December 19, 2021

About the Author: Ljubica Stojanović

Ljubica is a 1st prize-winner of over 20 national and international competitions. She is a concert pianist and piano teacher at The London Piano Institute

Improvising on piano – Part 2

Hello music lovers! In part 1 of this article, I wrote about the importance of composing and improvising on piano. If you haven’t yet – check it out. We discussed the very beginnings of structured improvisation. It is easy and anyone can do it. It might not be the most comfortable at first but it is definitely beneficial, fun and progressively better the more we do it!

I suggested that the first steps of structured improvisation could be through imitation of what we hear and variation of some of the components in that material.

In this article, I would like to discuss further steps in improvising, as well as a little bit more on free versus structured improvisation and the beginnings of composing.

Now, I am in no way an experienced on stage improviser – I have taken an improvisation course and I frequently do it in the comfort of my practice room. I am not yet comfortable with improvising on stage and I don’t feel a particular appeal in doing so by myself – perhaps it is easier with a group of people. My music cravings are satisfied with me being on stage, solo or not.

hands playing the piano

However, I have managed to reach something special with improvisation, another layer of myself where letting go had to happen. From that moment onwards I knew that this was something that is benefiting me both musically and personally. I would like to share a few more tips with you.

Free Improvisation!

This means absolutely no structure. A completely blank canvas of nothingness! Is that more terrifying than having structure?

How to start?

There are no rules so we don’t need to create any. You can use all your musical devices… melody as you like, chords if it feels right, rhythmical patterns, just one musical line.

The piano is a big instrument – using its full capacity can be an incredible experience. Try knocking on the wood, tapping, and opening it and touching the strings, plucking them, rubbing them, imagine it’s a guitar, combine it with pedalling. If you press the keys silently while holding the pedal and touch the strings – you can get incredible effects. There can be hundreds of sound worlds created from just playing around.

man practising the piano

People sometimes wonder: “what am I doing“… The point of these sessions is not in creating a masterpiece. If I try writing a few pages I am certainly not a writer, let alone a good one. But in reality, continuity with this type of experiment is proving to do wonders.

People end up enjoying themselves, finding out so many things! One day you might hit the wall and have absolutely no creative drive, the other day you can get lost inside the sounds as if you are meditating. It is almost a spiritual experience while being liberated of all the structures and visiting the sound world that you are creating for yourself.

It is important to feel safe with yourself – that you feel that an act of improvisation is not stupid or pointless, that the end game doesn’t count. That way it actually ends up being so inspired – and this is a fact: many amazing pieces of art came out of that state, state of flow and experimental state of being. Some musicians find it helpful to turn the voice recording application on, later revisit the recording and then use the materials that they assessed sound good.

grand piano inside the room

Free improvisation challenge for you to try:

Seven Days of improvising

Let’s say you spare 20 minutes each day to play around your instrument. Explore whatever feels like that day. Sometimes just a few minutes will end up sounding amazing. What is important is that you either journal after each session or that you record the sessions – it will be an incredibly interesting experience. You can then compare how day 1 felt compared to the last day, you can scan what changes happened in your mindset.

Structured improvisation challenge! – improvising on piano!

Day 1 – Mozart tune

Pick a melody by Mozart and do something with it. Change registers, chords, the anatomy of melody, find what feels good!

Day 2 – Song of your choice

Pick any song you like, this includes any style of your preference. Just playing it on the instrument is already a nice achievement presuming you used your ears only and not a pdf download. Apply any changes to it!

woman practising the piano

Day 3 – Folk tunes from different countries!

Try any song from Balkan. YouTube has an extensive source of various folk tunes. For this challenge, I would encourage you to tap the rhythms on the piano lid, table, your thighs! This can only improve your sense of rhythm, groove and instincts. There is nothing to lose and much to gain, plus you might end up dancing!

Day 4 – Repeat rhythmical patterns

This is more of an invitation to stay alert that day, try to repeat the rhythm patterns that you hear that day!

Day 5 – Music style you never heard

On day 5, I would like to invite you to listen to a music style you never exposed yourself to! This can be anything from the beginnings of music until today. Let your imagination fly. My suggestions are reggae, Indian music, various types of jazz, even renaissance chanting. Use this exposure to create a mood that is the base of your improvisation that day.

Day 6 – Romantic melody improvisation

Try improvising on a melody by Chopin, Brahms, or any other composer from the romantic period in classical music. Don’t forget to keep the improvising units short and structured, stick to 2 bar phrases or a little more if it feels right!

piano inside the room

Day 7 – Total nonsense!

Day 7 could be the day when you don’t have to make any sense in the way you sound. Actively forget the conditioning to make sense. The only structure could be the bar numbers but even that is not relevant.

I hope that this challenge and improvising, in general, helps us all open our minds. It is a wonderful way to set ourselves free and try and touch the sense of creativity without the pressure to achieve or climb up to any level.

Let’s not forget that even the best improvisers in comedy, acting and other forms of art – failed miserably on stage, multiple times (before reaching excellence). Continuity in improvising is the key, we simply get more and more free. It is a beautiful way to embrace a possibility of “failure” (in this case, something that sounds funny…). It is a rare opportunity to find something special in ourselves and often a very nice musical material that is truly ours!

Happy improvising!

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