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When you start playing piano, it’s thrilling to play your favorite songs successfully. However, things change when you try to create something new. This can come in different ways, like being blank when asked to improvise, struggling not to repeat yourself or others, and more.
I am a music producer and a conservatory-trained guitar player. However, I learned to play piano mostly on my own, like you are perhaps doing, and I understand your struggles. This article will explore different ways to improvise and become comfortable with doing it.
How to Improvise on a Piano
Choose a musical scale, preferably C if you are a beginner, and start playing the corresponding keys. When improvising on the C scale, you can press any white key you want and try to maintain a cadence, which is a rhythmic flow of notes.
That’s the most basic form of improvisation there is. While doing this will get you on the right path, there are many methods you can try to improve your improvisation skills, which I’ll cover later.
Another major factor that can influence how you improvise on a piano is the instrument size. If you’re a child or a petite person, a concert piano might be more difficult to handle than a smaller, 61-key keyboard. The seat also plays a significant role, as it needs to be of the correct height.
Before improvising, it’s a good idea to perform some warm-up exercises. One of the most famous sets of exercises are those developed by Charles-Louis Hanon that cover everything, from warming up to becoming a virtuoso. The first part of his book deals with warm-ups but is also great for any beginner to become more dexterous with their hands.
However, before jumping into exercises, stretching your hand muscles is best. This includes bending your fingers, massaging any sore spots, and more. If you start playing cold, your performance will probably be worse than when having stretched, just like in any physical activity.
Check our article on How to Do Vocal Improvisation in Singing
What are the 7 Techniques of Improvisation?
There are as many techniques to improvise as you can imagine. However, these seven techniques are some of the best for beginners to improve their skills faster.
Method 1: Play the C scale
As I mentioned before, this is the best way to get started. This is because the C scale uses only the white keys so that nothing can sound off-key. You can play single notes to get started, then try chords.
You can start with your left hand and end with your right one, going through the entire keyboard or alternating between hands. The point here is to feel free to experiment. If you already know about other scales and more advanced topics, playing the C scale is still a great idea to test out new improv techniques quickly.
Method 2: Select chords to play on
If you already work with chords, focusing on improvising with them will help significantly with hand independence and give you a more musical framework to gauge your improvisation. It can also help to develop a more rhythmic sense in your improvisation.
You can choose simple chord progressions, such as I – IV degrees on the major scale, and repeat this continuously as you improvise with your right hand. This would mean playing C major and F major using the C scale. Since you’re likely performing rhythmically with your left hand, you’ll have a background for your right-hand improvisation.
Method 3: Record yourself
Even though this is not strictly “musical,” it can be an excellent method to improve your improvisation. Sometimes you can’t fully grasp what you’re doing when you’re playing. A particular bit sounded great, but it’s lost to the following sequences.
Recording yourself is a crucial tool to help you improve since it’ll allow you to review your performance and check the best parts. You can then start analyzing why that part sounded good and develop further ideas to try next time.
Method 4: Use a “friendly” scale to improvise on
What I mean by this, is a scale that lends itself to improvisation. When you already know musical scales, it’s a no-brainer that they’re a fantastic tool for improvisation. This is especially true for scales with a very tiny difference, which is dissonance when played on a particular chord progression. The best example is the blues scale.
When you’re playing the blues scale on top of a typical blues progression, don’t just play it from beginning to end. Take advantage of the ♭3 note (♭5 in minor scales), which creates a dissonance with a sort of unresolved feeling. Since you need to “land” somewhere after this note, it’s a great way to start improvising.
Method 5: Use the bits you learned and change them
Like a baby learning their first words, you develop your internal music vocabulary by listening and reproducing musical fragments from others. You can take pieces from the music you like, especially the ones you know by heart, and change them in small ways.
For instance, you can choose a riff you know, play well, and change specific notes. Changing the chord progression is an excellent way to “force” yourself to do this. So, if the original was played over I – IV degrees, you can try I – III.
Since the 3rd degree is a minor chord in a significant scale, this change will probably invite you to modify the original in exciting ways.
Method 6: Jam with others
This is one of the best ways to improvise once you already have some musical vocabulary or if you find other musicians. If you can play with other people who use different instruments, you can follow them. This means playing over whatever rhythm and chord progressions the others are performing.
Playing music with others is great for many reasons. For one, you have much less control over the overall musical situation, allowing you to think outside the box. Second, others can help you by giving feedback or advice. Third, playing with others is generally more exciting and can put you in the right mindset.
Method 7: Use musical modes
This is for more advanced players who are struggling with new ideas. If you already know about musical modes, meaning what Lydian, Mixolydian, and so on mean, don’t hesitate to use them for improvisation purposes.
Using those modes usually creates strong dissonances and tensions that must be solved. It’s a bit like Method 4 on steroids, and again, the focus is not following the scale note by note but trying different note combinations. However, this is not recommended for total beginners since it can sound “like anything” unless you already have made some sense of them. If you are a beginners, first learn piano.
Here are some common questions many people have when dealing with improvising.
What are three ways musicians can improvise?
Is improvising music hard?
What is the first rule of improv?
Hopefully, I’ve dispelled any doubts about improvising, and you have a clearer idea now of how to go about it. Remember that what works for someone else might not work for you. For example, using the blues scale might not be your best fit if you don’t like blues music. You’ll be forcing yourself to do something you don’t like, killing creativity in the process.
Don’t feel tied to any one method, either. Each person is different; many use these methods to develop their own later. This is especially important if you’re a self-taught musician because you won’t have the guidance of a tutor as you progress, and you might not get a lot out of what was working when you first started.
As with any creative endeavor, improvising can go as far as your imagination. Some methods exist to help you make the process less confusing so you can develop skills that would take longer without any framework. Finally, remember that having fun and enjoying what you do is the most important factor to success.