. Play some notes forte, others piano.
  • Next vary your tempo. Play some notes allegro and others largo.
  • Try playing the black keys imagining you are in 3/4 time. Then go to 4/4. Then play with no meter, just let the music flow.
  • Try this improvisation again at another time and record yourself. Or write down any musical phrases you liked. You can use standard musical notation, or any type of short hand such as writing down the letters of the notes you played.

How was this for you? Did you enjoy it? Keep reminding yourself to let go, and not to judge. Think of it as finger painting! Dip In. Go to Improvising Part 3 here.

With love and music, Gaili

PS If you’re interested in learning more about how improvising affects the brain, watch this Ted Talk by Charles Limb.

Improvising part 1

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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

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