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!
Get my free ebook: Left Hand Techniques for Jazz Piano
You'll also get my weekly jazz newsletter with practice tips and inspiration