Forgo the sheet music and try your hand at improvising! Get started with this exercise from Tucker, GA teacher Linda L...
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.
There is a lot you can learn when it comes to how to improvise on piano, and there is even more to explore on an electronic keyboard. For this article, I’ll focus on the latter. With an electronic keyboard, you can use the built-in rhythm and auto-chord features to give you a virtual back-up band, which leaves you free to focus on melody line improvising. Of course, you can improvise on an acoustic piano just as well, and you can improvise melody lines without listening to rhythm and chords. But for beginning pianists, or those new to improvising, having the rhythm section and chords playing in the background gives you a starting point and framework. Also, you can set your keyboard to sound like other instruments, if you wish. Having a vibraphone, trumpet, or synthesizer sound can inspire you to play different sorts of melody lines and musical styles.
How to Get Started Improvising
There are many ways to get started improvising, but my favorite is to start with a rhythm style that you like, at a moderate tempo, and any minor or major chord. (You’ll need to learn how to use your keyboard’s preset rhythm and auto-chord features to do this. Look it up in the owner’s manual, if you don’t already know.) Once you start your rhythm and chord accompaniment playing, it will keep playing until you press the stop button. If you play another note in your auto-chord range, it will play the major chord based on that note. If you want a minor chord, you usually play two notes simultaneously — the note you want, with the note a ½-step above or below your root note. Which note will give you the minor varies among different types of keyboards.
Now, in one of the octaves above the auto-chord range, play the note that is the “root” of the chord you are listening to. For example, if you have set your keyboard to play an “A major” chord, play an “A.” Try repeating that note several times, in different rhythms – longer notes, shorter notes, some rests, etc., but keeping with the beat you have set.
Next, try playing the first 5 notes of the scale that go with the chord that you started on, both ascending and descending. If your chord is A Major, for example, you can play A, B, C#, D, E, and back down to A, OR you can use the A-major pentatonic (five-note) scale of A, B, C#, E, F#, and back down to A.
Keep to the background beat and tempo, but vary the rhythm. Play some quarter notes, some half notes, some eight notes, etc. Put in some rests. Repeat some of the notes.
Now start skipping around within your scale. Add in the rest of the notes of your major or minor scale. Try playing the notes of the chord you’re improvising to, varying the rhythm and the order of those notes. Try adding in some accidentals as “passing notes” – i.e., they will be part of a sequence of notes that lead to a note that is IN the key (and in the chord you’re playing with).
As a beginning improviser, you can try to create musical phrases that end on the root note of your chord. That’s always a safe place to end a phrase. You can also try playing more than one note at once, such as starting with two notes from the chord you’re playing with.
Adding to the Exercise
Your next step is to gradually start adding more chords, which will add more variety to your improvisation. You might try improvising on two chords that alternate every other measure, or a three-chord progression. (Remember, your keyboard’s auto-chord feature allows you to play any major or minor chord with just one or two fingers. As you get more advanced, you can add “7th” chords and other, more complex chords.)
You can also learn the chords to a song you like, and try making up a new melody to those chords. Your new melody might even be a sort of harmony or counterpoint to the original song you’re basing it on. (A famous example of an improvisation on a song that became a whole new song in its own right is Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology”, which was based on “How High The Moon”.)
Eventually, you will want to stop relying on the auto-chords, start learning to play the chords yourself, and put both hands to good use! Mostly, you will play chords with the left hand, and melodies with the right. But as you become more advanced, you can play chords and melodies with either hand.
It can also be very helpful to listen to some other keyboardists’ improvisations, in order to become familiar with a variety of improvisational styles. Pick your favorite genre of music, find songs in that genre with piano/keyboard solos, and spend some time listening. If you are able to play by ear, try learning the improvised solos that you like, and then try improvising off of those solos.
How to Improvise on Piano
Don’t have an electronic keyboard? You can still practice improvising on an acoustic piano, starting with the same simple one-note-with-varying-rhythms and scale-based approach mentioned above, either without any chord accompaniment, or by playing simple chords with your left hand (one chord per measure will do for a start, and you can easily look up a basic “12-bar blues progression” if you want to improvise over a series of chords), and melody lines with your right hand. Once you get comfortable doing this, try switching to chords with the right hand, and melody with the left, with the goal of developing equal dexterity in both hands.
Keep exploring! Check out even more piano improvisation exercises here!
Linda L. teaches piano, guitar, songwriting, and more in Tucker, GA. She has more than 30 years of experience as a music teacher, for both private lessons and classes. Learn more about Linda here!
Photo by MIKI Yoshihito (´･ω･)