I was watching some videos of Elton John performing live, and it reminded me of just how tied to the sheet music most pianists are.
But Elton John isn't.
Yes, he knows how his songs go (of course!), but he also gives himself leeway to freely interpret his piano parts from day-to-day, according to how he feels each time he plays. He doesn't change the overall feel of the songs, but he clearly has fun improvising the chord rhythms and his melodic fills. He even changes some intros that you may have have thought were "set in stone."
The introduction to his classic "Your Songs" is a wonderful example of this.
If you know Elton's music at all, you've probably heard this. Listen to what the piano plays at the very beginning, before he starts singing.
Thousands of pianists probably play "Your Song" every day all around the world, in living rooms, restaurants, and concert halls. And I'd say that 99.99% of them of them wouldn't dream of changing the intro. They play it exactly as it's written in the sheet music and yes, it sounds good. (Most of them wouldn't know how to change it anyway.)
But the interesting thing is that Elton John himself changes it all the time. He knows the chords (Eb, Ab, and Bb), and feels free to play it a little differently each time. I've watched several videos of him playing it over the years, and one time he'll change the rhythm a little; at other times he'll play a different phrase with his right hand.
You can watch him do it here:
Why does Elton do this? He does it because its fun. A lot of fun. Also, it helps keep the music fresh for him and it sounds great.
We can do this too. And why not? Elton John shouldn't have all the fun! Improvising becomes easy once you get used to playing from chords, and it makes our music come alive in a whole new way. Remember, the only thing holding us back is ourselves.