Attaining true fluency with our piano improv

Hey everyone!

I began improvising jazz and rock music when I was 15 years old and my friends and I formed a “garage band.” When I think back on those days I feel lucky to have started in such a fun atmosphere, without being frontloaded by too much theory or having someone tell me “You need to learn this,” “You need to learn that.” We just enjoyed ourselves and learned more about chords and scales when we felt stuck. It all unfolded naturally.

I also feel fortunate that I still feel as excited about playing music now as I did then. Every day is a new discovery!

All of this has come full circle recently, as I’ve been getting requests to teach kids and teens online via Skype and Zoom. I spent about 5 years teaching piano to 8-17 year-olds at a local school from 2003-2011, and I was surprised to find that my own playing became about 10 times better from helping young pianists relax and improvise without fear or hesitation. Not only did I (finally!) start playing the way I’d always dreamed about, but I was able to put this kind of teaching into when I created it the following year, in 2012.

We all need to continually tap into the “kid” in ourselves as we play piano. At the same time, as adults, we can bring our experience and maturity into the picture as well, so it’s a “win-win” situation for us.

The key is to aim for fluency.

Many of you are so close to playing fluently, but you don’t realize it. If it’s still a struggle each time you play a tune, it may be because you’re only focusing on playing the “hard stuff.”

“Fluency” doesn’t mean having to memorize everything imaginable before we can begin. Rather, it’s like language. We learn a few words as toddlers and then immediately begin to use them freely to communicate with others.

But as adults we often sabotage ourselves. Wouldn’t it be ludicrous to require a toddler to be able to spell every word she spoke? Yet that’s exactly what we do, for example, when we try to play advanced chord voicings on a jazz tune before we even know the melody well. Or the basic 7th chords in all inversions.

Instead, go back to a time when you were so delighted to learn an Am7 chord that you happily improvised over it for 20 minutes at a time, as I did with my teenage jazz/rock band. That’s how I attained fluency, and it’s how you can too.

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!


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