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Part 4 - Finding Your Inner Improviser

Is it possible to teach improvisation or is it a talent you are born with?

Keep reading to find out more in Part 4 of my blog series on teaching improvisation.

I love introducing adults to improvising, especially timid ones. Children are ready to try anything, but an adult has different expectations. To get in touch with an adult student’s inner improviser, it helps to draw on three types of expertise:

  • music teacher

  • therapist

  • meditation coach

The music teacher lays down the musical foundation. The therapist uncovers any stops and fears that may prevent the improvising process and the meditation coach encourages awareness of what is played without judgement.

The Musical Foundation

The easiest foundation is a major triad. Any major triad will do at the start and learning all 12 major chords expands creativity. No matter the student’s skill level on the piano, keep it basic at the start.

Here’s an example:

  • Select a G major chord (G B D).

  • Count to 4 and with the LH play a major triad on beats 1 and 3. Think of it like a metronome keeping the rhythm steady.

  • Feel like a different key? See the Major Chord Groove and learn all the major triads.

The Therapist

See the previous blog Fear and Improvisation to uncover and take the power away from any stops that may prevent relaxing improvisation.

Meditation Coach

Improvisation is a meditative state. It is done in a relaxed manner with heightened.

First focus our breath and our student’s breath:

  • Piano teacher plays a nice steady chord (G major) on beats 1 and 3. Both teacher and student listen and breathe together.

  • Student places their RH over the first 5 notes of the G scale (G A B C D). Arm relaxed, eyes closed, breathing steadily.

Next focus awareness:

  • Student plays each note of the G penta-scale on beats 1 2 3 4. Do this VERY slowly and listen. Listen closely.

- What sounds are pleasing?

- Do any sounds sound displeasing?

- What emotions do the sounds bring up?

Here's a graphic that shows what was described above. It is IMPORTANT that this is not read by the student or teacher while it is played. Reference it and put it away.

  • Briefly discuss the experience.

  • Piano teacher next plays chords on beats 1, 2, 3 and 4. The student continues to play the scale. Ask the same questions.

- What sounds are pleasing?

- What sounds are displeasing (tension)?

- What emotions to they bring up?

Again, this graphic is for clarity and reference. Not to be read and played.

What notes created the most tension? (The usual answer is the 2nd and 4th degrees of the scale but let the student discover this). Not sure? Try the exercise again and listen carefully to each sound as it is played with the G major chord. Rate each note 1 – 3. One being pleasing sound and three being tension.

The sounds that aren’t as pleasing are tension notes. Tension notes are often perceived as wrong notes by beginner improvisors. They aren’t wrong, they create tension, and you can use them to your advantage when you become friends with them. Tension notes move the music from one nice sound to the next. You can use them for dramatic effect by delaying playing them or holding them longer than expected. Take command of the notes. Get to know the ‘nice’ ones and the ‘naughty’ ones. Use them to express you.

Here's an example of delaying playing the tension notes.

When a student hears the notes at a deeper level, they can start to experiment with the order they play the sounds, use repetition, and change the rhythm. Eventually they can add the LH triad while experimenting with their RH but for the beginning, to keep it simple, it’s best to play the LH chords for them and let them explore and experiment and breathe and listen.

The Goal

The goal is to LISTEN to the sounds that are being created. Repeat notes, make leaps, play a variety of quarter and half notes to start. Eighth notes later. The more critical we listen the better we improvise.

Every practice session and every lesson should include a little improvisation to increase familiarity. Bobby McFerrin suggests improvising for up to a half an hour or more! That is a great practice to do once a week. It expands inventiveness (when everyone is out of the house or at least out of hearing range :-). Let the frustration and boredom flow through and quietly shut down your left brain so the right brain can breakthrough with some great ideas.

In summary, improvisation is a skill that can be taught. Follow the basics and you are off to a great start. Eventually you will build on the basics and explore a variety of chord progressions and scales and lead sheets. You can do that with a chording method like Play Piano Chords Today or you can explore other options.

Be open with your students if you are new to improvising. I was when I started and my students were happy to explore creativity with me. Improvising is deeply satisfying, always new and exciting to teach and an important part of everyone’s musical education.


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I'm always happy to answer any questions you may have!

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