As the school year comes to a close, I really love to look back on all of the opportunities I had to collaborate with students, professors, and others professionals over the past weeks and months. In each case, there are the great memories of performing a piece and of course the journey to get there. Sometimes that journey is easier than others, but it always results in a learning experience and I believe in every case, a great feeling of accomplishment for both the soloist and myself as the collaborator. This list is not exhaustive, and I'm sure I forgot about a few wonderful pieces we performed along the way. I also did not include performances with choirs, vocal jazz ensembles, instrumental jazz ensembles, Southern Gospel groups, or music from church services. In addition, I didn't include the repertoire from a CD I recorded and released this year. Yes, it has been a busy and productive two semesters!
We spent six lessons on classical improvisation taking us from a simple one-note improvisation to a beautiful classical improvisation over the chords of Satie’s Gymnopedie 1.
Often, a student has told me that their problem with jazz improvisation is that they don’t know all the scales yet.
It is as if they are looking for a shortcut. “If I only can memorize the major and minor scales and a few modal scales, I’m set to go!” Then, they get discouraged because that is a big task.
You can improvise even if you don’t know all the scales! The more scales you learn, the more material you have for improvisation, but, the reality is that for every scale you learn and explore, you will soon discover there are many more yet to learn and explore. You will never know all the scales, but that is okay. Use what you have.
If you are feeling comfortable with the more classical sounding major and minor scales, start with some modes.
I love ii-V-I progression improvisation and it is so useful in jazz and a great place to start using three scales: Dorian, Mixolydian, and Major (Ionian). It is a great place to begin to expand your improvisational vocabulary.
Of course, other places to explore would be the major and minor blues scales.
Our ability to communicate verbally is a lifelong process and the same can be said about our musical communication through improvisation. Just keep exploring and learning. In the meantime, improvise using what you know even if it is only one-note!
I began this series with a short video by Brian Chung, and I want to highlight that video again as now, I’d like you to try what he is doing with a simple chord progression.
Chung uses a portion of the beautiful Gymnopedie 1 by Satie. If we were to reduce this to chords, it is a simple repetition of GMaj7 to DMaj7 and back and forth.
To improvise on any progression, use what you know including scales or even portions of scales as well as all of the important elements of music: Dynamics, Note Duration, Silence, Repetition, Note Tone, Scales and Scale Speed, Skipping, and Jumping.
Finding a scale that fits the passage is a great help. In this case, we can improvise using our D Major scale and create something beautiful.
View this video again and try this for yourself and see what creations you can make with improvisation.
In past posts, we've been working with a list of what makes up music:
We’ve spent the last few times improvising mostly with the first four elements and gradually adding more note tones. Now, let’s expand on that and using what we already know from studying the piano. Understanding and being able to play scales is a great thing to learn and you will make tremendous strides in improvisation. Skips and jumps add interesting elements.
Be sure to remember where home is. This is our tonality. Just because we have a lot of notes to use now, we must remember where our tonality is.
Also, there are eight things on the list of what makes up music. Don’t allow yourself to focus only on the bottom four, be sure you are using all eight always.
Communicate! Improvisation is expressing ourselves musically and communicating whether for our own enjoyment or for an audience, always communicate.
Last time, we were improvising with three notes: our home note, a lower neighbor and an upper neighbor. This time, we’ll explore our neighborhood going up the hill and use our lower neighbor, our home note, and four upper neighbors. This gives us a little 5-fingered scale with one extra note.
The 5-fingered scale has the home note, a passing note, the third of our tonality, another passing note, and the fifth of our tonality. We also have that extra lower neighbor.
We won’t spend a lot of time talking about the music theory of these notes here, but in summary, we have a tonic (our home or tone pitch), the super tonic (upper neighbor), the mediant which determines the mode of the scale (in this case major), the sub-dominant, and the dominant, an important scale note that leads back to the tonic and helps define it as the home and defines the tonality of our piece. We also have the lower neighbor which is our leading tone and “leads” us to our tonic also helping us define and communicate our tonality.
Things get a little trickier now, particularly with fingering, but we’re not caring about proper scale fingerings or anything at this point. Use what you know, but mostly, enjoy improvising with the notes.
Improvise in the same way we have been doing so, but now with six notes. Be sure that the first four elements: Dynamics, Duration, Silence, and Repetition are prioritized as these are just as important as the note tone.
Most students are surprised at this point how good the improvisations begin to sound.
Imagine with me a neighborhood. My home is in the center of the block and we live on a slight hill with the street going up to the right of our house and down to the left.
I have a neighbor on the right of my home and one of the left. We’ll call the neighbor to the right of my home going up the hill my upper neighbor and the neighbor to the left going down the hill my lower neighbor.
I really like my neighbors. They are great friends and I love to hang out with them, but I am always most comfortable at home. I could spend an entire afternoon at one of my neighbors, but I always have the desire to go home. I want to start out at home and end the day at home. I like to sleep in my own bed!
