Do you know what the hardest thing about learning piano improv is? Most people would answer this question by naming things like scales, chords, or advanced voicings, but it's none of that.
Think about it: most trained pianists know their scales forwards and backwards, but they can't improvise. Music theorists know everything about chords, but they can't improvise. Would-be jazz pianists buy every book they can find about chord voicings, but they still can't improvise with any degree of ease.
I just got an email today from a beginning improviser who identified the exact difficulty: The hardest thing about learning piano improv is applying what you learn on one song to the next song. You have to identify exactly what you're doing in the first song before you can apply it to another one. And the reason it's hard is because you either 1. Might need some help with the process at first, or 2. You tend to skip this step and learn stuff that's way too complicated for you to improvise with at this time in your development.
Look at any piece of sheet music. Pick just one measure of the piano part and see what's going on. Figure out the chords. Are the roots in the bass? If not, then which notes are in the bass? Is each chord played as a chord or are the notes played one-at-a-time as an arpeggio? Is the arpeggio going up or down (or a little of both)?
Identify exactly what's going on and then look at another song. Take what you've learned in that one measure and play the first chord of the new song in the same way. Alter it a little if need be. Then move on to the second chord, and then the third. And so on and so on.
Sometimes this is very easy. If the right hand just holds out each chord for 4 beats (as in "Stand By Me"), then you simply do this in the next song as well. Easy! Sometimes it's a little more complex but remember, you can always go back to simpler things if need be. In fact, this is what you should do. Start with simple techniques and apply them to as many songs as interest you.
Remember, pop ballads never get harder. The I, IV, and V chords never get harder. The key of G major never gets any harder. Rather, as you get better, they get easier. Imagine that; easier!
Sometimes all you need is to get started in the right way. Choose a technique you want to learn, find an appropriate song to use as a model, and then make a list of 5 new songs to apply it to. Or find a teacher to show you how to get started and guide you.
Once you get started learning improv in the right way, it keeps getting more and more fun as songs at the same level become easier and easier for you to play. I promise 🙂
Here are some beginning piano improv lessons from my Flowing Water series. They'll get you started with a good approach.