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Joined: Dec 2020
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I want something more….

I’ve been taking lessons for two years now with a great teacher. I love my lessons and plan to continue with her until she retires in a couple years.

We started with the most basic John Thompson books and have progressed to the point that I am learning and playing songs from the Ludovico grade 3-5 book along with other pop and classical tunes. We do theory, Czerny exercises and have started on scales.

My problem - if you want to call it that - is that although I love learning new songs, I am no closer to playing the way I want to play. I want to play improv-style. Not jazz or blues improv - but simply to be able to sit down at the piano and play around with some random ‘tinkling’ of the piano keys. I describe it as playing what I’m feeling….sad, happy, mad, glad, pissed…..whatever, being able to translate where I am emotionally at any particular moment through my piano playing.

I’ve talked about improv style with her - but she is a classical conservatory-trained pianist without experience in teaching improv. Her teaching focus is more on particular songs rather than free-styling at the piano. She has said that learning scales and chords will be an entry point for my goal - but I guess I’m frustrated and impatient that it is taking so long.

Sorry for the long story….what I’m looking for are ideas on what I can do to supplement my in-person lessons to develop whatever skills I need to one day reach my goal of being able to do improv playing.

Do I keep my focus on chords and scales? Is there an online class that I could buy to help me bridge the gap? Something not too advanced? Do you have any recommendations on these online programs? I’ve checked out several but am confused on which one to buy (if any). Books that aren’t too advanced? I’m open to any ideas.

My teacher is totally on board with whatever I want to pursue so I will certainly be including her in any supplemental pursuits - but I was hoping to get some ideas from all of you before I approach her.

We are coming up on a 7 week break in lessons over the holidays so that would be a good time for me to explore options.

Thanks for reading and any ideas you might have!


Started lessons January 2020.
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Originally Posted by KrisR
I am no closer to playing the way I want to play. I want to play improv-style. Not jazz or blues improv - but simply to be able to sit down at the piano and play around with some random ‘tinkling’ of the piano keys. I describe it as playing what I’m feeling….sad, happy, mad, glad, pissed…..whatever, being able to translate where I am emotionally at any particular moment through my piano playing.
If you just want to play 'random tinkling', you can start right now - just go to the piano and play any random keys. If that sounds OK, it is OK if you're playing for yourself. And you can imbue your playing with any mood you please. (After all, Cecil Taylor's so-called 'atonal improv' is just that....... smirk ).

But if you want to make music with your improv, you need to be able to play by ear and know a decent level of harmony. Think of those pianists who played for silent movies, improvising whatever suited the action on the screen. They certainly couldn't just hit random keys and hope for the best. They knew exactly what they wanted to hear, and they played the notes that provided that.

(If you want to make a start on playing by ear and learning the basics, have a look at Lucinda Mackworth-Young's "Piano by Ear".)

Or you can go the high class route like Gabriela Montero, who can improvise whatever comes into her mind on the spot, but can also make a full-blown 'piece' out of any tune she is given to improvise on. Of course, she has a virtuoso technique and knows a lot of music from all eras, so she can throw in not just Bach but also Bacharach when she pleases (and she has perfect pitch too).....



"I don't play accurately - anyone can play accurately - but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for Life."
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KrisR, I have sent you a PM, if I can help you I shall.


"We shall always love the music of the masters, but they are all dead and now it's our turn." - Llewelyn Jones, my piano teacher
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Hi Kris,
I have a couple of suggestions. One is David Magyel's program "Sound of Emotions". Unlike many of the such sites, the focus is on improvization, not jazz (though that's included) and the program is progressive. Even the simplest music here is lovely. You can check him out on YouTube as well, though there you won't see the well-planned progression. Also it's easy to think that the "beginners" modules are too simple if you have much experience with piano, and some of the tutorials will be, but think of them as "beginner to improv" not to piano. I think it is something you could do along side your classical lessons.

Another resource I've discovered is Robijn Tilanus' "The Fifth Factor: A Practical Approach (through improvising at the piano, listening, playing, singing, composing)". It's worth buying. It's self-published and is available by googling the title. It's a different approach from David's, more theory-based, but very interesting as well. Of course, you don't have the videos that David has.

I hope these ideas are helpful to you, Kris.
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My advice to you is to spend lots of time listening to other players you like.


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Simple cocktail piano techniques that can be improvised on the spot:

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Hi there! improv is my favorite thing to do! It is really necessary to learn your chords first, even if you only understand the very basics of them! For you just starting out I would suggest this if you are willing to try it out!

