Ideas for piano improv on Christmas songs

Christmas, as with any holiday that involves family gatherings, is a wonderful time to sit down at the piano and fill the house with music. And as an improvising pianist, you can use this time to personalize your interpretations of everyone’s holiday favorites.

The key is to “take in” the mood of the room.

Let’s say that it’s morning and everyone’s relaxing.  Maybe this isn’t the best time for your heavy metal version of “Silent Night.” (Actually, there may never be a best time for that, but that decision is up to you!) Instead, choose a simple tune that you can easily play the melody and chords to. One of my favorites for this is “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” It’s beautiful, soothing, and fairly easy to play. I also like it because it goes way back to the middle ages and the verse is Gregorian chant-like. This means that even though many arrangers put in a million chords, you can easily play the entire verse over just one bass note, an E. (The melody outlines an E minor chord.)

When I play “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” I start by simply playing the melody with my RH over an E bass note, which I keep repeating like a drone. I’ll start in a fluid, chant-like way and see where this takes me. Sometimes I get a little “classical” with it. Sometimes it takes me to a gentle New Age sound. At other times I get more rhythmic and start improvising a la Keith Jarrett. It all depends on three things: 1. My experience of the music and how it unfolds, 2. The song itself and what it’s possibilities are for improvisation, and 3. The mood and activity of the household and everyone else. If everyone is lively, I might play lively too. Or I might stay reflective to bring a relaxing feel behind everyone’s activity.

You can do this with any Christmas song you like.

A jazzy song like”Jingle Bells” can be played with a stride left hand, a walking bass line, or in boogie-woogie fashion. You can stay with the melody, embellish it a little, or play a completely improvised solo. Jazzy or bluesy. Or both!

With improvisation, “the sky’s the limit.” Have fun and see where your favorite Christmas songs can bring you, musically!

I’ve arranged 20 of my favorite Christmas songs in a variety of musical styles, including jazz, pop, gospel, and classical. You can play them all with my ebook, A Keyboard Christmas Collection. Enjoy!


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