Sunday, September 13, 2009


I've had several inquiries from former students of mine about improvisation. Although I am retired from the teaching business and perform very seldom, I can still write about these things. So for you piano players and other instrumentalists out there, here's an article I wrote last week for the International Piano Teachers Group in response to an inquiry for help from a teacher in England.

Improvisation is always viewed as the boogey man, something that is extremely difficult and almost impossible to learn. In the words of one of my improvisational teachers about 60 years ago that's hogwash.

For example, Twinkle, Twinkle, little star, starting on the note C is played:

NOTES: Middle C C up G G up A A dn G
TIME: 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4

Every teacher at one time or another struggles to devise a way to teach a song without manuscript notes. The example above is what I use. It's fairly easy to understand for a student with limited knowledge of the keyboard. It's also very useful in e-mail! In popular sheet music usage, above the first C would be the letter C indicating the C chord (CEG). Above the first A would be the letter F indicating the F chord (FAC). Above the last G would be the letter C indicating the C chord.

All improvisation in the modern sense is based on using the notes of the chord and what are called passing notes (non-members of the chord and melody) to embellish the melody. Of course the options are endless, only limited by the creativity of the performer. In the case of this simple melody we can very quickly construct an improvised melody by simply using additional notes of the chord and passing notes in between:

C dn B up C up D E F G dn E up F G A dn F up C dn A dn G
1 & 2 ee & a 3 & 4 & 1 & 2 & 3 4

In this example we have changed the first and second notes to eighth notes, the next four to sixteenth notes and the rest to eighth notes with the last note being the half note. Please notice that strong beats of one and three remain the same and the weaker beats of two and four sometimes occur in other places than the original melody. If this is unacceptable it is fairly easy to change it to the way you want it.

Let me give you fair warning. In sixty years of teaching popular music I have had a large number of students who wanted to learn how to improvise. Some of them take to it like ducklings to water. Others really have to struggle. The sad part is that there is a large percentage who never catch on and just give it up as a bad deal. Maybe there's a glitch in the way their brain works or perhaps they just give up too easily. My opinion is that it is their belief system. They've "known" for years that improvisation was extremely difficult and "knew" they were never going to be able to learn it. As Henry Ford once said, "If a man believes he can do it or believes that he can't do it, chances are he is right!"

Many years ago my father regaled me with stories of great pianists who put on concerts that were attended by large numbers of people. Most of the concertgoers would tolerate the pieces the pianist performed in the first half of the concert but what they really came for occurred in the second half. At that time, the pianist would begin by stating a theme and then the rest of the time he would play improvisations based on that theme. The interaction between the pianist and the audience brought us some of our greatest classical music, particularly Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff.

Unfortunately, to my knowledge, the marvelous blind pianist Alec Templeton was the last to do this. I was a member of the audience in Honolulu, Hawaii in about 1949 when he performed there. The last segment was when he asked for five notes from the audience and it was really an odd lot. That man sat up there and played those five notes interwoven into styles by Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy and even John Philip Souza! It was one of the most remarkable concerts I've ever attended.

This venue does not lend itself well to placing the chords and the timing in the right spots. With a little bit of thought you should be able to figure it out. If not let me know and I'll tell you how it works.

Hope this helps.