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How to Start Improvising on the Piano

I have a confession to make: until a couple of years ago I had no idea how to improvise on the piano. I’d never learned any improvising techniques with my teachers, wasn’t sure how to get started, and didn’t realise how fun (and easy!) it could be.

Now my students learn how to start improvising on the piano during one of our first lessons!

Start Improvising on the Piano

Getting Started

How did I go from no experience to teaching improvisation to students at any level? I came across a super simple improvising method that has only two components:

  1. G-flat major pentatonic scale (otherwise known as the black keys!)
  2. Teacher-student duets

When I first teach a student to start improvising on the piano, I begin by playing a repeating pattern on the black keys with my left hand. Once the student is feeling the beat, they’ll start playing any combination of notes on the black keys while keeping in time with the teacher part.

Here are some examples of repeating patterns:

Start Improvising on the Piano

With beginner students I start with a pattern as simple as one repeating chord, and as they become more confident we experiment with more complex patterns and rhythms. More experienced students can try this improvisation technique on their own, playing the repeating pattern in one hand and improvising a melody with the other. Check out this demonstration by Nicola Cantan at Colourful Keys to see it in action!

Why Try Improvising?

If you need convincing then here are just a few of the reasons to give improvisation a go:

  • Encourages creativity (read more here)
  • Provides an opportunity for self expression
  • Offers ear training practice
  • Gives students a better understanding of rhythm
  • Helps with pattern recognition

Teaching students how to improvise gives them the chance to become creators of music, not just performers of music.

Recommended Resources

If you’d like more guidance then I’ve found the following resources to be really helpful:

Piano Partners

These books were my first introduction to improvising on the black keys, and include different examples of teacher-student duets.

The Piano Partners Method Books are available here.

12 Bar Blues

Tim Topham has a great tutorial for teaching improvisation using the 12 bar blues, which explores chord progressions, walking bass, and the C blues scale.

Check out Tim’s lesson plan and videos here.

Create First

The most inspiring improvisation series I’ve come across is Create First by Forrest Kinney (which is an introduction to his Pattern Play series). Forrest’s approach focuses on musicality and creativity. Not only do these exercises sound good, they are so fun to play. Every student who’s played the Weather duet has loved it, including my four-year-old son (click here to watch the example video).

The Create First books and video guides are available here.

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