A Piano Improv Miracle!

When pianists learn to improvise, there comes a moment when it begins to ‘click.’ They get it. They take whatever musical vocabulary they know and use it spontaneously to express themselves at the keyboard. Whether they’re 5 or 85, this is a major moment, and can be very joyful. Although I’ve seen this many times during my 28 years of teaching experience, one instance stands out from the rest.

I was once asked to teach a 14-year-old boy named Steve, who had a learning disability called ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Steve had begun to play piano rather late, at age 12, but had made remarkable progress in a short time. He played classical music and could already read fluently when we started working together. I also noticed that although he was highly intelligent, his ADHD made it difficult for him to work in an organized way.

After a few lessons, I began to suspect that Steve might have hidden improvisational talents. When I showed him how to improvise a melody and asked him to try it for himself, however, he blandly stated that he didn’t know how to do that. I didn’t force the issue, but occasionally brought up the subject in subsequent lessons. I’d casually say something like, “Hey, why don’t we make up something on the black keys together?” I remember once asking him to “play just one note, any note at all.” He simply chose a note, played it, and commented that it didn’t have any meaning for him. Even though he played written music beautifully, there was absolutely no connection between his inner ear, emotions, and the melodic fragments he reluctantly created.

Then the miracle happened: I showed up at his house for a lesson one day, and his mother greeted me at the door with tears of joy flowing down her cheeks. Steve, she told me, had sat down at the piano the previous day and proceeded to improvise beautiful music for several hours. “Like Beethoven!”, she said. It was true. Something had clicked in this smart and talented youth, and the most beautiful and energetic music began to pour forth from him through the keyboard. He has since performed in public, sharing his musical improvisations with appreciative audiences, and he continues to love music to this day. Congratulations, Steve!

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6 thoughts on “A Piano Improv Miracle!”

  1. Amazing. There is still so much we don’t understand about the brain and how learning takes place. Oliver Sacks has a wonderfully fascinating book called “Musicophilia” that you would like (if you haven’t read it already, although I suspect you have). In it he talks a little about synesthesia and music. I have the most common form of synesthesia: I see letters and numbers in color. Usually it doesn’t show up with music for me, but some chords will make me see color. I wrote a song several years ago called “Wyoming” that I shared with you in a lesson, and the E2 chord makes me see a pretty sage/sea green color. But when my friend plays breaks on it on his guitar, all of a sudden I see flashes of orange, yellow, and lime green! He completely re-flavors the song in a way that I just love. I call it a “swamp-grass” sound! I hope that eventually I can break through to a natural improvisational style, but for now I’m being patient with myself because I know it takes time.

  2. Thanks, Kelly. I don’t know that particular book, but will order it. I’m becoming more interested in music and the brain. I’ve recently read a book called The Power of Music by Elena Mannes. It shows some results of people’s brain scans while they listened to music. Some interesting results: for instance, each musical pitch ‘lights up’ a separate and distinct area of the brain. They’re really just beginning to study all this scientifically. A friend of mine is doing this type of research in Edinborough.

    • Very interesting! I will look for that book. I have always been fascinated by people who have perfect pitch and the fact that a truly distinct area of the brain lights up for separate pitches must have something to do with that. Alas, I will never have perfect pitch… except in a weird kind of way!

      • I have it in a weird kind of way, too. I suspect that the brain region aspect is similar to the learning of languages. Kids under 12 who learn a 2nd language have part of the brain that is larger than the rest of us. However, as we know, it’s still possible to learn a 2nd language if you start when you’re older, but maybe it’s more difficult and fluency doesn’t come as easily. Perfect pitch seems to be similar. If I play a piece enough, then transpose it to a new key, I’m sometimes shocked to hear how much brighter or mellower it now sounds. Also, whenever a singer has entered in the wrong key during a performance (!), I’ve somehow immediately shifted to the new key, without thinking about it. It usually happens instinctively, but I’m not sure how.


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