Piano improv is becoming mainstream (again!)

The phrase “There’s nothing new under the sun” is certainly true in music, but that’s no reason not to rejoice when something wonderful happens.

Case in point: the current resurgence of piano improvisation.

Back in the day, when Bach, Mozart and Chopin were around, everyone improvised. Some did it well, other did it poorly, but everyone improvised. It was a vital part of music-making. Then, with the ascendance of recordings, improvisation died out among classical musicians. (Isn’t it fascinating that this happened at the same time that jazz developed? A coincidence?)

But lately, piano improv has begun to make a comeback and I’ll be bold and predict that this is only the beginning. Right now, in 2015, we’re at the cusp of a whole new era, where improvisation will be as commonplace among tomorrow’s classical musicians as it is with jazz and rock artists.

In a way, this makes a lot of sense. After all, today’s young classical musicians have grown up listening to jazz, pop, and rock as much as anything else. It’s in the culture. They see how much fun it is and want to do it too. That’s why orchestras love to get the chance to play with rock bands, which wasn’t the case during the 1970s (Deep Purple’s keyboardist Jon Lord has spoken about this).

Another reason for the renewed interest in improv is the new crossover between pop and classical. It’s happening on both sides: classical composers are using pop influences in their writing and pop artists will use classical-sounding intros and textures in their arrangements. Pop can draw from any style now, including classical, and no one thinks twice about it.

Groups like The Piano Guys are breaking down the barriers too. I play their mashup of Vivaldi and Disney for my young piano students and they simply accept it as the “usual.” They enjoy it and don’t think it’s anything out of the ordinary. Amazing!

We can also see this in mainstream media. The daily Google alerts I get about music improvisation used to be mainly notices for avante garde classical concerts. Now they’re just as likely to be about kids learning to improvise in their school music classes. Here’s a recent article about how music improv can help dementia patients. Improvisation is everywhere these days!

Piano teachers are also getting into the act. All over the world, piano teachers are starting to realize that their students want more than only written-out classical music, no matter how wonderful that may be. The students also want to play pop music as pop musicians, and teachers are realizing that their teen students tend to stay with piano for a few extra years if they learn to improvise along with the more traditional music they play. In fact, I’m delighted that more and more piano teachers are signing up for my video course because they want to learn to improvise and pass it along to their own students. I feel honored to help them do this and help spread the joy of improvisation with a new generation of young pianists!

As I said above, I feel this is only the beginning of a whole new era of piano improv. Let’s hope that in 20 years it’s completely mainstream again, just like it was in classical music’s heyday!

Do you know anyone who’s looking for piano lessons for their children? My Piano for Kids series combines a traditional approach with fun improvisation, right from the very first lesson!

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2 thoughts on “Piano improv is becoming mainstream (again!)”

  1. Yes! As a young piano student what I really wanted to learn was not the classical repertoire–I had no dreams of being a professional performer of music. I wanted to learn how to just PLAY at the piano. I’m not so young anymore, but I am still learning, and with your encouragement have given myself permission to improvise on the piano. I have been working with that little song I wrote (Romance) every day, playing the chords, playing arpeggios of the chords, inserting bits of melody here and there. I am having fun. And maybe most important for me is that it doesn’t matter if no one else ever hears me play this way. I’m doing it for me.


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