Free Improvisation at the Piano #3

a beginner’s guide for advanced players

    In my previous two installments, I have been reaching out to advanced pianists who have a desire to improvise at the piano but have lacked the confidence and skills to do so, in order to offer encouragement and motivation.  With these ends in mind, I would like to present some practical systems by which we can improve our skills at the piano, and therefore become more confident in our ability to improvise.

    One area where advanced players seem to get stuck in their efforts to improvise is by trying to be too complicated.  We may think that an idea is too simple or too boring to be explored.  Or we may introduce too many ideas at once.  The more notes there are, we may think, the better.  Pieces that are too complex or have too many ideas at play, run the risk of making the piece lose focus.

    Some of the best musical ideas are often generated by a simple motif.  And some complex ideas can be based on a simple structure.  Some of the greatest composers have generated great pieces of music based on a few simple ideas.  One of the best examples follows.

Ludwig’s Four Notes

    Arguably, the most famous four notes in music is contained in the opening theme from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.  These four notes embody a theme that is instantly recognizable, memorable, powerful and profound. 

    Upon closer examination, however, we can see that this famous theme doesn’t actually contain four notes, or more specifically, four different notes.  It contains just two different notes.  The first three notes are the same.  This motif of three repeated notes followed by a fourth note a third lower forms the thematic structure of the entire first movement.

    Without going into a detailed analysis of the symphony, suffice it to say that this four note idea of three repeating notes followed by a fourth note contained enough creative material to Beethoven for him to construct the entire first movement.  As well, the harmonic structure of the opening section is based simply on the tonic and dominant chords.  In addition, the last movement of the same symphony picks up on the four note theme, this time employing a similar rhythm.  This symphony is a perfect example of how a very simple idea can become the basis for an entire musical composition, and in this case, developed into a masterpiece.

    In our own development as improvisers, we are not quite shooting for masterpieces - not just yet - we’re just trying to free up some brain space to allow for some spontaneous creativity to come through our fingers - and have fun doing it.  I think four notes is a good start.

    Or maybe five.

        I once had a talented adult student who was facing some difficult life decisions.  His improvisations, although filled with interesting moments, were unfocused, went in too many directions, and tended to meander, arriving nowhere.  Just as in his life, he was having difficulty putting it all together and finding a resolution.

    I suggested that he simplify his ideas, and try to stay focused on just one or two things.  He took on the challenge.  Soon, his improvisations became greatly improved and structured, but even more interesting, he had also come to some bold decisions in his personal life.  I always wondered if these two things were related.

    As I mentioned in my first installment, few great pianists have arrived at their level of skill without a focused study of technique.  And each style of music requires its own technical studies created to master that genre.  The technical studies of Carl Czerny is an excellent path to technical proficiency if one were interested in performing the works of composers from the Classical period such as Mozart or Haydn.  These studies are filled with scale patterns and arpeggios idiomatic of the Classical period of music.  Yet, they are not very helpful to the jazz enthusiast, who requires a whole different set of scales and arpeggios to master that genre.    

    So, there are technique books filled with jazz scales and patterns for those interested in jazz music, or books comprised of boogie woogie patterns for those interested in boogie woogie music.  Every style of music has its own technique that must be mastered, and each style has technical studies available to enable a player to be proficient in that style —— with one exception.  There is no current technique available for your individual style of music that has yet to be written.  You must create that yourself.


    In 1873, a book of technical studies appeared in Europe that was destined to become one of the great standards of piano technique.  Virtually every serious student of the piano has studied this work.  Charles-Louis Hanon's book “The Virtuoso Pianist”  has become a proven technical method practiced in order to develop finger strength, dexterity and finger independence.  Let’s take a quick look at the structure of Hanon’s first twenty exercises to see why these exercises are so valuable.

    First, each exercise uses all ten fingers.  Second, each pattern is relatively short - employing only eight notes.  Third, each exercise ascends the scale and then reverses the pattern (mostly) and descends back down the scale.  Fourth, the patterns can be easily adapted to different rhythms or finger emphasis.  And fifth, each pattern can be transposed to any key.

