What is Improvising?
To improvise means to make music up on the spot and can be intimidating for beginner musician and seasoned professional alike. While all the great composers were known for their abilities as skilled improvisers, the tradition of classical music really doesn’t give us the space to explore it today.
From the get-go we are taught to count, read, and to avoid making any mistakes. No pressure, right? I’ve noticed that children beginners are open-minded and will readily take to improv, while older youths and adults have mental blocks from years of playing with too many rules.
Learning how to improvise at any age doesn’t need to be scary. It is a healthy way to expand your creativity and confidence with your instrument and can even be a steppingstone into composing.
There are many forms of improvisation (or ‘improv’ for short), some with more rules and complexity than others. You may think of a jazz musician playing atop sophisticated chord changes, or maybe a guitar soloist shredding some super fast riffs in the middle of a metal tune. I’ve had the privilege to work with musicians at events like Sound Symposium in St. John’s Newfoundland, a biannual avant-garde music festival in which improvisation is taken to a whole new level. There are no rules really. It’s all about the kind of sound you make, versus which notes you play. To some it may sound like a musician is just hitting random notes, while to others it sounds like art. This music may be less accessible for some people, but I can tell you it’s incredibly liberating to play!
My point is, improvising isn’t just one thing. So when you try it, it doesn’t have to be anything other than your own.
Where to Begin
The purpose of today’s discussion is to get your feet wet with improvisation. The best way to start is with something simple; call it ‘structured play’. I have chosen ideas that will sound melodic and consonant, so don’t worry about scaring people away at your next cocktail party when you want to show them your new skills 🙂 In these three examples notes and finger numbers are streamlined to aid the most novice of players. They are also designed so that once you get the basic idea you can start moving around the keyboard and thickening your textures. Even if you cannot read music or have never touched a piano you will be able to do this!
I got the idea for doing this when a student walked in one day who had never played. He said he had no time to practice, did not want to learn how to read music, but wanted to learn the piano so he could “play to relax”. After some reflection, I gave him some exercises like these.
After each example, there is a video demonstration on how the basic exercise can sound. I dress it up later give you ideas of what you can do with just a handful of notes!
You can click on the images to make them bigger.
In piano playing we number our fingers 1 through 5 on both hands beginning with the thumb. As our hands are a mirror of each other we count from the inside out as seen in the diagram below.
Finger numbers are very important because they are our tool for choreographing how we move our hands. To warm up your finger numbers, say a number between 1 and 5 and then wiggle the respective fingers. I suggest wiggling fingers on both hands at the same time. For example, if you say ‘5’ then wiggle both pinkies. When you are comfortable with single numbers, then you can experiment with sequences of numbers one after the other. If you choose numbers 1-2-3, then wiggle the first finger, followed by the second, followed by the third. Here are a few patterns to get you started: 1-3-5, 5-4-2, 3-4-5, etc.
After you’re comfortable with your finger numbers continue to the first improvisation.
Black Key Improv
You’ll notice that the piano is made up of black and white keys. For the first exercise we’ll play only on the black keys. Before we begin, play a few black keys on your own. Play more than one note at a time and listen to the character of the sound. One neat aspect about playing only on the black keys is that they won’t clash with each other no matter what keys you press. The reason for this is that the black keys make up what’s called a pentatonic scale. Like a pentagon, which has five corners, this scale is based on a pattern of five notes. Unlike an eight note major scale, for example, all the notes in the pentatonic scale are of equal importance. Therefore one note won’t shine out over the others. You may notice that the sounds you create evoke images of traditional Asian musics or perhaps remind you of blues music. Pentatonic scales can be found in all forms of music.
In all three exercises, I have given you a reference point on the keyboard to help you find your place: middle C. Middle C is marked with a star in the diagram below. It is the white key left of the two black keys. Next to every group of two black keys is a C but middle C is in the middle of the piano, and should be near the company logo above the keys. The notes that you will play will be in close proximity to middle C. That being said, do not feel restricted where you play on the keyboard. I encourage you to try this improv out in different registers (places).
Using the diagram above, find your hand position. LH means left hand, and RH means right hand. The notes that you will play are marked in red. This is just for your information and is not necessary to understand what you are playing. Instead, focus on the blue finger numbers at the top of the black keys. Still remember them?
