Lessons from my Piano Improv Class

Hey everyone!

I’m writing from Seward, Alaska, where I’m “resting” after spending 2 wonderful weeks teaching and performing at The Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. I say “resting” in quotation marks, because even though I was pretty tired the day after my end-of-festival concert, I woke up early the next morning, drove 12 hours south to the coast, and went halibut fishing in the Gulf of Alaska yesterday. (2 halibut, 1 silver salmon!)

I always have a lot of fun teaching my Piano Improv classes at the festival, and it seems like each year, the class goes in a slightly different direction, depending on the students’ needs and interests. (I always say that “I don’t teach piano… I teach people!)

This year the piano students came away with something powerful that I want to share with you. It’s the sense that “I can do it!”

I don’t mean this like a mantra or some type of saying that we can use to pep ourselves up (although this can sometimes be very helpful). I mean that I showed them how to sit down with a melody and a set of chords, and easily come up with something to play that sounds good. This is a huge thing, since not many pianists can really do this with confidence.

What I did was to take 3 pieces: Pachelbel’s Canon, Hey Jude, and Autumn Leaves, and apply the same techniques to all three. Even though Pachelbel’s Canon is classical, Hey Jude pop/rock, and Autumn Leaves jazz, we treated them all the same. When the class learned simple chords, we play all 3 songs with just the chords and melody. When I showed them various pop ballad accompaniments, we played all 3 as pop ballads. Same with arpeggiated patterns, rock beats, soloing, and melodic ornamentation. I also showed them how to apply my Flowing Water lessons to various chord progressions to help them learn to improvise on other songs of their choosing. We even played the Pachelbel as a hard rock piece! As we moved into walking bass and jazz harmonies and improv techniques, we then focused mostly on Autumn Leaves since this felt more musically appropriate.

Even though the class learned many specific improv techniques, the huge result was that they came out of the two weeks feeling very empowered. They now know how to look at a leadsheet, a chord chart, or even sheet music that they want to improvise on and know how to play something that actually sounds good. Every time.

As you know, this is a game-changer for them and I want you to feel this level of confidence too. You can start with the same 3 pieces the class did. The Pachelbel’s Canon, Hey Jude, and Autumn Leaves. Play each as if you’re accompanying a pop or rock vocalist. (Even Autumn Leaves sounds great like this!) Then embellish their melodies. After that, solo on them and see where this takes you. Are you learning Latin rhythms? Then play them as sambas. For this purpose it doesn’t really matter if Hey Jude ultimately sounds good as a samba. The goal is to get you so good at improvising over chords that it comes easier to you. Much easier.

If the students in my piano class can do it, so can you. Start by sitting down at the piano today, choosing a song, and playing a simple accompaniment in your favorite style. Then do the same to another song. And another. And another. After a while this will get incredibly easy. At this point, you’ll begin to experience the true foundation of what it means to improvise on piano with joy and confidence.

Good luck, and remember to enjoy yourself at every step of the way!


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