Making Time for Improvisation

In piano lessons today, improvisation is often a subject that often “goes out the window” because it is deemed to be less important or secondary to other skills. It had not always been this way; improvisation used to be a expected skill for any accomplished keyboardist during the Baroque through Romantic eras. Interestingly enough, it seems that today, the role of the pianist has evolved into the role of reproducing the works of other composers, rather than being a pianist-composer. Teaching improvisation in the lesson can be an incredibly useful tool, as well as serve as a creative outlet for the student. How do we, as piano teachers, find or make time to teach students how to improvise at the piano?

I’ll be the first to admit I often “don’t have time” for improv in the lesson. To counteract this, I try to use improv as a warmup or a cooldown, every few lessons. If I keep it simple, it only takes about three minutes of the lesson time. A simple but successful improvisation activity I have found is pentatonic improvisation on the black keys. It’s essentially a student-teacher duet, played only on the black keys. By limiting it to the black keys, we are essentially eliminating the possibility of “wrong notes,” because the five notes of the pentascale sound great together. :]

I begin by playing a simple pattern of broken fifths in the LH: Gb, Db, Eb, Bb (essentially, it’s the I and vi chords in the key of Gb, with omitted 3rds). I keep a slow and steady beat (each LH note is probably a half note) so the student will stay calm and focused enough to listen to him-/herself play. My RH joins in after established a measure or two of the LH accompaniment. With the RH, I improvise a melody on the black keys. My RH is providing an example of what the student should do in the upper range of the piano on the black keys, with both hands. Encourage the student to play whatever sounds good to him/her. Never criticize what they play, else they aren’t likely to put their heart into it. If they are shy or hesitant about it, flatter them with plenty of praise and encouragement!

After a few lessons of doing this, I will start to ask the student to direct his or her attention to particular concepts, particularly concepts recently introduced in the lesson. For example, I might say:

  • “Let’s try making our music sound like it’s coming from far away……let’s play piano — softly. [after 20 seconds…] Now let’s play forte!”
  • “Try to listen to for a beat. Do you think we can play together, with the beat? Can you play half notes? Now try playing quarter notes.”
  • “Can you try playing some blocked (harmonic) 2nds and 3rds? Great! Now try playing melodic 2nds and 3rds.”

These are just some of the concepts that can be reinforced using improvisation during the lesson. This activity is simple enough for the youngest of beginners to enjoy, and it opens the door for later activities in improv or composition, when the student is older. It’s a simple way to encourage the student to explore the piano on his/her own, instead of only playing the songs assigned from their books.

Have you experienced the benefits to using improvisation in the lesson? What are ways you have discovered to incorporate improvisation in the lesson?

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1 thought on “Making Time for Improvisation”

  1. I love this! What a great idea. Admittedly I have not done improv much in my lessons, but I am inspired to work on that! My two-and-a-half year old son and I love to improv on the piano together – he loves it!!

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