Free Improvisation at the Piano #1
a beginners guide for advanced players
I have always enjoyed taking a break from my classical studies to improvise at the piano. I remember as a young child, my mother calling out to me from the kitchen amid the clatter of her washing dishes, “Play something,” she would say.
I thought to myself, "I am playing something. I’m improvising." Of course, my mother meant for me to play a fully completed notated piece, so consequently, my scribbling on the keys did not amount to playing anything - in her view.
Over time, my scribbling began to improve and I began to develop ideas, motifs, chord progressions, rhythms. I listened to many musicians and tried to emulate my favorites. I discarded ideas that didn’t appeal to me, and kept the ones that I liked. I was developing into a composer - but I was still years away from actually realizing that I was one.
Reaching into the Ethers
practical thoughts on improvising
I am an advocate for creativity. While it is true that I am enormously enriched by the masterpieces of the great composers, I must confess that I am more fully enriched by the process of creating my own music. This is not to say that what I compose is better. It is just more personal to me.
Many of the classical pianists I have known have not developed skills in improvisation. They can play anything from a written score, but not a single note without one. Sadly, many of these fine pianists have always wanted to be able to improvise, but are uncertain how to go about it. To them, the skills required to improvise reside out in the ethers, available to only the few who possess a rare and unique talent.
This perception will keep these highly skilled players from ever trying to improvise. It may also deprive many of their students the opportunity of trying as well, sine these same players will not know how to introduce them to improvisation.
I wish to dispel this perception.
Many years later, I found myself working as an accompanist for silent films, improvising live scores for a live audience. I also began to perform concerts comprised of entirely improvised pieces. Sometimes I would play whatever mood or thought happened at the moment. Or I would take an audience suggestion for a title and then create the music on the spot.
One of my favorite titles suggested by an audience member was the following - "A Boeing 747 Taking off in the Fog."
After a moment or two, I began the piece with an octave tremolo rumble on the lowest register of the piano with my left hand and added another low octave tremolo rumble a half step higher with my right hand. Try it out for yourself.
I guess that means you don’t have to practice anything
At the counter of a coffee house one day, I was waiting for the barista to serve my drink after ordering a cappuccino. There was a poster on the countertop advertising a concert of totally spontaneous compositions that was to occur later that week. Another patron, waiting for his latte, noticed the poster.
“Improvisation,” he blurted out, “ Oh, I guess that means you don’t have to practice anything.”
“No,” I replied, “that means you have to practice everything.”
Okay - I admit it - it was my upcoming performance that the poster was advertising. The patron had no idea that I had spent hours each day working entirely on technical studies of all sorts and patterns, training my fingers to be spontaneous, without having actually worked on any prepared pieces. I was very prepared for the performance, but I had not prepared anything in advance.
Few great pianists have arrived at their level of skill without a focused study of the technique required to play the repertoire. Classical repertoire requires studying classical technique. Jazz repertoire requires studying jazz technique. Every style of music has its own technique that must be mastered. Improvisation is no different.
Improvisation is after all, essentially a form of composition, and just as in the creation of traditional music, rules and guidelines can be applied in order to create an improvised composition. The main difference between improvisation and other forms of composition is that improv is spontaneous, while other forms are constructed. In improv, we don’t have the luxury of reworking our ideas - but we do have the joy of finding hidden gems within.
In my next installment, I will discuss my philosophy of improvisation, setting the stage for discussing some practical methods of developing a technique to enable an improviser to have the skills in hand in order to play spontaneously.