The Beginner’s Guide to Improvisation: How Teachers and Students Can Start Creating Together
For many of my students, the highlight of the lesson is scale improvisation. These short improvisation exercises build familiarity with scale and chord patterns while providing a space for creative play.
By allowing the opportunity to experience spontaneous music making, you are opening the door to many great benefits. Here are just a few:
Strengthens aural awareness
Provides an opportunity to assimilate patterns and apply music theory concepts
Requires students to organize rhythms on top of a steady pulse
Serves as a gateway activity to music composition
Ignites emotional expressivity and creativity
Anyone Can Improvise
I’ve had a lot of students (and teachers) give me the death stare when they hear the word “improvisation”. I understand where many people’s inhibitions are coming from. Improv takes the creative focus off of the composer and puts it onto the performer/improviser. There’s nothing wrong with this. It just takes a shift in mindset.
Also, for many of us, improvisation wasn’t included as a part of our piano education. We weren’t guided in this activity, so it feels inaccessible at this point in our careers. Fortunately, it is never too late to begin improvising, and once you gain a few easy tricks, it may become your favorite segment of every lesson!
I hope this article will not only equip you with the skills needed to introduce improv but also show you how to sequence the information so that both you and your students will feel confident and accomplished toward every improv session. Here’s how to get started:
Free Scale Improvisation Activity
Beginner improvisation works best when the teacher plays a simple, steady accompaniment with very few chord changes while the student improvises on all black keys or all white keys. Check out this free C Major improvisation exercise for a quick start (Click to Download):
This activity is a great way to get started if you are not ready to make up your own accompaniments for student improvisation. Here are some suggestions for this activity:
The notated accompaniments are intended to be played by the teacher, while the student improvises using the scale pattern shown on the keyboard diagram.
Students can play the five notes of the scale in any combination they choose or even combine notes to form intervals and chords.
You may take as many repeats of each accompaniment pattern as you like.
Feel free to end on any chord (tonic or unresolved sound)
The accompaniments are written for easy sight reading and ad libbing. Feel free to transform these patterns with your own rhythms and chord voicings (chord symbols are provided).
In this video, we give a demonstration of how the teacher accompaniment (secondo) would fit with a free improvisation (primo):
Tips for Beginner Improvisation
1. Start Simple: One or two notes are all that are needed to begin improvising. The first and fifth notes of a scale work well and are easily played with a full sound. Or, you could even have your student do a one-note improvisation to focus on playing creative rhythms. Gradually, add additional notes of the scale as the student becomes more comfortable.
2. Patterns: If your student is still showing signs of discomfort toward improvising, have him play a short, repeating melodic pattern while you play the accompaniment. Once the student feels confident, invite him to modify the pattern or break free of it entirely.
3. Character and Musical Expressiveness: Have the student listen closely to the character of the teacher accompaniment. The student can match dynamics, tempo, and articulation to complement the style of the teacher part.
4. Phrasing: Good musical phrases will sound as if they have direction. Show the student how to organize notes into short musical thoughts (motives) with periodic pauses/breaths. Discourage the temptation to wander aimlessly from key to key. Students may even find it helpful to imitate the rhythms and melodic patterns of songs they already know.
5. Long tones: Long notes are interesting, too! Many students love to play fast notes, but they may need encouragement to add more rhythmic variety. If you find that their improv doesn’t have any “space to breathe,” suggest that they occasionally hold out a note and listen to the way it blends with the harmony in the teacher accompaniment.
6. Repetition and Variety: Your students’ musical creations need equal parts unity/structure and variety/surprises. Suggest that students use some of both to produce captivating improvisations.
7. Student Engagement: While playing, you may need to periodically give positive feedback or suggest new ideas in order to keep students engaged. Otherwise, improvisation can easily turn into a mindless activity. Make sure you interact with students and keep the energy moving forward with new ideas: “Wow! I really like how your melody flowed perfectly back to the tonic note! Now, can you try playing it one octave higher. What would happen if you modified your rhythm to include dotted notes, etc."
8. Have fun! Ultimately, improvisation should be fun! While this list offers great suggestions to help you and your students get better at improvising, also make sure you do not become too restrictive. It is a good idea to allow your students some time to explore the instrument freely. Focusing on just one or two of these suggestions during an improv session will make a huge impact!