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.
Today’s blog is unique for me in that rather than a post where I can write based on my own and my students’ experiences, I am writing on a subject I am at the beginning of my discovery and experimentation. My hope in writing in these early stages will help me to learn more from these early experiences and to encourage others to make discoveries and share them as they may help me develop my own classes to be more effective and enjoyable.
Today, I will focus on three questions:
The National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) Foundation website (nammfoundation.org) shares several great reasons for studying and teaching music. It has been scientifically proven that studying and playing music is a benefit to people of all ages. Babies, toddlers, school-aged, working adults, and seniors have all shown a wide variety of benefits to playing and being immersed in music at their own level.
Playing an instrument enables children to do better in school and life and teens find music as their “social glue.” Adults find playing music reduces levels of stress and becomes an emotional outlet. Seniors find music making enables them to better manage diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson and they see their own self-esteem increase.
RMM is more about the experience of music-making than the outcome. Classes focus on individual process without the pressure of performance in front of others. As part of a class, even the smallest contribution adds to the whole and this experience is enjoyable and rewarding.
RMM is simply another way to learn music. It isn’t a better or a lesser way. It has a different way of reaching the same goal: to better our lives by playing music. Students who have taken traditional piano lessons for some time but are “hitting the wall” and ready to quit may find RMM just what they need to reignite their passion. Adults who always wished they could play--some who have taken lessons before and others who have never taken--should find RMM classes a great way to experience playing the piano and making music. Some RMM students may continue on semester after semester for years and others may transfer to traditional piano lessons or even using RMM as a start to another instrument altogether. RMM works together with traditional piano lessons and provides additional ways for a person to get all of the benefits of playing an instrument.
RMM can be for virtually anyone. Classes are taken together in a classroom with several electric pianos. The pressure is low and the enjoyment is high. The commitment is short 8-week mini-semesters. While having a piano or keyboard at home would be a benefit and allow the student to play and have this enjoyment at home, having an instrument to practice on is not required--in fact, practicing on one’s own is not required. This is a big distinction from traditional piano lessons.
Texas news author and columnist Dayle Shockley wrote, “Music is a gift that lasts a lifetime. While not everyone possesses the natural talent for playing well, the way I see it, a little music is better than no music at all.”
When I introduce a student to chord chart reading, one of two things always happens. Occasionally, the student looks at me in bewilderment and is very confused. I usually attribute this to overanalyzing. Learning music theory is very important to a musician, but I think that comes after using music theory.
Think how we learn to speak our native language. My parents did not place a dictionary in my crib or drill me with flash cards to learn vocabulary words as an infant. They said simple sentences to me, and I learned to mimick--probably saying one word such as, "potty" or "bottle." Eventually my vocabulary grew even though I didn't realize I was learning a language. Baby's soon say, "Mama" or "Daddy," "bird" or "kitty." My language grew as I grew and my one-word pre-sentences became more complete sentences. "I am hungry." "I have to go potty."
The ii-V7-I progression is very common in jazz and pop music. It is really just a small alteration of the very common classical progression, IV-V7-I. Last month, I wrote about using the chords of that progression in different ways including turning it into the blues progression to allow a student to "get off the page" and improvise.
When we change the IV chord to ii, our progression works essentially the same and we find this progression in countless jazz songs.
This is where learning the progression by sound and feel is more important than analyzing and when introducing this progression. I ask the student to simply play the notes as I give them and I give them a pattern of II-V7-I with good voice leading. Generally, I'll voice it with the third on top of the II chord and leave the 5th out and putting the minor 7th in the chord with my thumb. Then, I'll let the third become the 7th of the V7 chord and use the root and third, again leaving out the 5th. My thumb lowers 1/2 step to the third and the root jumps. Then, we move back to the I chord with the third on top, major 7th in the middle, and root on the bottom. Again, we skip the unimportant fifth of the chord to have a nice voicing. It looks like this:
We then create a progression of continuing ii-V7-I's. The third and seventh of the CM7 chord can be lowered 1/2 step each to create a C minor 7th chord which becomes the II chord to go to Bb which becomes the ii chord to go to Ab and so forth. It can be never-ending.
