How To Improv(e)

Welcome to term 3 at JKM Tuition! It's pretty incredible how quickly this year has flown by, for me it's been full of new students and musical revelations. One of my passions as a music tutor is the development of compositional skills, and as such I've been doing some reading into the subject. I've discovered that my approach to teaching composition and improv is somewhat unorthodox, at least in the published world, and I've found a few methods that I heartily disagree with. So today's blog is going to look into my methods and my do's and don't's when it comes to composing and improvising. 

One of the theories I came across in my literary explorations spoke of a three-step approach to building compositional skills. Step one was improvisation, in the sense that improvisation is 'spontaneous music making'. In one regard it makes a lot of sense to start with improv, in another it makes no sense at all and I believe it is how you choose to define improvisation that makes all the difference. 

A quick Google search for 'improvisation definition' yields the result: 








I personally find it a bit spooky that the first example is 'she specialises in improvisation on the piano' but it only serves to prove the relevancy of this blog. The main point to take away from this is 'created spontaneously or without preparation'.

To me, this means applying your current level of musical skill to what is basically an on-the-go composition. Essentially, the higher your level of skill the easier it will be to apply said skill to your improvisation. To me this means having a deep-down, subconscious understanding of the basics: rhythm, coordination, melody, timing, keys, chord progressions etc. 

I believe this to be miles more difficult than actually composing. Composition gives you the time and freedom to experiment, make decisions, edit them and choose your finished product. You can work to a theme, a title, an arrangement structure. In my experience, any person of any age can compose with confidence, especially when working to a template. Improvisation is not so easy.

Part of this has to do with the very very very large amount of options available to a musician, and especially a pianist. What kind of bass line will you choose? Chords? Arpeggios? 5ths? A counter-melody? Will your main melody be complex? Simple? Layered? Mono-tonal? What kind of chord progression will you use? Will your timing be structured or organic? The list goes on, and on and on and on. 

Most students find this fairly overwhelming, and rightly so. It's tricky enough to narrow down your options when making a composition but to make snap decisions whilst improvising? That requires a decent amount of confidence and also the ability to remove yourself from what you're doing. So many of my students will begin a chord progression, and then halfway through stop and ask me 'does that sound right?'

So how to avoid this? One method I suggest is to give yourself restrictions. For example start with a very basic chord progression for the left hand and limit the right hand to a particular number of notes. Work with this until it feels comfortable and then look into how you can experiment. Pick out the combinations and patterns that you liked most and build on them. Take inspiration from pieces you enjoy and don't shy away from 'wrong' notes or unexpected sounds - the most wonderful thing about improv is you can't make mistakes!

An example to experiment with:

Left Hand: C major chord (C,E,G)              Right Hand: Start with C, D and E in a basic pattern.
                   A minor chord (A,C,E)

One of the most important things to remember about both composition and improvisation is to start simple. I strongly believe the best pieces are built on a solid foundation of good tones. Listen for the chords or intervals that make you feel something. Experiment with blending chords, for example mixing a major chord with its relative minor. Start simple and layer as you go.

Thus armed with this knowledge, go forth and compose. I'd love to hear what you come up with using the above example so feel free to send me any recordings you make!