A Classical Musician Ventures into Improvisation

Written by Simply Music Teacher - Patti Phears on

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I’m just learning to take baby steps into improvisation. And I have a secret to tell you. But first, let me tell you where I’m coming from and what my personal experience with music has been.

I’m a classically trained musician, fortunate enough to have studied with teachers who were graduates of the Julliard School, Eastman, Oberlin, and Peabody Conservatories. So I am well trained in reading music, performance practice of the great piano literature, technique, ensemble playing, and even composition, and I’m very grateful for the background I have.

But here’s my secret: I have always wanted to be able to improvise beautiful music of my own. Musicians who can sit down and weave a melody over a chord pattern, or take a well known tune and make it their own have been a continued source of amazement to me. Since it is an area none of my teachers had experience in they never made an effort to help me explore this aspect of music making. It has always seemed out of reach. That partly grows out of being used to being extremely well prepared for every performance, and trying to have no errors. Playing without a completely analysed and prepared path ahead of you feels very scary. Improvisation is very in the moment, with an element of living on the edge. This is a skill I very much want to pass on to my students. Whether they study with me for a short or long period of time, I want them to have some tools for making up their own music.

My first real ventures in improvisation came thanks to Lyndel Kennedy’s amazing Play-a-Story and Play-a-Window programs at musicopolis.com. This is improvisation in a very safe environment, with a specific motif to explore for each story or video. I highly recommend it!

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But I also wanted to take it further. I recently had an opportunity to spend time with an amazing teacher, Bradley Sowash (bradleysowash.com and eyeearrevolution.com), who is dedicated to helping musicians learn to be creative in their playing. And I discovered that a great place to start utilizes knowledge I already have from my classical training!

Things like passing tones and upper and lower auxiliary notes can help anyone learn to embellish a melody. I remember studying them in music theory, when we were studying the Baroque period. My knowledge of Bach can help me play improvisationally! Who knew? This made me feel like I already have a body of knowledge about improvising, and a safe anchor as well. Using them in improvisation is bringing that book learning to life.

Did you know that the greats in the past like Bach, Beethoven & Mozart were great improvisers? They weren’t afraid to make things up as they went along, and I personally think that improvising is likely how they found some of the best ideas that grew into the great compositions they left for us to enjoy.

If you are like me, a classically trained, dyed-in-the-wool note reader who has little to no experience with improvising, here are a few steps I am starting to take to expand my skills with improvisation. You might want to play around with them as well.

  • Be A Beginner. Allow yourself to be the student. We are so accustomed to having the answers, being better at what we are doing than the student on the bench. To learn a new skill, we have to be willing to be a beginner, to make mistakes & get messy! Will early attempts at improv sound great and sophisticated? Not likely! But that’s OK. We’re just starting out on this journey.
  • Take Baby Steps. I’m playing around with beginner pieces. Pieces like Dreams Come True, Night Storm, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (after all, Mozart played with this one!). I play them utilizing one improv tool at a time, combining them when I’m comfortable.
  • Borrow Ideas. Any time you hear a piece or a pattern you like, borrow it and play with it. Don’t be afraid to play around with a small group of notes to see where it takes you.
  • Spend Time. As we know, musical skills take nurturing. We won’t get skilled at improvising unless we spend regular time doing it! Set aside the time for improv in every practice session.

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TOOLS FOR IMPROVISING

Now for some practical tips

  • Just passing by: Remember these from music theory? It’s just passing from the note you are on to your next goal note (like the next melody note) via some of the notes in between. A simple example from Dreams Come True: move from the opening E to the G by passing through F. You can use notes in the key (in Dreams Come True, that means all the white notes), or get adventurous and try some chromatic tones (black keys in Dreams come True)! If where you’re going is at least three keys away, you can easily insert passing tones.
  • Be friendly with the neighbors: In music theory in college, they were referred to as upper and lower auxiliary notes. This little trick of playing the note above or below (again, in the key or chromatic) the note you are heading to can be used on any interval. An example of this in Dreams Come True would be instead moving down the keys from G,F,E, to D, playing upper notes like FGF & EFE on your way down. Or you could embellish that little descending scale by playing lower neighbors: G, EF, DE, CD.
  • Repeat, repeat: This doesn’t mean repeat a passage until you get it right, but repeat notes that are already in the melody. What a simple thing to do! It’s a great way to add some rhythmic interest to a simple tune.

These are great tools for embellishing music you are borrowing from someone else, but what about making things up out of thin air?

  • Play around with chord progressions and scales: Write down a chord progression. It can even be C A F G (I, vi, IV, V) from Honey Dew. Play the chord sequence in the left hand either as simple blocked chords, broken chords, or however you feel like playing them. I do think for beginner improvisers, it’s great to start with simple blocked chords. Once you have that chord progression comfortable in the left hand, find the pentatonic scale in that key. If you’re playing the Honey Dew chords, the notes of the pentatonic scale are C, D, E, G and A. If you’re in another key, your teacher should be able to help you find its pentatonic scale. Don’t be afraid to venture out of your starting octave in your melody – explore! But if you stick to the pentatonic notes, it will all sound good.
  • Another way to improvise over a chord progression is to utilize chord tones – using the same notes in the RH that the LH is playing in the chord: I.e. C, E and G with a C chord, A, C and E with an Am chord, and so on. You are simply playing chords in both hands, but the RH breaks up the chord into single notes. Your improvisation is in the ways you break up the chord.
  • Once you are comfortable with these kinds of explorations, it’s time to add spice by using some chromatic variations as well. The key is to experiment – if you don’t like a particular note, just don’t use it in that place again! The great thing about music is that nobody is harmed when you play a ‘wrong’ note. In fact in improvising, there are no wrong notes, but the more you explore, the more you discover what you do and don’t like.
  • It’s time to improvise!

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    • Dixie Cramer

      Patti, thanks for breaking this into small steps to share with our students.

    • Stella Meinzer

      How wonderful to read your blog, Patti! You’ve always been an inspiration to me. I am quoting you (“I have always wanted to be able to improvise beautiful music of my own…”) in the program for my annual student improvisation recital.