Using sheet music as a guide, not a limitation

If you want to have more fun playing piano, start viewing sheet music as a guide, not a limitation.

By this, I mean that when you’re just starting to learn piano, the printed music is a kind of “minimum.” You know that if you practice hard and master the printed score, you’ll sound better than if you don’t. The sheet music is arranged in such a way that if you play it correctly, the song will sound good. For you at that time, it’s the minimum you need to play in order to sound good on that song.

This approach is fine for a while, but will eventually limit you.

When an arranger sits down to write out a way to play a certain song, she has countless options at her disposal. She can make it difficult or fairly easy, with full chords or sparser textures. She mentally sifts through all the available options and decides on a certain way to write it out in order that the average pianist can play it in a way that sounds good.

This sounds fine on the surface, but what about all those discarded options? Maybe the arranger herself plays the song with octaves in the bass, but decided this was too hard for most people to read? And it’s even more likely that she herself plays each verse slightly different but notates them identically in order to use repeat signs and reduce the number of printed pages.

So why limit ourselves and only play what the arranger bothered to write out? The sheet music suddenly has become a “maximum.” It limits us.

Do you really want to stick with a light rock feel when your vocalist is singing in a gospel style? Or stay with the original straight-8th feel behind a swinging jazz saxophonist? Of course not. You’ll want to play the song in a way that’s appropriate to the musical situation you’re in at any given time, not only what an arranger decided would be the “one-size-fits-all” sound of the printed page!

Ideally, you’ll want to check out what the sheet music sounds like and be able to play it exactly as written. Then you’ll have three options:

1. Keep it exactly as written
2. Keep the musical elements you want to use and improvise the rest.
3. Throw out the whole piano part and make up your own!

There’s a time and a place for all 3 approaches. Learning to do all three well will ensure that you use sheet music as a minimum, not a maximum. Often, the printed page is best viewed as a guide, not a limitation.

Be creative where appropriate, and the sky will be your only limit!

These piano improv lessons will get you improvising in an easy, step-by-step way. Have fun!

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