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(part 5 of 20)
Georgette at the Piano by Rene Magritte

More Improvisation Techniques

The following is a list of improvisation techniques to help gradually increase abilities. It’s ordered roughly from easiest to most challenging, but feel free to skip around. If you are familiar with jazz piano improvisation some of this may be very familiar, but I highly recommend spending time with any exercises that seem foreign. This list is much less focused on chords, specifically avoiding them early on.

  1. Black key major pentatonic scale with F# tonal center (as before).
    • Single (or octave) droned F# in bass.
    • Improvise very simple melodic patterns in right hand using only black keys.
    • Very slowly alternate between tonal center and the other 4 scales degrees (spend a long time on each).
    • Move slowly but freely in the left hand, trying to compliment the right hand’s melody
  2. Pick a new common tonality (7 note major or minor scale for example).
    • Repeat exercise one (above) with this new tonality (make sure to identify the tonal center).
  3. Using exercise one again, work with other scales/tonalities:
    • Various minor scales (natural, harmonic, melodic).
    • Modes (dorian, phrygian, lydian, mixolydian, locrian).
    • Non-diatonic scales (Hungarian, Spanish, Persian, etc.).
    • Other pentatonic scales (various Japanese, Indonesian, pentatonic modes, etc.).
    • Others (tetratonic, blues, whole-tone, octatonic, modes of the harmonic and melodic minor scales, etc.).
    • An extensive list of scales is available to download/print here.
  4. Pick a favorite scale/tonality, create a simple repeated rhythm for the left hand (right hand still improvising melody above it). Again, work through exercise one using this repeated rhythm in the left hand.
  5. Use various tempos and time signatures.
  6. Create a basso ostinato in the left hand, improvise a melody in the right hand above it (start simple).
  7. Reverse hands, melody in left, repeated harmonic notes or ostinato in right (exercise one can be repeated with the hands’ roles reversed).
  8. Improvise in free counterpoint: a simple melody in the right hand, a simple melody in the left hand. As one becomes more active, the other can become simpler, trading off. Sometimes they might imitate each other, sometimes they might act as in conversation. Occasionally they might both be equally active.
  9. Improvise with added chromaticism, adding chromatic tones between notes of the scale being used (both in melody and in accompaniment).
  10. Add complexity to the accompaniment/bassline: arpeggios and chords (based on bassline), small bits of counterpoint, leaps, more complex patterns and combinations of the above, etc.
  11. Add complexity to the melody: periodic harmony tones/small chords below a melody note to highlight certain moments, simple secondary melodies below melody, combination of the two.
  12. Develop a simple 4-8 note bassline, then build chords on each note. Repeat this chord progression and add a melody above in the right hand. Eventually break these chords into various textures and simple repeated patterns.
  13. Improvise in various dance styles: waltz, mazurka, tango, polka, jig, etc.
  14. Experiment with polytonality, bassline in one key, melody in another.

While working on these things, always listen very carefully to what you are playing, paying special attention to how the two parts interact. Adjust your harmony (bassline) depending on where the melody goes, or vice versa. You should experiment extensively, developing your own improvisation exercises as well. Don’t stop here.

Learning improvisation is an extremely slow process, with no end. But it’s highly rewarding. Start slow and simple–build up. Don’t be afraid of strange sounds, but embrace them and try to understand them. Some of the most beautiful music comes from the most unlikely musical combinations. Setting music theory aside and exploring through intuition will be the best way to find wonderful new sounds. If you play something that seems odd, repeat it, see if you can find something that compliments it. It just might take you somewhere amazing.