Have you ever been to a party – or pub – or even a train station – where there has been a piano in the corner of the room? Has anyone shouted out “Play us a tune!”?
Or has anyone ever said “You’re great at piano; you must be able to play some ABBA.”? …and all you can do is bow your head in shame and say “I can’t play anything without the music.”
I’ve been in that position!
Learning to improvise
These days, I am much more comfortable with the idea of improvisation, but I had to learn the hard way. I pieced together my improvisation skills from a variety of sources. In my teens, I wanted to learn jazz so I worked through the book A Classical Approach to Jazz Piano by Dominic Alldis. At university, I had classes on keyboard skills and I studied harmony and counterpoint. But, despite this studying, it wasn’t until I was in my mid-thirties – midway through a successful career in music – that I had enough skills and enough confidence to sit down and play with no preparation.
A step-by-step guide
I teach improvisation and harmony to my youngest pupils at Twyford School. Children latch on to the idea quickly and they love to learn chords. Some children can’t wait to explore repertoire, but most prefer improvising and writing songs. I also teach improvisation to my adult guests at Finchcocks. Most of these players have reached the higher grades on piano but have never improvised. For these adult pupils, improvisation is a way to understand the minds of the great composers and to consolidate long-lost theory knowledge. Improvisation can also be a way to reignite a love of piano-playing that has faded over the years.
Based on my experience of learning and teaching improvisation, I’ve created a series of videos. These provide a step-by-step guide to improvising for classical pianists activities for ear training, fundamental theory and most importantly, ideas to spark the imagination!
An initial exercise
My first few videos focus on single-line melodies as the first tentative step towards successful improvisation should be well-thought-out single-line melodies. You can start by singing a tune (out loud or in your head) using just the first few notes of the major scale, then playing it on the piano. My constant refrain in these videos is Sing before you Play.
In this example video from my series, I encourage you to start improvising with a single-line melody, always “hearing” the melody first in your head. Once you’ve watched this video, try the exercises below!
- Exercise 1 – Play melodies using 1 2 3 4 5
- Exercise 2 – Play melodies using 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
- Exercise 3 – Play melodies using chromatic notes as well
- Exercise 4 – Try in different keys
There are no quick tricks to learning to improvise. In fact, to fully master the ear-training activities that I present in the first few videos could take a lifetime! Don’t let that put you off or hold you back. Give it a go – you might even enjoy it!
– David Hall
The first module of David Hall’s series How to Improvise explores the subject of melody as a starting point, showing you how to create your own melodies and add basic accompaniments and non-chord tones. Click here to view the videos on the Online Academy. David is also the author of There’s More to Playing the Piano, a crash course in musical theory for pianists (click here to find out more).