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Why learn Improvisation? How does it benefit your musicality?


What is Improvisation?

Me performing in front of many expats in Malaysia who just ended their forum at the Shangri-La Hotel in Kuala Lumpur

Musical improvisation (also known as musical extemporization) is the creative activity of immediate (“in the moment”) musicalcomposition, which combines performance with communication of emotions and instrumental technique as well as spontaneous response to other musicians. In short is spontaneous composition.

So what is Piano Improvisation?

Improvising, in music, is making up your own music on the spot. It is truly “playing with” music, in the more common sense of the word “play.” It’s fun, creative, and, well, playful. When it comes to piano improvisation, I tend to think of jazz, blues, and rock. But one can definitely improvise in any musical style.


(Video below) This being in the swing style, ballroom swing style – akin to the many dance tunes from the Great American Songbook – many which I played as band leader of a jazz trio on the cruiseship for six years, sailing to almost every port known in the world. Its particularly nice when you have a grand piano playing alongwith an acousticupright bass and a jazz drum kit player. Not too loud but loud enough to dance to, like Waltzes, Tangos, Beguine, Samba, Salsa and whatnot.

And with these kind of performances, naturally comes the inherent need to improvise. An example will be posted of this very thing, as we go on.

(Video)“Ive Got You Under My Skin – Frank Sinatra” (Medium Swing)

For me, whenever I get down to any piano, I quickly think “what am I going to play?”. My mind has got so used to working on the main motif, whether original or made-up, its natural for me to just “get down to it” in a style I am used to – which invariably always ends up either classical in nature or in the style of the Great American Songbook.

Swings are one of my absolute favourites and having performed on an international cruiseline as I said above for six years to American, European, Asian ballroom dancers, some professional, it comes natural to me to churn it out and let things simply “flow”. Emotion is very much a part of improvising even at quicker speeds. With emotion put into your playing and improvisation, you start to turn the original composition into something very interesting and “reach out to your audience more” and get more of their attention.

(Video) I was at a friend’s piano studio recently and came up with this “on the spot”. Why did I play this way, because I felt it would show off the true tone and colour of the piano. A great piano to play on!

Being a composer since a very young age, 9, it’s part of my character makeup to invent, create music from nothing and play around with the notes on the piano like a painter does with his paintbrush and colours.

I really dont have the foggiest idea how I came about to be able to do this, it is what it is. Nothing else to it. Perhaps one day someone might be able to explain to me what this ability is all about and how the brain works, well, my brain starters.

Improvisation should come naturally and in this area, how it comes to be, I sometimes find it very hard to explain, but I will try to in this article.

How to Improvise on the Piano

(Video) Me improvising on a digital piano (yamaha). A tune made up on the spot and yet I also started to improvise on my own creation. Can to see and hear what I’m actually doing?

Five MethodsKnowing Your Stuff, Hitting Notes of the Same Key, Playing a Melody within a Chord, Using Both Hands at Once, Mixing Chords and Arpeggios.

Many of you sitting at home might be wondering what improvisation is. The simplified definition of it is performing without preparation. Improvisation can improve your piano playing, as it builds on your understanding of melody, structure, and composition. It’s simple enough with a little practice; like anything else, improvisation is a skill that improves with use. In other words, practise makes perfect. Well….almost!

Method One

Knowing Your Stuff

Have a knowledge of a variety of music, so as to not be imitating any one song.

Learn about scales.

Jump in and learn one that has a lot of sharps or flats in it if you can, such as B Major. Practice the scale you learn maybe just in the right hand at first. You might find these “bumpy” scales are easier to play than C major, since you can “see” how the scale is shaped!

Learn about chords.

It is suggested that you learn triad chords before moving on to quartals and such. Triad chords consist of three notes (1-2-3) and between two notes and the root(1-2 or 1-3) is a distinct interval. For a quick example, a C major triad consists of a C-E-G. Between C-E is a major 3rd, while between C-G the interval is a perfect fifth.

There are as many ways to improvise as there are people.

Here are some suggested techniques to try…you may find one may suit your way of thinking better than others, so give them each a shot!

Method Two

Hitting Notes of the Same Key

Sit down and hit notes only of the same key. (F, G, Em, A#, etc.)

Have your left hand play the background chorus (slow block or broken chords) in the same key.

Have your right hand playing the melody.

Switch keys once you become better at it to give it a broader, more complex feel and to amplify the beauty of the song.

Method Three

Playing a Melody within a Chord

Play a slow 4/4 piece with each measure getting one chord on the left hand.

With the right, improvise a melody within that chord.

The next measure switch to a different chord and continue the melody in that next chord.

Continue this until you become proficient (or bored).

Method Four

Using Both Hands at Once

Once you’ve learned how to play some scales in both hands, try improvising with both hands going at once. Get your fingers moving in the same scale…it’ll sound alright.

Try playing a “call and answer” game with your hands. Play some random phrase in one hand and try to repeat it in your other hand. Start simple. Eventually you may find your hands can generate melodic ideas simultaneously that work together

Method Five 

Mixing Chords and Arpeggios

Instead of simply playing block chords or arpeggios in one hand, try to make the top or bottom note of that accompaniment form its own melody. The little finger (commonly known as a “pinky”) and the thumb tend to be most convenient for this way of playing.

Try playing accompaniments in your right hand with chords or arpeggios and melodies in your left hand.

(Video) I composed this song over one year ago – all in my head and I only put it to the “88’s” around seven months later for the first time. This video was the fifth time I was playing it and the second as a live video. I love the song (should I be sorry to say it?) because it is a very emotional song, about Life and The Journey We all go through, the happiness, the sadness, the pain, loss, achievement, family, our personal journey in life.

It has since become a real full-fledged song and is copyright under Sony Music, my music publisher. Hopefully soon you will all know what it is, title, singer and all. For now, I’ll keep it under wraps:-)

I find Improvisation a great way to express myself, my emotions, my current feelings of the day and even what I dream of. It’s strange in many ways how I come up with such tunes and the fact remains, if you were to ask me to play the same thing would turn up completely different.

Encyclopædia Britannica defines Improvisation as “the extemporaneous composition or free performance of a musical passage, usually in a manner conforming to certain stylistic norms but unfettered by the prescriptive features of a specific musical text. Improvisation is often done within (or based on) a pre-existing harmonic framework or chord progression. Improvisation is a major part of some types of 20th-century music, such as blues, jazz, and jazz fusion, in which instrumental performers improvise solos, melody lines and accompaniment parts.

As we come to an end of this article on Improvisation, let me leave you all with something I did with some musician friends of mine, it was for fun. Its “Fly Me To The Moon” (Standard) – Watch out for the Improvisational sections Ive added in this standard (me on the digital keyboard)

 Do have a wonderful week!:-)

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