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
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.
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!
We are in week seven of our eight-week recreational music making piano classes. This has been such a great experience. We launched four classes. Three were targeted at adults and one for upper elementary to young teens. Two of the adult classes were scheduled during the afternoon hours.
Glen Gould was a master interpreter of Bach. He had a great talent at understanding and performing the polyphony of Bach's music. Gould brings out clarity of voices. Gould also put a lot of thought into his performances and trying to interpret them as Bah would have played them. They weren't written for the legato sound of the piano and Gould plays the piano in a style reminiscent of the harpsichord or clavichord which these pieces were written. There are a lot of good Bach performances on recording, but Gould's performances remain among the very best.
I grew up as the king of bad fingering. I can remember teachers and adjudicators criticizing my fingering all the way through my younger years. They diligently tried to instill in me good technic and logical fingering. But, the technic and fingering I used worked, so it was a tough sell to get me to unlearn one way and try to do it another. I used proper fingering in the basics such as scales, but everything else was somewhat of a free-for-all.
I think my own problem was made worse from playing jazz and improvising. If I’m improvising a technical lick or phrase, I’m improvising the fingering as well. The fingering usually worked, but wasn’t efficient. It is so easy to allow yourself to practice with and use a bad technic and not even realize the limitations it causes.
When I’m working with a student, I talk less about fingering and more about efficiency of technic. My advanced students know that I could care less what fingering they use unless it is inefficient. Our hands are different. Not only in size, but in what feels natural and is tension-free. While my students know they have flexibility in choosing a fingering that works and is comfortable for them, they know what I’m looking for is efficiency. We talk about avoiding “acrobatics.” Acrobatics cause inefficiency and likely affect the expression of the passage at best and at worst, the accuracy and consistency.
We often have to do acrobatics as we play. Liszt and Rachmaninoff filled their music with acrobatics at times, but not everything is an acrobatic and it is important to recognize when something doesn’t require acrobatics and can be performed efficiently. Just as important, we must do acrobatics consistently and with as much efficiency as possible.
Consistent and efficient fingering takes advantage of the wonderful skill each of our brains is equipped to do and that is muscle memory. It is that wonderful phenomena of learning a passage properly and never really thinking about it again--the hands just do their thing.
Why such bad fingering? Let’s change the question. Why not use the most efficient and effective way to play a technical passage and enable our muscle memory to help us learn things and be able to play them over and over accurately and expressively?
Alexander Scriabin wrote this beautiful short piece when he was only 16 years old. The piece is filled with deep emotion and a gypsy-like expressive and weeping melody. Another performance that makes Evgeny Kissin one of my favorite pianists.