There’s a myth floating around out there and everyone so often people email me about it. “Jacques,” they say, “I don’t want to learn anything formally about piano, I hate structure. Can’t I just learn to improvise?”
Another variation of this is when people say things like “My father/sister/friend never studied piano. They just sit down and play whatever they want. I want to learn piano like that.
There’s a lot to unpack there, but I want to clear this up: for most people, you really shouldn’t learn to piano improvisation alone. Unless you’re one of those musical geniuses that pop up every couple of decades (or unless you really love wasting time), improv should be something to learn after you already understand some of the fundamentals.
That’s easy for me to say, but let’s get into what does improvise mean, and how you and I – normal human beings – can play improv on piano.
Improvisation: Building A Toolkit
Imagine that you are building something. You need your hands of course, and raw materials. Without those, you have nothing to work with. But what else do you need, unless you’re building something super primitive? Tools. They’re how you refine your process and create something that actually looks nice and works well. Think back to your ancient history lessons and you’ll remember just how important tools are for civilization.
This is a great analogy for learning piano. You need your hands of course, and an instrument to play on. And with those two things, you can get started. It’s enough for piano for beginners. But you need tools to develop results that you can actually enjoy and feel proud of.
The most basic ways of learning piano are notes and then chords. Once you understand how to play those, it’s like you have some great, strong raw materials to work with. But your playing will seem pretty basic if you stop there. That’s where improvisation comes in.
Your improv skills are like a toolbox that you can use to refine your sound and add your own personal flourishes. Improvisation takes rudimentary playing to the next level. It’s a toolkit of ways that you can spice up basic notes and chords.
Putting the Cart Before the Horse
Some people want to learn to improvise, and nothing else. To be honest, that simply doesn’t work in most cases. Looking at our building analogy, that would be like expecting tools to build something – without any materials to work with.
If your heart is set on focusing solely on improvisational piano, what I have to say here won’t be what you’re looking to hear. But if you’re open to following some simple steps and learning the basics in a way that makes sense, keep reading.
What Improvisation Is NOT
Before we get into how to develop your piano improv toolbox, it’s important to understand what improv is not. So without further ado, please understand:
Improvisation does not mean randomly pressing any key that comes to mind.
Let me say that one more time, simplified: Improv isn’t random. I know you’ve probably seen some cool videos of pianists or performers playing some awesome, seemingly random things off the top of their heads. But I promise you, there is logic and structure to even the most fantastical riffs and imaginative jams you’ve seen or heard.
Not only that, even the best piano players will still use a lot of the very same improv tools that you can learn with my 21-day piano course. They may take things to the next level, but you can be sure that they build it all on the basics.
Developing Freedom Within a Structure
Okay, so what is improvisation? Simply put, it’s a structure that allows you to be creative within certain boundaries. If you can develop the right foundational skills, you’ll have the groundwork laid for all sorts of cool improvisational playing later.
When you have a solid understanding of the 12 notes on your piano and the most common chords for chord-based playing, you have the beginnings of everything you need. Those building blocks are the foundation for your improvisational piano toolkit – the backdrop for all the ways you are going to learn to spice up your playing.
The Improv Toolkit
There are too many cool ways to improvise to cover in one post. After all, there are 88 keys on a full keyboard, and almost endless variations to what you can do with them! But let’s take a look at a few relatively simple improvisation tools below.
An easy way to add variety to your sound is with chord patterns. At its most basic, chord-based playing means pressing down 3 notes per chord, at the same time. That’s fine, but it can sound dull if that’s all you do.
When you start playing around with chord pattern improvisation, you get to instantly add nuance with barely any extra effort. How? Simply by varying when you press down the keys that you were already planning to press.
For example: play a G chord. The notes in this chord are G (the “root” note), B, and D. The bass notes that you’d play would also be G in a lower octave. You can play all of that as is, but let’s add some pizzazz.
Try pressing down the bass notes first, then coming in after them with the chord. Or reverse that.
Now try pressing G first, then coming in behind them with B and D. Or do the same thing in the opposite order.
Not too hard, right? Now you can play each of the notes of the chord one at a time instead of all at once.
Take a break, and give yourself a pat on the back. You just used five different chord pattern variations. And that’s just a sample of some of the ways this piano improvising tool can work. Feel free to play around and see what kinds of improv effects you can create with songs to play on piano.
Extras and Add-Ons
The next improv tool we’ll talk about here is almost as simple. You can add extra notes to what you are playing, which in turn will add extra depth and interest to your sound.
How can you know which additional notes to play? Well, start by taking a look at the chords for the song. To keep things on track, let’s use that same example of a G chord.
Like I already mentioned, the G chord is comprised of G, B, and D. What does that tell you? It means that you can play literally any G, B, or D on your piano, and they will sound good when paired with the G chord!
Trying It Out
Go ahead, give it a try. Play G, then add in some extra G, B, or D notes at any point. You really can’t go wrong with this simple yet powerful improv tool. It works for any chord you can think of.
A more advanced way to use this tool is to add in additional notes from the same scale as your song. You can learn how to do this more easily if you already are playing piano by ear.
Learning to switch octaves is another easy but effective way to diversify your sound on piano. To use this tool, first you have to understand what octaves are. No problem: They’re simply any set of keys that are eight white keys apart.
So if you take the example of a G chord again, the root note is G. You’re probably looking near the center of your keyboard when you find and play it, but it’s time to branch out. Find the next G to the right or left of the first. Play your chord there, and you’ll have brought the sound lower or higher. It’s still the right chord, you’re just altering the pitch.
You can do this with any note or any chord, in any multiple of eight. Just one word of warning – going too low on the keyboard with chords can put you at risk of a “muddier” sound.
How can you make the most of this improvising tool? Switching octaves sounds best when you do it at the beginning of specific parts of the song, such as during the transition into a bridge, chorus, outro, etc. Depending on whether you go higher or lower, you can really affect the mood your song creates when you play!
If you pay careful attention to your favorite tunes, you’ll notice that a lot of artists use octave changes to help build or relieve emotional intensity. So if you’re having a hard time figuring out when to use this tool, let the lyrics be your guide.
When to Use Your Tools
When you can use these (and other) improv tools? A better question would be, when can’t you use improv? That’s because there are only a few times when you should steer clear of those extra flourishes and details.
You should only avoid improvisation if you are:
- In the very first stages of learning a song
- Having trouble with timing or need more practice on a particular song
- Trying to achieve a very innocent or understated sound
That’s it! Improv can add a lot of nice dimension to your sound in almost any circumstance.
Adding Your Own Flair
I love when my piano students learn how to improvise (assuming they’ve already learned the basics). Why? Because it gives them a chance for spontaneity and nuance to become a part of their playing. When people start adding in their own flourishes, the music really becomes their own.
One thing I always emphasize is, I don’t want my students to become robots when playing piano online. It’s never my goal to have them parrot back songs I play in exactly the same way as me. In fact, I think it’s great when their versions sound quite a bit different – as long as they’re in tune! 😉
That’s because music is a creative activity. Unless you’re a stickler for advanced compositions, there’s plenty of room to use improv tools to your advantage. If improvisation sounds exciting to you, I hope you’ll get started with the approach I’ve developed and see if it’s right for you!
You can get on the Piano In 21 Days full-course wait list to learn more, and I’ll send you a free 5-day workbook link to help you get started. Thousands of people have enjoyed this resource, and I’d love for you to be one of them. You’ll never know what you can accomplish until you give yourself a chance!