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.
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.
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.