    The examples set forth in Hanon’s exercises offer a great template to use when developing your own technique.

Slonimsky’s Brain

    Another great example of a book of technical studies is Nicolas Slominsky’s “Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns” published in 1947.  Pianist and author Maurice Dumesnil in writing about Nicolas Slonimsky’s book said, “The Thesaurus is a monumental compilation of unfamiliar melodic patterns; it is a precious reference book for advanced pianists in developing a superior technique.” 

    Twentieth Century composer Arnold Schoenberg offered similar but guarded praise.  “I looked through your whole book and was very interested to find that you have in all probability organized every possible succession of tones.  This is an admirable feat of mental gymnastics.”

    Translation - Slonimsky is Hanon on steroids.

    Schoenberg, the creator of the highly restrictive form of composition known as the “twelve tone row” went on to say, “but as a composer, I must believe in inspiration rather than in mechanics,” - an interesting and ironic insight from Schoenberg.

    But I don’t believe that Slonimsky was interested in creating a great work of art in the construction of his thesaurus of musical patterns.  Rather, I believe he was interested in creating technical exercises that if practiced would enable a player to play just about anything.  By creating as many patterns as possible, Slonimsky was empowering a player who learned these patterns to have a vocabulary of available ideas ingrained in his fingers.  The more patterns practiced, the more ideas available to the player.

    While Schoenberg declared that Slonimsky had probably organized all possibilities pertaining to the succession of notes, Slonimsky himself, had no such thoughts.  Philosophically, he believed quite the opposite.   In spite of Schoenberg’s declaration, Slonimsky did not think of his thesaurus as exhaustive, but rather, as a jumping off point for players to create other variations and combinations based off of the original patterns.

     Slonimsky quoted the 19th century British philosopher John Stuart Mill in the forward of his thesaurus, who was lamenting on the limitations of the finite set of musical combinations.  Mill said, “I was seriously tormented by the thought of the exhaustibility of musical combinations.”

     In the conclusion of his forward, Slonimsky answered Mill’s concerns with the following statistics - “There are 479,001,600 possible combinations of the 12 tones of the chromatic scale.  With rhythmic variety added to the unbounded universe of melodic patterns, there is no likelihood that new music will die of internal starvation in the next 1000 years.”

    So, there is plenty of room left for you to generate original ideas.  And even more room for variations on those ideas.  The common message here is - practicing patterns and creating variations on those patterns enables an improviser to freely move about the keyboard within a set motif.  And practicing the patterns you create yourself based on your own developing musical language will enable you to freely improvise within your own musical vocabulary.

Hanonize Your Motifs

    Now, it’s your turn.  With the examples of Hanon and Slominsky as your guide, do the following challenges:

    Challenge #1 - Using any four or five note pattern of your choosing, hanonize a pattern that can be repeated up and down the scale using the same fingering each time. Each pattern can be played with both hands an octave apart.
    Challenge #2 - Using the same pattern, create variations on the rhythms and change the emphasis onto different fingers in the pattern.
    Challenge #3 - Using the same pattern, create variations by moving in contrary motion, or moving the hands a parallel 3rd, 6th or 10th apart.
    Challenge #4 - Select one of your patterns and begin to improvise off of the concept of the original pattern.  When your brain takes over control - stop! 
    Challenge #5 - Start challenge #4 again.
    Challenge #6 - Create more patterns and repeat 1-5.

Final Thoughts

    First, remember that improvising is natural.  Second, keep your ideas short and turn them into repeatable patterns.  Next, practice these patterns in a variety of ways.  Then - play something.  Close your eyes if it helps.  Repeat the idea.  Play it louder.  Play it softer.  Move your hands somewhere else and play the same idea again.  Move it back to where it started.  Evaluate - don’t judge.  You don’t have to like everything you did - but did you like any of it?

    Then, discard the ideas you don’t like.  Keep the ones you do and then build, piece by piece, your own musical language developed with your own technique that you have created in order to be able to play it.


Brian GoldenComment