PIANO: Dance Moves (why improv can make our practice joyful)

August always feels like a transition month between work and play. I remember reading Calvin and Hobbes as a kid and Calvin would freak out in June because "ONLY 3 MONTHS TIL SCHOOL STARTS! WE NEED TO CRAM MORE SUMMER IN!" 

How can we integrate that summer sense of carefree enjoyment, of freedom, of nowhere to go into our year-round practice? Practice routines can become such chores if we don't routinely cultivate a sense of joy.

I suspect that one way to do this is to plan for regular improvisation time into our practice. 

Improvisation does not just belong to jazz. We know that Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Liszt (and the Liszt goes on....) were all master improvisers. Passages for improvisation are indicated even in Mozart piano sonatas....not to mention the quintessential money-maker warhorse the concerto. To a great extent, audiences of the past judged a performer on their ability to improvise and compose on the spot...not just their ability to set the instrument on fire.

I'll go one step further and tell you that I suspect that some composers may not have been faithful to their own scores. It is highly possible, given the improvisational performance practices at the time, that Liszt or Mozart or Beethoven (etc) might have changed their own notes while performing! Perhaps the score was more of an idealized snapshot of what the piece could be. Creative types are easily bored....and perhaps performance was more exploratory and improvisational than it is today (with classical music). 

 [It may surprise some to know that our attitude that Classical music performance MUST contain all the right notes is a MODERN construction......the generation before ours cared more about the "feeling" of the music rather than the notes (check out Schnabel's performances of Beethoven, or even Horowitz in concert).] 

I'm not suggesting that we cease caring about accuracy. I'd like us to expand our idea of what "correct" music is. And perhaps one way to arrive at the "correct" music is to improvise regularly. Improvisation awakes our inner child. It helps us bring back joy, freedom, and creativity into our process. It gives us a more natural technique (this is maybe why jazz musicians are SO proficient technically). And....it leads you to a deeper place artistically. You begin to express ideas organically, through your inner self, instead of always translating from the outside (the score).

"But," you say..."I am not a jazz musician! I don't know how to do improv!" 

Best rules of thumb: START and STAY simple. And like any wedding dance floor officiando instinctively knows, NEVER bust the same move twice.

 Here are some ideas:

1) Take your favorite melody and change the rhythm. 

2) Take your favorite melody and change the notes (preserving the rhythm).

3)  Give yourself parameters (please forgive the piano-speak!):

  • use only black keys, play quarter notes.
  • use white keys and mix up quarters and eighth notes. 
  • take any scale and fit it to your favorite rhythm (or a rhythm from a piece you're working on)
  • take a short 3-4 chord progression and see if you can improvise a melody over it

4) For the kids, I love to have them come up with short stories---even just figuring out a setting (ie a dark forest on Halloween, or the beach in June...etc) and we create little mood poems.

And maybe this is just 5-10 minutes of your daily practice. (Maybe it's a great way to start or finish a session) The important thing is that you allow yourself to do this WITHOUT judgement. Yes, some attempts might sound stupid to you but no one cares. The point is that you begin to create and create without limits. I believe you'll discover a newfound joy. As we've talked about before, the phrase is "PLAY my instrument."


Curious to try improv? let me know how it goes! 

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