How Piano Improvisation Exercises Can Help You Learn the Piano

Improvisation is the creation of music on the spot. No previous ideas of what will happen, no plans. Just sit-down, shut-up, and play. The difference between playing and improvising music is similar to the difference between following a choreographed dance and going to the club and free-styling it with your friends- freestyle dancing is for the body what improvisation is for the hands.

Improvisation can be done completely from scratch or based on a chord progression, a rhythm, a familiar melody, a scale, or even based on randomly selected notes. Pianist Charlie Albright does exactly this — during his concerts he asks the audience to give him four random notes and based just on that, he improvises absolutely stunning 5-10 minute pieces that are both complex and complete. Listen to this snippet of a 4-note improvisation he did during a performance.

Now, you do not have to be a professional pianist in order to gain the benefits that improvisation can offer. But…who do you have to be? Who improvises?

  1. Professional musicians (like Charlie Albright)
  2. Amateur musicians
  3. Jazz musicians
  4. Composers (like me)
  5. You!

In summation: everybody can, and should improvise!

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But, why should I improvise?

Improvisation gives us the unique opportunity to use several different musical skills all at the same time:

You are using your physical skills to play the keys and fiddle with your dynamics.

You are connecting to your creative self. It’s true that while playing music written by someone else we also get the chance to be creative, but improvisation takes this to a completely new level. In that space, the music is 100% creatively you.

You are using your ear to determine what will sound good, and how to fix things that sound bad.

You are practicing your performance skills- what do you do in a performance when you suddenly forget your music or make a mistake? You improvise!

You are using, testing, and practicing your knowledge of music theory in a creative space. Definitely more interesting than just playing through a scale or completing a worksheet!

You are getting used to the art of “letting go” and playing your music naturally, instead of trying to play perfectly.

Finally, you are improving your health! The free and relaxed state you fall into while improvising has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety (and who does not want that?) I have found this to be quite true. When I sit down at the piano and my mind is already relaxed, I usually zero-in and get the practicing done that I really want to. When I sit down at the piano and my mind is tense, however, I usually cannot focus well enough to practice properly and I end up improvising until I am calm once more.

How will this help me as a musician?

Regular improvisation practice can and will help you grow as a pianist and musician in many ways. First, it will train your ear. What I mean is that over time, your “musician’s ear” will get better at choosing notes, creating phrases, and using dynamics that sound good.

You’ll come to recognize that some notes simply sound better in certain places. You’ll also learn how to select the notes you hear in your head, and bring to life the different musical ideas that occur to you.

One of the most important things for performers to learn is how to recover quickly and subtly from mistakes. When you go to a concert it sometimes can seem like the musicians never make mistakes- that they play perfectly from start to finish.

If you internalize this and start to believe that performance is only worthy when no mistakes are made, then you are in for a very rough and rocky relationship with performing. Instead, know this- even professionals make mistakes.

But what they do not do is make those mistakes obvious. This is because they can quickly cover their mistakes by improvising a fix, a transition, or whatever is needed to get them back on track. You can do this too. With regular improvisation practice, you will often play things that do not sound good to you.

Do not panic, and do not stop playing, just change something. Up one note or down one note is usually a good place to start, but as you learn, you will get more creative and effective with your fixes!

While you learn to create music from nothing, trust your ear to guide you, and recover quickly from mistakes, your confidence as a pianist will grow and grow! Performance will become less scary and you’ll become more creative. While these benefits are more easily measured and very tangible, there are other benefits that are less so.

Performance psychologist and Julliard alumnus Noa Kageyama shares with us in his article that different parts of the brain are activated while playing something memorized versus improvising. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is associated with problem solving is used during playing while the medial prefrontal cortex, associated with self-expression, is used during improvisation.

A fourth benefit gained from improvisation, and the one that had the biggest impact on me, is the ability to compose, or write your own music. As a young piano student, I was never instructed to improvise but did so naturally; this is how I started to compose piano music at the age of fourteen. I have been composing ever since and improvisation is a daily piano exercise that not only helps me to improve my piano skills, but also to generate new musical ideas that can later be used in my compositions.  