If we think of that C we used last time in one-note improvisation as home, we could say D is our upper neighbor and B is our lower neighbor. C is our Home, but I’m going to give it another name--it is our tonality.
One of the most important parts of a good improvisation is understanding tonality. No matter what the chords do, whether we’re improvising in classical or jazz, or the complexity of the chords, we have a tonality and that is our home.
We are now going to improvise in the exact same way as we did in one-note improvisation, using those first four elements: Dynamics, Note Duration, Silence, and Repetition
Pay attention to the tonality--are we helping the listener know where our home is? How can we creatively use our upper and lower neighbors yet allow as much creativity or even more with regards to dynamics, note duration, silence, and repetition?
Next time, we’ll add even more notes to our improvisation
One note improvisation removes the number one obstacle most students have and that is knowing which notes to play. With one note improvisation, we make it easy by only allowing them to play one note tone. Brian Chung calls this “Ode to Mr. Morse.” (Morse Code)
What makes up music?
Most of us forget all of these items and jump right to the big question, “What notes should I play?” So, number 5 becomes the priority and the rest are neglected.
One note improvisation eliminates this problem--we’ll only play one--and this allows us to give attention to four other elements that are just as important: Dynamics, Note Duration, Silence, and Repetition.
How to do one-note improvisation:
For a younger student and or even an adult trying this for the first time, the teacher can maintain the steady rhythmic pulse on the low C. Encourage the student to do both parts when and if able to do so. Our goal is to be as creative as possible and improvise even though we are only using one note
Next time, we’ll begin to expand our tonal color by adding a few notes.
In the past two months I’ve spent time with almost every one of my students on improvisation. This includes my youngest beginning students, advanced classical musicians, as well as all four piano classes I teach with students ranging from child to senior adult.
Why spend time on improvisation? Music is communication. Improvisation is most free and simple form of musical communication. It is such an important part of our music education. It is a simple concept that enables a student to grow by leaps and bounds. Unfortunately, it is also a neglected teaching concept--perhaps because many teachers don’t feel equipped to teach it. But, it is something any teacher and any student can do!
Last March, I enjoyed a workshop led by Brian Chung at the Music Teacher’s National Convention in Spokane, Washington. Brian Chung is an expert teacher on classical improvisation. He has a wonderful book titled, Improvisation at the Piano.
I’m going to share this short video as an introduction to Brian’s teaching on improvisation and in upcoming posts, I’m going to break this down into a few ideas to try--the same ideas we did in my classes and private lessons so you can try them on your own or in your teaching.
Martha Argerich is among the most inspiring pianists of our era and has given us decades of great performances. Her expressive and lyrical playing sets a high bar for all others playing this instrument. In a New York Philharmonic Orchestra program notes, Ravel was quoted, "The G-major Concerto took two years of work, you know. The opening theme came to me on a train between Oxford and London. But the initial idea is nothing. The work of chiseling then began. We've gone past the days when the composer was thought of as being struck by inspiration, feverishly scribbling down his thoughts on a scrap of paper. Writing music is seventy-five percent an intellectual activity." Perhaps that can be an inspiration to a composer or arranger who hasn't yet found the "muse" for a piece that allows them to quickly expel it to paper, but is slowly working through ideas and crafting their own masterpiece. American jazz was the inspiration behind this piece for Ravel and it is filled with both great excitement and beautiful lyrical themes that Argerich performs masterfully!
Think about a person who can sit down at the piano and just begin to play. They probably don't need music. Maybe, they are even improvising and simply playing from their heart. Isn't that a great image and goal for any pianist? I certainly think so! But, what I think is strange is the fact that most piano teachers do not make that their goal at all in their teaching. Rather than helping the student understand what makes music work, we focus on repertoire lists--checklists of pieces that we've been told they should learn to play. The student may learn some scales and chord patterns, but more times than not, they don't learn to read chord charts let alone improvise and create music.
Piano methods have their place, and the study of great repertoire is very important, but too often, we get lazy as piano teachers and go through our routines, processes and curricula without helping the student understand "why" and help them apply what they are learning as they grow as musicians.
My group piano classes are built on the goal of teaching students to be able to play and enjoy music. It is a practical type of instruction. Doing this in a group with peers allows students to interact and learn from each other perhaps getting new ideas to try for themselves.
A new class has just begun called Piano Fun - Pop Hits. While we will focus on specific popular melodies as a class, the skills the students will be developing can be applied and will be useful for playing any music the student is interested in playing--classical, pop, rock, gospel, blues--and students will be encouraged to discover new things and share them with others in the class.
Sound interesting? A Pop Hits class is starting up this week on Thursday afternoon at 1pm, and there will be other similar classes being launched in the very near future at other times if that time does not work for you. Let me know if you're interested and I'd love to have you in class. Contact me!