Hi! I’m up in Alaska, midway through two weeks of teaching Piano Improv at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. The midway point in a 2-week festival is interesting, and I like to use it to full advantage in my classes.
My piano improv students are all at different levels of ability, and rather then immediately begin with showing everyone new techniques and musical concepts, I decided to take a different route. Beginning with our first class, I started by helping each pianist fully enjoy improvising at the level they were already at.
This may sound a bit surprising, until we reflect on how we pianists are trained. From a very early age, we are taught that each new piece will get more and more complicated until, 10 years or so later, we’ll finally arrive at the desired level of pianistic proficiency.
While this is fine and perhaps necessary in order to master the instrument, it all too often means that pianists never fully appreciate the level they’re at. I sometimes joke that pianists feel “If I can play this piece well, it must not be difficult enough!” Actually, that’s not really a joke. It’s often the truth, and this feeling of “not being good enough” is debilitating for us as musicians.
We will grow much faster as musicians if we can merge “Enjoyment” with “Attainment.”
With this in mind, we spent the first few days in class simply improvising with a very narrow range of chords and melodic options. Sometimes with just a single note. At other times, just the white notes (because you don’t have to think about them too much.). The idea was to loosen ourselves up and enjoy the act of improvising music with what each student already knew.
We improvised folk music, dramatic scenes such as rain storms, pop ballads, lively rock and roll accompaniments, and semi-classical pieces. We improvised over the two most common chord progressions in musical history and learned how to recognize these progressions when we encounter them in sheet music. We improvised Keith Jarrett-like vamps over single bass notes and octaves, and became extremely comfortable improvising in several keys (It’s easy when you know how). Sure, you may “know” the key of G major, but can you sit down and confidently make up some beautiful music in the key of G for the next 3 minutes? The students in my piano class can!
In one short week, each student in the class, even those at the beginning level, has learned to thoroughly enjoy the process of sitting down at the piano and improvising, whether it’s on a pre-existing set of chord changes or completely from “scratch.”
That’s a big deal, and it’s the arrival at a new, fresh beginning as musicians.
Now… on to the second week, when we’ll bring our newfound sense of “enjoyment” to the keyboard as we focus on “attainment” by learning new techniques and musical concepts in a variety of genres and styles.
There’s another aspect of this. If you don’t enjoy your playing now at your current level, you run the risk of never fully enjoying it, because there’ll always be a new level of attainment to reach. But if you learn to enjoy your playing right now, you’ll always enjoy it, even as you reach higher and higher levels of attainment.
Yes, we can enjoy the journey as we “let the music flow!” Have a great week!