The art of improvisation and why it is good to experiment

Child playing keyboard

Does improvisation play a significant role in your musical studies? I have been exploring how introducing improvisation to piano students from the very start of their learning journey, makes the process smoother, more fun and opens up a broader palette of possibilities for them and their teacher alike. 

Most people associate musical improvisation with jazz, which in the minds of many might equal to complicated, virtuosic and out of reach. If your experience of learning and playing the piano or another musical instrument means you always play from sheet music, you are probably familiar with the inner chatter that says: “You can’t improvise. It is too hard. It is only for jazz pros, not for you!” 

Like anything unfamiliar, improvisation can feel daunting or even scary, until you give yourself permission to experiment with making different sounds on your instrument without judging the outcome.

I like using other words for improvisation such as musical imagining or storytelling. After all, music can tell a story regardless of whether it is written or just being imagined in this very moment. Like any art form, music expresses moods and feelings, describes places, people or things.  

When I work with young students, musical imagining is a central part of each lesson. It allows each student to explore the piano and it’s musical possibilities in a completely unique way. For example, they make a kitten creep around playing softly, make a frog leap by making their fingers jump across the keyboard or take great pleasure making the sound of thunder booming in the lower tones. Experimenting and exploring are very natural ways of learning for young students. I find, that they are always very excited to do it, because it gives them an opportunity to make their own music while exploring the entire piano including using the sustain pedal. They get a lot of satisfaction from it, which is especially crucial when they first start learning the piano. It also helps to build their confidence.

Most adult students however, look at me a little suspiciously when I ask them to explore the piano freely, using their own imagination, because they feel they are not achieving anything by doing it. Why waste time with improvisation when there are so many chords to learn and so many songs or pieces to explore? I completely get that.

Coming from a classical tradition, where improvisation wasn’t encouraged, I see huge benefits in including improvisation in learning to play the piano. Regular improvisation is instrumental in learning to bypass the inner critic, relax at the piano, gaining trust and confidence in one’s own abilities, which ultimately leads to letting go of tension.

Like anything you start for the first time, you get better at it the more you do it. It can be relaxing and totally freeing, and it becomes more fun each time. Improvisation allows us all to connect with our creative selves in that very moment. It is also a great tool for exploring playing in different musical keys, for brainstorming ideas for songwriting and composing.  

If you have not tried it yet… give it a go…just YOU and the piano.