Improvisation is the art of spontaneous composition. The basic structures of great compositions—whether songs, sonatas, or symphonies—are the same as those appearing in great improvisations. Learning the rules of the game, including basic music theory and a handful of foundational approaches, along with a strategy for being able to call upon that foundation spontaneously, will empower you to craft solos that have more meaning, more musicality, and are fundamentally more entertaining. Put these together with a powerful, expressive technique, and you will gain the ease of mastery that allows you to express any creative impulses effortlessly.
Understanding harmony and melody on an intellectual level is an important step in the process. But to be able to compose phrases with more complexity or deeper artistic content, we need to have a technique that is not bound by the limitations of conscious thought. Conscious thought moves too slowly. The creative mind wants to move faster than conscious thought—we need to develop tactile intuition to be able to allow our creative impulses to enter the world organically.
My approach to developing this tactile awareness involves seeing/feeling harmonic and melodic elements as specific shapes. Awareness of these shapes is something the hands understand at an intuitive level, a faster level of awareness than that at which the pokey intellectual mind can operate. I teach specific steps to integrate this awareness into our playing, opening our technique to the wealth of musical ideas continually hovering around us as we commit ourselves to this creative journey.
The creative mind wants to move faster than conscious thought…we need to develop tactile intuition to be able to allow our creative impulses to enter the world organically.
Magic, Music, and Mindfulness
If this sounds like a bit of hocus-pocus, then “well-spotted!” It is. I believe that at its essence, creative, organic, authentic improvisation is a kind of magic-making. And to prepare for this process takes some serious work on our part. If it isn’t magic, or magical, then why bother?
Whether improvising a solo or an accompaniment, the problem is this: we tend to meander. We wander, we ramble on, aimlessly. Maybe we conjure some of our go-to licks, or recite phrases or whole sections of transcriptions from our favorite artists. It may sound convincing, for a while, but then comes the realization that we aren’t really saying anything. When we spend too much time playing other people’s ideas, that isn’t improvisation; it’s recitation. It’s rote, and frankly, to the hungry ear listening for sparks of sincerity, it’s boring. You don’t have to play like [insert name of famous improviser here] to make it interesting. It simply takes investing a little time in learning the fundamentals of composition, and applying those with our instrument. Then we leave the charnel grounds of recitation and move to the fertile fields of honest creativity. It’s not that tough. It does require taking responsibility for the music though, practicing mindfulness to stay honest in our creativity, and busting through the fear that is simply part of the process. Again—not that tough! Please say “no” to rote, unimaginative meandering, and “yes” to spontaneity, creativity, and authenticity.
I believe that at its essence, creative, organic, authentic improvisation is a kind of magic-making.
Maybe you have already been playing for several years, but feel that your creativity has hit a wall, you feel stuck, stale… Regardless of your instrument or level, I can help you integrate valid compositional concepts into your playing, and feel exited about improvisation again. This is not learning licks and riffs: this is learning to be an authentic real-time composer.
Foundational Elements For Piano Improvisation
We start with the fundamentals: basic functional harmony—the seven primary and secondary chords that emerge from the major scale. After that comes a deeper exploration of the Tonic/Dominant relationship, extensions and color tones, modulation, and substitutions.
Solid time is a must. There can be no equivocation on this part. It’s either in the pocket, or it’s not. Learn to challenge our inner clock by using the metronome as a powerful creative tool, rather than as a crutch. Develop independence to play complimentary rhythms in opposite hands. Identify the basic pulse of a tune and explore ways to strengthen or obscure it, depending on our creative inspiration.
Intervals are the DNA of melody and harmony, but Interval Practice is the castor oil of jazz piano study: old-school, good for whatever ails you, and often unpalatable. Nonetheless, gaining fluency in simple and compound interval shapes and motions is essential to mastering the art of spontaneous composition. Learn a simple systematic process for harnessing the power of intervals.
Standards (and other compositions)
Learn the basic song forms, progressions, and sub-elements (turnarounds, tags, standard modulations) that constitute the bulk of the genre known as Standards. This category of study begins with examining 1) basic blues, 2) the songs built on the Diatonic Circle, 3) AABA and ABAB songs of composers of American Musical Theater (Rodgers and Hart, Harold Arlen, Lerner and Lowe, etc.). Students are guided to create original pieces using these foundational compositional forms. (It’s really not that tough, once you understand the underlying creative framework.) Thorough study necessitates appreciation of the styles of the great composers of Be-bop, Swing Era, Cool Jazz, as well as works by icons of American Music: Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and others.
Synthesis and Ideas
Improvisational authenticity comes not from learning “licks,” but is based on the fundamentals of musical composition: theme and manipulation; tension and resolution. Learn to strive for clarity of musical intention, avoiding, as Bill Evans said, “approximations.” In short, learn to be real. Let mindfulness, honesty, and creative courage be your guiding principles.
You can take this as deeply or as lightly as you like. (They can be the same thing.) The point is this: there is a daunting mountain of stuff we could practice on this journey. The trick to staying sane, engaged, and enthusiastic, is to just start chipping away at it. Take chewable bites, and give yourself some satisfaction by mastering one little thing at a time. This helps us stay calm when pondering the immensity of the big picture.
One thing can happen right away: you can improvise honestly, with joy, right now! It simply takes looking and listening with clarity and sincerity.
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CLICK BELOW for info on individual coaching sessions in advanced improvisation, or ongoing lessons to develop thorough foundational skills.
Much of the source material for private or workshop instruction is contained in my book, The Road to Aqaba–Practice Strategies for the Jazz Pianist. Excerpts and individualized lesson plans are included as part of private or workshop sessions.