Students can learn the progression, develop some muscle memory, and learn to easily recognize the pattern in pieces. It is a fun exercise, but only if the student just imitates and doesn't over-analyze or over-think. The student who frees themself to learn and internalize this simple progression will make tremendous steps to moving forward in their ability to express and play the piano.
I was performing in a concert just last night and talked with two other musicians who are very talented rock musicians, but both said they play only by ear and can't read music at all. They had both taken classical piano lessons, but found the traditional lessons irrelevant to what they really wanted to do, so they quit. A statement like that always strikes me a little sad. These musicians are top-notch and don't need to read music, but my question is always, why not? It is unfortunate, their teachers didn't find a way to connect their desires with the important foundation they were learning in the traditional lessons.
I think as piano teachers, we often lose a student's interest when we focus on note reading as the key to reading music rather than chords. We fail to help the student achieve what they really want to do and keep a student in a curriculum limited to classical music. Note reading is important, and one simply cannot play traditional "classical" literature without reading notes, but often a student becomes great a reading music, but has no understanding of what they are reading. They become robotic, computer playbacks without truly knowing the music they are playing. I've witnessed talented college music majors who are unable to play "Happy Birthday" for their friend unless they had sheet music!
A knowledge of chords and chord reading can be the key to help a piano student unlock a whole new world of understanding music and even open doors to new interests such as pop music and jazz.
Most piano teachers teach scales and along with the scales is usually chord patterns. The chord pattern is usually taught is I-IV-I-V (or V7)-I. Along with that, most teachers probably help their students understand basic theory such as the names of the chords and scale degrees such as tonic, sub-dominant, and dominant. Of course, this flows naturally into understanding the dominant 7 chord.
Too often, we leave it at that point as teachers. If our students have this simple progression learned, let's take it a step further. The subdominant leading through dominant and back home to tonic is foundational in all kinds of music, but we also see the backwards cadence used often in contemporary music: V-IV-I. Allowing a student to explore this backwards cadence can be great fun and a wonderful way to explore some new styles. Encourage to use multiple keys. Make sure they understand the classical scale degrees, but also help them to see chord patterns calling the chord names what they are: G -F- C for example.
Take this a step further and change the progression to I-I-I-I-IV-IV-I-I-V-IV-I-I with each chord taking four beats. You've now taught them the 12-bar blues pattern using chords and voicings they are already know. Show them the many places the 12-bar blues pattern is used through blues, rock, gospel, and country music. Encourage them to explore, play the pattern in multiple keys and discover melodies of songs they know. With this simple step, you've introduced them to blues and are allowing them to improvise in a natural way. You might introduce the blues scale at this time, or perhaps move on to something completely different like a song they would like to learn and play.
I would encourage introducing the Nashville system of chord reading at this point. There is such a easy flow from the classical system to the Nashville and it encourages the student to think about the music theory. The student will have a great grasp of the music theory behind the chords they are playing by learning this system.
Be sure to have them also read the progression from the chord note names as well: such as C-F-G-C. Encourage them to experiment with 7th chords. In classical music, the dominant 7th always leads back to tonic. That doesn't always happen in pop, blues, and jazz. The blues progression cries out to be played with all dominant 7th chords. But, encourage them to try it with major 7ths and minor 7ths as well. As long as you're now talking bout 7ths, you might as well explain diminished and augmented 7ths as well.
A final step in this little set of exercises based off the common student chord progressions is to introduce 6 chords. The 6th chord is a great place to start with introducing the wide variety of interesting chords we have in our musical palette. 6ths are easy to find and make a pleasing sound. Once they are confortable with that idea, set them free. Challenge them to find 9ths, 11ths, 13ths... The sky is the limit when we alter one of those notes.
By now, the student is freed from the confines of the simple chord progression we started with and is hopefully starting to understand and feel free to try things and do something new. The key is listening to oneself when playing.
These steps could be developed over a couple weeks or several months as there are no limits to what a student might do. Eventually, one will want to explore some new chord progressions. My favorite to introduce at this time is the first chord progression I introduce to a beginning jazz piano student: ii-V7-I. Next time, we'll talk about the great fun a student can have with this foundational progression in jazz music.