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Improvising is one of the greatest joys a musician can experience. Getting into that headspace where ideas just flow effortlessly is amazing! It feels like you’re truly speaking through your instrument as if it were your native language. But to a new player, it might seem a little overwhelming trying to figure out where to start. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when you’re just starting out improvising at the piano.
1.Pick a key - This first step is simple enough. Choose a key that you like to play in. It should be one that you are very comfortable with, as everything else in your improvisation will be based on this key.
2.Choose a progression - Find a simple chord progression that works for you. It should be nice and easy to play, maybe only two or three chords. Experiment with looping these chords so that you’re familiar with how they sound and feel. This progression will become the bedrock for you to improvise over. As always, it’s great to keep things simple with a I-IV-V progression. Try playing a progression consisting of an A minor chord...
3.Pick a lick - This is a great way to focus your improv. Pick a simple phrase (it can be just two or three notes) and use that as your melodic starting point. Try to choose something that is inspiring to you, as this ‘lick’ will be the focal point of your improvisation. Once you’ve decided on your lick, take the time to really dissect it. What are the interval jumps between the notes? Can you adapt that lick as you change chords in your progression?
When you know the interval jumps used in your lick, it can be shifted and modified it as you improvise. Remember, there are no set rules to improvisation, but having a defined phrase to base your playing around will give your music structure and clarity.
4.Prioritize space just as much as playing - When you’re just starting out improvising, it can be tempting to play as many notes as possible, looking for those epic riffs and blazing runs. But what many players forget is the importance of the spaces between notes and runs. In order to create phrases and melodies that are impactful, they need the contrast of space. So while improvising, really take the time to think and listen to what you’re playing. Never forget that not playing is still a part of your improvisation!
5.Make your phrases count - You’ve just learned that you need to prioritize space as much as playing, but when you do play you need to really make it count. The first step to this is to get away from seeing your improv as just a bunch of random notes and learn to see your playing as a series of interconnected phrases.
Here’s an example that’s always helped me: when you’re having a conversation with a friend, you aren’t speaking one word at a time. You’re taking those words and collecting them together into a sentence in order to express a thought. Just like with any conversation, try to visualize your phrases with a beginning, middle and end in mind. What are you wanting to say with each phrase? How do they build off each other? This mindset will really help you structure your improv!
6.Keep going - This is the golden rule of improv. Keep going! Improvisation is just as much about mindset as it is about the notes you’re playing. Sometimes it’s tempting to divide up music into ‘right’ notes and ‘wrong’ notes. But try to drop that kind of thinking when you’re in improv mode.
Don’t stop when you feel like you’ve made a mistake! There are no ‘do-overs’ in improvisation: what you hear is what you get! Soon you’ll start to see those ‘mistakes’ as opportunities to take your improvising in a new direction, opening up paths in your playing that you may not have considered before.
Most importantly, you’ll learn that improv is about embracing that spirit of spontaneous creativity, no matter what. So don’t be afraid to play an odd note here or there. Own your playing with confidence and focus, and you’ll be surprised at what you can come up with!
I think every musician should experiment with improvising every once in a while, even if it might not be your chosen area of focus. It’s a great way to enhance your playing and ear-training in a whole new way. Best of all, you’ll deepen your relationship with your instrument and you’ll have a ton of fun just jamming out at the piano, putting the ‘play’ back in playing! So next time you sit down to practice, take a little time just to see where your mind goes on the keys.