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Thanks everyone for your ideas and suggestions. I will check them all out.

I’m without a computer for the next 1-2 weeks so will reply more as I have access.


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Originally Posted by thepianoplayer416
Simple cocktail piano techniques that can be improvised on the spot:

I like that sense of 50/50 sound silence going on there (between 1:30 to 2mins) - I'm a beginner on concertina (as my surrogate piano - maybe the piano some other day though) now comprehending how notes end as well as start and I can and do veer from that generality too because of the phrasing demands I have to follow written on the scores, but also because I have a rule of thumb on sustaining the longer notes more than the shorter notes sustain (I'll relay my formula soon, but it looks like for pianists it can be a natural thing built in or probably likewise worked towards (?)) - I'm note-for-note on publicised composition scores of the jazz standards, so it's hardly improv, but in a way these publicised scores were already improvs of each other so as not to reinvent the wheel I suppose. I know that's not stricktly improv though, a whole other ball game! Good Luck!

Last edited by concertinist25701; 11/25/21 09:00 AM.

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My background at least is coming from violin and guitar - could read the treble clef but couldn't read the bass clef quickly enough to play on piano to save my life. Ran into a bunch of musicians that played religious music off lyric sheets with chord letters stamped on top of them. My piano lessons came much later...

So, you'll need some music theory. I'd suggest any music theory 101 workbook that makes you write out chord shapes till they spill out of your head unbidden. And then you'll need to bring it to life. I'd suggest finding any slow song that you like on the radio or elsewhere that sounds (very) easy, and picking out the melody line, making sure it's not in some obscene key signature, and then figuring out the chords. Learn to play melody and harmony, and write out as little as possible. Probably I IV V II and VI chords. Learn to play chords under the melody on the right hand, not just the left. Once you've figured out a few chords and melody lines, try transposing them. Up a step. Down a step. Find one song you really like and transpose it to as many key signatures as you can stand. By doing this you'll figure out where the notes go, where the chords go, and how they match up. By not having sheet music in front of you, you'll be free to deviate from the melody, riff on it, and take it whatever way you want. Then break it all - learn some more music theory. Find out how modes work. Learn as much jazz theory as you can stand. Play all the wrong chords over the bassline, play extended chords, polychords etc. Somewhere in the middle of all this you'll find yourself just jamming along to some chords, and the more music theory and left hand riffs you know, the more expressive you can be... Oh, and learn some left hand riffs - pop pattern, rock patterns. Steal them from Harrison's Pop Piano Book. Learn to play scales, then melodies over left hand riffs.

As long as the notes you're playing are generally in the right key signature, it's OK that you're not making some form of chord. Learn to make your lines
longer and not resolve quickly. Have fun, mess up, do it again!

For my level of playing, that's probably more advice than I'm qualified to give, but anyway, my 2 cents...


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For pianists coming from a classical background, I think the most compatible approach is the tradition of improvising on the organ.

Organists have a healthy and living tradition of improvisation in the classical style, stretching all the way back to Bach. Improvisation is taught from the very beginning along side harmony, technique and musical forms; with beginner students applying basic counter-point in the 1st year.

Traditionally, many beginner organists use this book.

Making Music Improvisation for Organists by Jan Overduin
https://global.oup.com/academic/product/making-music-9780193860759

Table of Contents
—————————————
Improvising Melodies 6
Registration and Imagery 13
Thirds and Sixths 21
The Pentatonic Mode 29
Bicinium 35
Harmonizing Melodies 48
Improvising HymnsSongs 55
Binary Form 59
Reharmonizing Hymns 131
Ornamenting Inner Voices 138
Cadences 143
Descants 145
Interludes 149
Modulating Interludes 154
Canon 159
Rondo 164
Other Progressions 63
Suspensions and More Effective HymnPlaying 74
Ostinato 78
Harmonizing Scales and Melodies I 90
Sequences 97
Chaconne 102
Passacaglia 107
Ornamenting Melodies I 114
Ornamenting Melodies II 118
Modulation 120
Harmonizing Scales and Melodies II 127
Toccata 168
Partita 181
ThreeVoice Fugue 190
HymnAnthems 199
Jean Langlais as Teacher 203
Cadenza for Mozarts Epistle Sonata K 336 207
Notes 211
Bibliography 215
Index of Hymn Tunes 223


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