How a classically trained pianist learned to improvise

Perhaps you are one of those classical pianists who was lucky enough to have a teacher that encouraged creativity beyond the grand staff? Lucky you. The rest of us have one thing in common that keeps us from pushing beyond our creative boundaries. We are burdened with baggage called "excuses." These excuses may include:

  • I'm a visual learner.
  • I was never taught to play away from the page.
  • I'm scared I'll sound awful.
  • I'm embarrassed to let everyone know what I can't do.

With this heavy baggage we are moving towards one of three routes:

  1. The Cul-de-sac of Complacency: An "old dog" can't learn new tricks so why should I work on improvisation skills now. I'll stay put in my classical roots.
  2. The Detour of Insecurity: I try, but with so many gaps in my music theory background, my progress seems spotty, there's little direction on how to improve and I get sidelined by frustration.
  3. The Pathway of Determination: My discontent with my present keyboard skills combined with a good dose of pride spawns the mantra: if others can do it, I can, too.

Which route are you on?

I've been down on all three. The road is a bit bumpy but currently I'm traveling on the third route.  With its dips and curves, my ego has suffered a few bruises but it is still intact. And, for the record, I've never had more fun in my musical life.

In case you want to join me on the Pathway of Determination, be ready to:

Take some risks

You may fail and if you're a perfectionist like me, failing is painful. Get ready to get back up, brush off the dust and remember: mistakes are information.

Load up on theory

If you are uncertain about how to spell chords and their inversions, how chords relate to each other, how to build scales and understand the circle of keys, etc. get on it, NOW! Get the full scoop on chords using this ebook.

Steal from others

If you like someone's compositions, start copying them. Memorize favorite patterns from a piece, analyze it and transpose it. Then, keep playing it over and over and let it morph into something that is uniquely yours.

Build up your technique

Scales and chords are easily placed on the back burner if there's repertoire to practice. At least I know I'm guilty of that. When improvising, the patterns that naturally fall into your hands are the ones that are played over and over and make fertile material for creativity. Furthermore, there's no better way to reinforce theory than practicing it on the keys. So, don't neglect to play your scales, chords, arpeggios...

Perk up your ears

Now is the time to wake up those lazy ears and let your eyes take a rest. Build ear skills by sounding out tunes, picking out harmonies and complete drills on your favorite ear training apps. My favorites include: Tenuto, Right Ear, Better Ears.

Borrow a tune

Choose a favorite tune, add chords and create an arrangement. Mozart used "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." If he used it, you can, too.

Stock up on staff paper

If improvising "off the cuff" is not working, then begin to compose and notate your ideas. This will get your creative juices flowing and will also provide you the notation your eyes and ears are craving and help you get under the hood of voicing chords.

Find some help

Superb resources and innovators inspire by expertly breaking down the steps of improvisation. If you don't own these already, purchase and study:

Ask for directions

Meeting Bradley Sowash years ago continued to enhance my improvisation skills. Each time I'd see him at a conference, I'd pester him with a new question. Usually his answers were written down for me on a napkin as we chatted over lunch. Now I take bi-monthly Skype lessons with Bradley. Yes, online lessons work!

Over the years we've worked together on conferences promoting music-making beyond the page. This year will mark our own fourth annual 88 Creative Keys Workshop. NEW! I can't wait to tell you more about a special 88 Creative Keys Winter Webshop we will be hosting. Stay tuned.

This list of steps I shared above led me down a trail to some decent improvisation skills. The video below documents my latest achievement: I can now improvise in Latin style!

Is the video self-serving and promoting my teacher, Maestro Sowash? Maybe. But, I hope you see passed it and recognize that I've lightened my baggage, worked hard, driven through the rain, slopped through the snow, braved the hairpin curves and yet continue to enjoy the improvisation highway. Click here to see documentation of past off-page achievements.

For the tech-savvy, inquiring minds: I'm reading the lead sheet in forScore and the backing track is supplied by iReal Pro. The iPad speakers are amplified by connecting it to my Clavinova with an RCA cable.

How this journey continues to positively impact my teaching is a whole other story.

If you are a classical pianist ready to break free from the chains of the page, I think you should join me on this journey (remember to pack light) and take route 3: the pathway of determination. Let's keep in touch and compare notes (pun intended.)