Everyone has met at least one person who can confidently improvise a speech
at any given moment. Don’t worry, we hate them too; but we have to admit there is something admirable about
their ability to, on the spot, conjure up the words and the air of having prepared and rehearsed this speech
well in advance.
But, it could be argued, that we have all improvised. When you take a girl to a restaurant for a date and
there’s no seating available, you improvise.
When you run out of diapers because you couldn’t get to the store and suddenly your child fills his last diaper
so full it overflows into his shoes, you improvise.
There are hosts of situations we encounter every week that we need to take what we know about what works and
what doesn’t, and come up with a spontaneous solution. Wouldn’t it be nice to take this ability you know you
already have and apply it to the piano?
Piano improvisation skills fit the description above exactly: an experienced pianist takes what he knows about
what works and what doesn’t, and applies them spontaneously to the situation. Fortunately, if the piano improviser
makes a mistake, he won’ t get dumped and won’t be smelling it for 24 hours.
First and foremost, the skill of improvisation arises from an intimate knowledge of what works – scales, chords, intervals, steps,
progressions, and so on – on the piano. Improvisation is not a special skill that individuals work on separately
from their classical training, nor is improvisation unique to only certain genres of music (like jazz).
Instead, piano improvisation skills are applicable at all levels
of skill for all kinds of styles. In fact, focusing on improvisation will in fact help one understand the most
critical aspects of music and theory.
One of the significant factors to know about improvisation is that the more
you think about and play in this manner, the better you’ll get. Yes, that’s definitely no surprise, but you
must know that this is especially true for improvisation. Improvisation is nothing more than a series of
musical decisions made very quickly by an experienced performer.
But how would you know which decisions to make? Should you go up or down a scale? Should you play a root chord
or its inversion? Should you add a 7th to a chord, or maybe a 2nd? What rhythm works
best for your expression?
These are extremely difficult to answer for a pianist unfamiliar with scales, chords, progressions, and styles
of music. But the veteran improvising pianist is very familiar with these skills and uses this information to help
make logical decisions about what to play next.
So, if you are looking to improve your piano improvisation skills, then two things are required. First, study
music theory. Practice all kinds of scales in all kinds of ways. Learn chord progressions backwards, forwards, and
Look at different styles of music and analyze them much in the same way your 10th grade English teacher forced
you to analyze passages of stories for literary devices. Second, apply this knowledge that you’re studying to new,
improvised situations so that you see how the theory that you learn has direct application to your own creative
expression. The more you study and the more you practice, the better your skills will develop.
Sure, there’s no easier solution than this, but think about the years of practice you have impressing girls and
changing diapers and all the benefits you’ve gained from them. Now apply the same principle to your music.
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