How can I begin to learn improvisation when I am dependent on reading the notes?

Posted by Piano Teacher on 4/29/2014 to Piano Improvisation
How can I begin to learn improvisation when I am dependent on reading the notes?

To a pianist who is traditionally trained in only note reading, the thought of improvisation brings uncertainty, not to mention sweaty palms. Improvisation can be intimidating. Visual learners need to see the notes on the page. It is hard to let go of the security of seeing the notes.

Here are two rules and one practical tip that can help a traditionally trained pianist step into learning the skill of improvisation.

Rule 1: Give yourself freedom to experiment. Relax with the idea that you can create your own music. To create a simple improvisation, use your knowledge of chords to let the notes flow from your fingers. If you aren’t familiar with chord structure, use a simple 1-3-5 chord (In the key of G, it would be G-B-D), occasionally inverting it to 3-5-1 (B-D-G) or 5-1-3 (D-G-B). Try playing variations and inversions of simple chords.

1-3-5 chord

Rule 2: Let go of the need to be perfect. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes while experimenting. This is a little different from practicing to perform a piece. Yes, you want to improve to play improvisation, but expect mistakes along the way. It’s part of the learning process. By spending some time at the keyboard rearranging the notes of the chords, you will hear what sounds pleasant to the ear. Listen to what you play so that make an auditory connection with what your fingers play. Allow yourself time to explore, knowing there will be mistakes until your fingers flow in a way that is comfortable for you. This will help to develop your unique piano playing style.

Here is a practical tip for improvisation: To finish the song, come back to your keynote, which is the tonic (I) of the song’s key. Sometimes this is called the “home note.” Conclude with chords of the keynote playing them at different octaves going up.

Let’s apply these principles to the simple melody, “Alleluia” by Jerry Sinclair.

Alleluia sheet music

First, play it as written. Next, notice the chord symbols above the notes. These will be the chords played by the left hand. What are they? G, C, Am7, D, G. Try playing them as block chords. Add some variations of the broken chords in the left hand to make it interesting. Practice them. In the right hand, add a simple arpeggio at the end of a musical phrase when there is a longer note. Finish the song on the home note with chords at different octaves. Finally, play both hands together. Take a deep breath and let go perfection. As you become proficient with the song through practice, confidence will increase.

By giving yourself freedom to experiment and letting go of the need to be perfect, you will begin to find enjoyment in creating music through improvisation, even when there aren’t a lot of notes written on the page. Just remember to come back to the home note to finish the song.

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laure Hano
Date: 5/1/2014
In fact, through all the method advices you give, I discover that, with a little technique, most of the improvisation is a question of ear and a sense of "harmony" : practicing seems to be the only way to make it, good day, laure hano
Date: 5/1/2014
Thank you my dear sister Yoke for not given up on me. Since 1985 I tried to learn how to play piano since I was inspired by some pianists playing in churches. I had no one to lead me, I learnt the solfa for songs. I cannot play the piano, I decided to learn how to play by ear. Somebody like me where can I start?
Dr Jose Fonseca
Date: 5/1/2014
As a church musician playing with other musicians of different levels of musical knowledge, I find myself playing from a lot of chord charts and very little notated music so improvisation is the only approach. I have studied Mrs. Wong's Definitive Improvisation Course and it has been an invaluable help in achieving my goals as a musician. I strongly recommend it! This course is for anyone who wants to be able to sit at the piano and be able to play what ever music is placed in front of him or her. Hand Coordination, Runs and Fillers is the complement to the Definitive Improvisation course and I use it as a daily exercise tool. At 61 hand muscle memory seems to diminish a bit and daily practice of these skills is a must in my case. Take advantage of these courses offer. Thank you, Mrs. Wong!!!!
Jose Otoniel Orrego V.
Date: 5/1/2014
Mrs. Wong, thanks, thanks I´m a beguinner, beguinner I don´t spkeak english at this moment I´m positioning the fingers on piano key´s. Atte, Jose Otoniel Orrego V. Thanks
Robert V. Chadwick
Date: 5/1/2014
Cricket Cohen
Date: 5/1/2014
This is a great article. I love the idea of "let go of the idea to be perfect!" Also, a scale that has been helping me to improvise lately adds a note to the major scale. In the key of G major, the ascending scale would be: g, a, b, c, d, d#, e, f# to g octave. If I play it in eighth notes it lets me land on the root of the key as the first note of the next measure. Some people call this a "bebop scale" Thanks for the great article!
annie taylor
Date: 5/2/2014
Yong, you are a life saver. Thanks for your input on learning how to improvise. I have been practicing "Allehuia" and the information you provided makes it so easy. I have been taking piano lessons since 2011. I like the way you said to give yourself freedom to experiment and letting go of the need to be perfect. Not to rely on the need to see notes on the page. I am now experimenting and it has truly paid off. Could you give me the notes for Am7? Thank you so much for sharing this invaluable information. May God bless you in your ministry.
Date: 5/3/2014
Olá professora Desde quando conheci seu curso de piano fiquei encantada, porém a minha maior dificuldade é simplesmente o idioma, pois não falo inglês, por isso acredito que será difícil pra mim, entender suas aulas. Agradeço os emails que recebo, mas infelizmente não tenho como estudar em inglês. Eis a razão pela qual ainda não comprei nenhum dos cursos. Agradeço a sua atenção, Até Logo Cordialmente, Maura Cavalcanti.
samuel antwi
Date: 5/4/2014
thanks alot
Ruben Pascual
Date: 5/9/2014
Thanks for all the useful information. People say, Ive been improving fast and I did it with your generous help. Ruben

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