You will notice the number 1 underneath the left hand (LH). All the left hand has to do is keep playing this key (E-flat) over and over again. This is called a drone and it grounds the music in a key, in this case E-flat. Drones are found in many traditional folk musics throughout the world. Remember that the number 1 means to play with the left hand thumb.
To the right of middle C are the notes your right hand (RH) will play. Put the right hand fingers on the respective keys. Allow your hand to be released and open naturally. You may notice that you skip finger 4. As there is a gap between the black keys it makes sense to leave it out. Therefore you won’t use finger 4. (If you are feeling more ambitious, you can go for all five black keys that I’ve labeled, including the high E-flat. This would mean that you play the D-flat with finger 4 and the E-flat with finger 5. If you do this, you will need to make sure that you move your hand and arm when crossing the black note gap so that you are not twisting and reaching for those notes.)
This improv is very free. I suggest playing the left-hand note first and then play a series of right-hand notes in any order. Have the hands take turns back-and-forth. This will feel less overwhelming than playing both hands at the same time. Try playing notes quickly and then slowly in the right hand. It could also be fun to play two or three notes at the same time. Remember in this scale nothing will sound wrong!
Use your creativity. After you’ve explored this part of the keyboard for a while try moving your right hand to other black keys on the keyboard. You can also explore moving your left hand around to different black keys. I find it effective if I stay on one note for a period of time. I leave the rest up to you!
For this improvisation I suggest that you use the damper pedal. That is the pedal on the right, and it sustains the sound. When you begin, press the pedal down and hold it for the duration of your improv. For more information about this pedal Mr. Maus can help you out.
Below is a demonstration of how this pattern could sound followed by some embellishment to give you a sense of where you could take your improv. We haven’t talked about rhythm so you’re welcome to imitate some of what I do if you want to have more of a beat to play with. Remember, black keys only!
White Key Improv
How did that go? Any cool moments? Now that you’ve got the basics the next two improvs will require little explanation.
This time we’re going to move on down to play on the white keys. This kind of improvisation will probably remind you of pop music. Indeed millions of dollars have been made on patterns as simple as this. So if this makes you famous, please think of your humble online piano teacher won’t you? 🙂 I’ve personally become accustomed to these kinds of patterns through listening to the British metal band Iron Maiden. Their chord progressions are very economical and I’m amazed by how many songs they’ve written on the three chord roots I’ve given you. (For an actual Iron Maiden improv, which I performed at the end of my graduation recital, check out Recordings. It’s at the very bottom.)
You’ll notice that the right hand is playing a series of five notes. This is called a pentascale. Like the pentatonic scale it is a five notes scale, however it has different properties. In this case we now have a home base, the note A. With the left hand added, you will probably hear that all the notes want to pull to A. This is called tonality. Tonality is like gravity; we can throw notes up in the air, but they will want to return to their starting note (aka ‘tonic’) in the end. This is why every pop song or symphony feels complete at the end, because it’s returned home (or doesn’t feel complete if it hasn’t returned home).
With that in mind I suggest focussing your attention in both hands on A, both when you start and end your improv.
As with the Black Key Improv it is easier if you let your hands take turns. Play a left hand note then play some right hand notes etc.
Using the pedal can also be fun. As with the previous improv you can hold down the damper pedal the whole time. It will sound a little blurrier, but should work. You can also explore some nuanced peddling by changing the pedal every time the left hand changes a note. This improv will also work well with no peddle.
This improv speaks for itself. It reminds me of time in the sunshine, hence the name 🙂 If you look at the right hand in the diagram below it might look a little strange with the gap between the A and the C. This is because… drumroll…it’s another pentatonic scale! Just like the first scale you played on the black keys, this is the same idea except now on the white keys. As before, be mindful when shifting between fingers 2 and 3. You will need to shift your arm and hand slightly sideways so that you are not twisting to go over the gap.
The left hand also has a cool part. Although the right hand is playing a pentatonic scale, we have a clear sense of tonality because of the bass line. When you try this improv, see if you can figure out where the notes are gravitating towards. If you’re unsure then send me a message 🙂
I’ll let you decide about the pedal. With or without can work. A reminder, there is no right way of doing this. It doesn’t have to be sunny and happy, maybe there is a way for you to make it sad. These are just suggestions to pique your creativity.
That’s it for now! If you have any questions feel free to get in touch with me, or comment at the bottom of this blog entry. I leave the rest in your hands 😉