How can I learn to improvise?

A good way to start improvising is by completing exercises based on something else you already know. Familiar with a 5-finger C Major scale? Put your hands on the piano and instead of playing the notes in order- up and down- start with C and after that play whatever you want.

Whatever comes to mind. Experiment!

What I love to do with my piano students (and you can easily do at home) is put on a timer for 30 seconds and record or take a video while they are playing. When the time is up, we listen to the music they created and discuss what went well, what sounded good, what felt good, and what did not go as they wished.

Then, we start the timer and they do another improvisation following the same guidelines (for example, 5-finger a minor scale) and we listen again to see if the second attempt sounded and felt better than the first.

Now, 30-second 5-finger C Major and a minor improvisations are for beginner piano students. But the same principle can be used for intermediate, advanced, and professional players.

You could record a video of yourself doing a 5-minute improvisation on the lydian scale in F in 6/8 time. Or a 7-minute improvisation on the chromatic scale in 3/4 time.The possibilities here are endless!

Another way to practice improvisation is by creating a variation for a theme (or melody) that you are already familiar with. You can start this process by playing the music as you know it, then modifying tiny bits at a time- changing the rhythm, adding a few notes, taking away a few notes, etcetera.

Finally you can change it in its entirety by maintaining the style but playing something completely new. How do you do this final step? Think of a piece of music you really love. Hum the melody to yourself. What is distinctive about it? What key signature is it played in?

What types of rhythms are used? What is the style? Using the ideas you generated about the melody, improvise a different melody that is similar to it. If the song you thought of is already written for the piano, you could conserve the part of the left hand while improvising a new right hand part, or vice versa.

A third way is to decide on a chord progression that you like (for example, em, am, GM, B7) and outline those chords in the left hand while you improvise melody in the right hand. The left hand can play single notes, block chords on a given rhythm, or a pre-existing or improvised bass line.

Then you can switch hands- have the right hand outline the chords, and create a melody in the left hand (this is much hard for most people!). If you have a piano teacher or friend/family member who plays the piano, you can ask them to cover the “baseline” or chords while you improvise melody with both hands.

Not only is this a fun way to practice improvising, but you end up spending quality time while creating music with someone you care about. If you do not have a teacher, friend, or family member handy, but you have a keyboard, you can also create interactive spaces for improvisation. Record a track of your bass- chords, a rhythm, or a bass line- and have it play several times while you freely improvise over it.

Do not expect your first improvisations to be masterful in any way. Truth be told, your improvisations will probably sound horrible to you at first. Do not let this distress you, instead let it encourage you and push you farther into your music studies.

Improvisation is a skill and like any other skill, it needs to be practiced often in order to see improvement. Try all the exercises mentioned above and see all the music you are capable of creating!

How often should I improvise?

Every time you sit down to practice, you should run through a few improvisation exercises.

Short History of Improvisation

Today, improvisation is most highly associated with jazz music, but the truth is that you can improvise in any style you want. The piano music I write tends to be impressionistic- sounding, and therefore my most natural improvisations also tend to sound this way, unless I purposely try to give them another sound.

If we take a deeper look into the history of classical music, we find a lot of improvisation. Composers like Mozart and Beethoven were well-known improvisers, Chopin preferred changing his music every time he played it rather than writing it down and following the score, and improvisation duels used to be a thing (can we bring this back?).

With current society’s obsession with being “correct,” improvisation has started to lose its place in the modern musical world. We must not let this happen! The benefits and the beauty are too great.

Think back to the dancing comparison at the beginning of the article- how sad would it be if we stopped letting our bodies move freely? Just as sad as stopping our hands from playing freely.

Short Summary

  • Music can be improvised in any style.
  • There are many ways to practice improvisation.
  • Improvisation has many benefits for all types of musicians.
  • Improvisation used to be a regular skill for classical musicians.
  • You will only get better at improvisation with regular practice.
  • Everyone should improvise!

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