Free Improvisation at the Piano #2
a beginner’s guide for advanced players
As both a performer and instructor of piano improvisation I am excited about the possibilities of recruiting new explorers into this interesting art form. If you are one of these explorers, welcome. Be encouraged. You are following in the footsteps of the renowned. Among history’s great improvisers are listed many of music’s great composers - Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin included.
In my last installment, I discussed my philosophy of improvisation and my own development as an improviser. I mentioned several concepts to help the advanced player who is a beginning improviser generate ideas and stimulate creativity. Some of these concepts included imitating others, improvising on a mood, thought or title, trying out different ideas and saving or discarding them based on your own tastes, and the study of technique. In this installment, I would like to continue to discuss my philosophy of improvisation, and then, in my next installment, offer some practical methods to help facilitate improvisation at the piano.
Ignorance is Bliss
Give a young child paint and paper and he will paint. Set her feet on a dance floor and she will dance. Sit them in front of a piano - and they will play. A subtle hint of a story line or picturesque scene is enough to set their fingers to the keys exploring the depths and heights of the keyboard. There isn’t a lot of thought or fear in their creative process. They just feel and create. They are natural improvisers.
Children are free to create because they do not reflect deeply on the outcome of their creations. They are simply enjoying the creative process and expressing themselves. Adults, on the other hand, tend to be more self conscious and self critical. Expectations are much higher and judgements come much sooner.
Hitting the Wall
While some critical analysis is necessary for growth, too much critical analysis inhibits growth, even paralyzes. A former student of mine was an avid rock climber. She could scurry up a steep rock wall and hang precariously from her fingertips hundreds of feet in the air without fear. When called to improvise at the piano, she could barely move. These same fingertips became frozen on the keys. I explained that the furthest she could fall was off the bench to the floor. Still, she was more comfortable risking serious injury or death from dangerous heights than with facing the barrier of blocked creativity.
Truly, the thought of improvising at the piano instills fear in many, but it’s not life or death. Adult students of improv need to compartmentalize their expectations and use relevant critical analysis at the appropriate time in their development in order to advance and make progress. Learning to improvise is a process - like learning to play any piece of notated music - even for advanced players.
Improvisation is a State of Mind
If children can improvise with lesser skills than advanced adult players, how much more so should an adult with more experience be able to improvise. It is not the skill level of the player that enables improvisation, it is the mindset of the improviser. If the mind says it is too difficult, or it feels unnatural, then the player’s skills will freeze. So, the goal is to create a mindset where improvisation at the piano feels more natural.
Try out this thought. I would hold the argument that the majority of our daily actions, the things we do every day and which are natural to us, are improvised. Let me elaborate.
When one ponders the vast array of activities that occur in our lives, it does not take long to conclude that most of our actions are not planned out ahead of time, detail after detail, event after event, but rather, they are mostly spontaneous. Certainly, we may plan out our day. But we could not possibly have anticipated, and therefore could not have planned for in advance, most of the conversations we have with other people, navigating the flow of traffic on the highway, the precise number of steps we take walking from the parking lot to the food market entrance, how long we had to wait for that morning cup of coffee at the local coffee shop, or even our response to the daily evening news.
Since these events were not planned out ahead of time, our reactions and behavior in accordance to these situations were not planned out ahead of time, as well. They were spontaneous - or improvised. I would add that most of us are very comfortable with these activities and our reactions to them. It is our natural way of being.
In every day life, we all have our own habits and patterns that we have developed over time and rely on to function. These habits and patterns are ingrained in the memories of our muscles and the pathways of our neurons. It’s just biology. Repetition creates neural pathways, and neural pathways become habits and patterns. It is said that it takes 10,000 repetitions to create a new neural pathway, and it may take 3-6 months for a new behavior to become a habit.
Let’s Be Logical
Let’s employ some logical thinking. If it is true that improvising is a natural thing to do, then it follows that it is not improvising in and of itself that seems foreign to us, but rather, improvising at the piano. As well, if in every day life we are comfortable improvising because we are confident in our every day skills, then it follows that if we are uncomfortable with improvising at the piano it is because we are not confident in our improvisatory skills at the piano.
Therefore, based on this logic, we can conclude that if we become more comfortable with our skills at the piano, then we can become more confident and better equipped to do the natural thing, which is to improvise. And here’s the key - the way to become more comfortable and confident in our improvisatory skills at the piano is to create short musical patterns based on our own original musical language that can be practiced as technical studies and repeated enough times to create new neural pathways that become part of our muscle memory. These patterns will form the basis of our improvisatory language that will become as natural to us over time as playing scales and arpeggios. The more patterns we create, the more diverse and interesting our improvisations will be.
Let’s be realistic. It’s going to take some time and effort, just like learning a written piece of music. There is room in improvisation to improve. Recognize your starting point and set small goals. Enjoy the process. Acknowledge growth. Repeat.
If we can set aside our fear of improvising and take a more philosophical approach, one in which improvisation is as natural to us as everything else that we do, then we can begin a systematic method of study and remove the art of piano improvisation from the ethers and into the practical world.
In my next installment, I will begin to discuss some practical technical approaches to help facilitate growth in improvising at the piano.