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(part 4 of 20)
Young Woman at the Piano by Tranquillo Cremona

Learning to Improvise

Improvisation requires setting all inhibitions aside. It isn’t difficult to learn, but the fear of making “mistakes” or playing something stupid or bland can be a serious barrier, especially for adults and older children. Teaching 5-year-olds to improvise is quite easy. If you’re new to improvisation, transport your mind back to when you were 5, and think of this process as finger painting at the piano… minus the paint.

Work on improvising several times each day:

  • Choose a scale/tonality to work with, the 5 black key pentatonic scale (F# major pentatonic) is a good place for beginners to start.
  • Begin with a single note or octave in the left hand as a drone on the tonal center (1st scale degree/tonic). So F# in this case. Repeat it slowly, over and over as it fades out.
  • In the right hand, improvise a little melody above this held tonic. Even a simple 3 note pattern will be a nice place to start.
  • Shift the melody around, experiment with steps and leaps, slow rhythms and fast.
  • As you become more comfortable pick a 2nd, then a 3rd note in the bass to slowly alternate between. Notice how these bass tones change the atmosphere and character of the melody.
  • Very slowly, alternate between the tonic and every other scale degree in the bass. Spend a lot of time with each bass note against your simple melody, so you can really hear the different effect each has against the melody.
  • Eventually you can move more freely with a slow bassline made from the notes of your scale. Notice how the tonal center acts a bit like a magnet, always tugging the bassline toward it. Resist its pull, then periodically give in, returning to the tonal center.

As you gain experience, try reversing the hands, with melody in bass. Then try creating a basso ostinato (or ground bass: repeated pattern in the bass), with melody in the right hand. Play a simple repeated rhythm on a single bass note to get started. Again, eventually try switching hands. As confidence grows, push yourself to improvise outside of your comfort zone. This is one of the quickest ways to develop new skills. Once you are relatively comfortable with the simplest improvisation, you should be ready to dive into composition.