How to use motifs to personalize your piano playing

One of the unexpected effects of everyone staying inside their homes over the past few weeks is that pianists have been spending a lot of time playing their instruments. I hear the lady who lives upstairs from me playing her Bach and Schumann pieces for hours daily, and I hear about it via email from pianists all over the world. I have teenage piano students in Europe and Asia who are progressing faster than ever, and adult students everywhere who are turning to their music for comfort and to use their new-found spare time productively. It’s very inspiring to me and I’m doubling-up my efforts to help as many pianists as I can with their improvising.

Facebook Live has become a nice way for me to share some relaxing piano music with you each week. The format is simple: every week I sit down at my home piano and play 30 minutes of relaxing piano music from various genres, including pop, rock, jazz, classical, new age, and new improvisations. You can hear these performances on the Facebook pages and YouTube channel.

As pianists, one of the questions that goes through our minds when we play songs is “How do I want to play this?” “How can I express something of my own through the music?”

One effective way to personalize any song is to create a simple motif at the beginning, during the intro. Instead of just playing the chords, make up a short little phrase with a few notes. It’s surprisingly easy to do and yes, you can learn how to do it yourself in about 3 minutes. If you’re in the key of C, play C D E. There you go – a motif!

You can then come back to this motif at various times during the song. You can play it after the chorus, during your improvised solo, and for the ending if you wish.

Listen to how I used a motif to personalize John Lennon’s beautiful song “Across The Universe” during my recent Facebook Live performance:

Ron Drotos: Across The Universe

You’ll hear me play a very short and simple motif right at the beginning and in this performance I stay with it for quite a while before bringing in John Lennon’s melody. That’s the beauty of improvising: you can do what you choose!

Enjoy trying this on a songs you already know well. They can be in any genre and at any level from beginner to advanced. That’s another wonderful aspect of improvisation: anyone can do it!

Good luck and have fun with this 🙂

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