When you imagine what children learn in piano lessons, you probably think of note reading, technical exercises, learning songs, and learning the basics of music theory. All of these are indeed very important parts of learning to play the piano. What’s missing from this? Creative experimentation! In music, we call this “improvisation.” Should improvisation be included as part of piano lessons?
Professional piano players usually fall into 2 general categories: those who perform classical music and those who work in other styles and frequently employ improvisation. Classical pianists play all the notes as written on the page by the composers. The other types of pianists, such as jazz players, alter their pieces right from the start – making up notes over the written melodies, or “tunes.”
The training that goes into becoming a classical pianist is extremely different than that of a jazz, pop, or rock pianist. It takes great reading skills to masterfully deliver the notes exactly as written on the page. Conversely, it takes a significant amount of ear training to be able to constatlty improvise.
As a result of these differences, high caliber classical players are usually poor improvisers, and jazz/ pop players are often very poor note readers.
But what about the beginner and intermediate players? In the earlier stages of traditional piano lessons, improvisation is often simply not a part of the music learning process. The question many piano teachers are asking themselves is whether or not there is a benefit to including improvisation at the beginning level of piano lessons.
The answer to this question is certainly YES! Let’s look at some very cool benefits of including improvisation into learning piano:
Many young (and adult) students suffer from “perfectionist syndrome.” They are afraid to make a mistake and have a hard time continuing to play their piece when mistakes inevitably happen.
If their piano teacher routinely includes an improvisation activity where students are not bound by the “right” notes, it helps them to overcome this fear and move forward more easily.
An example of such activity can be the instructor playing some jazzy chords in C major and the student doodling around playing the white keys only.
The teacher can explain that it is simply impossible to make a mistake in this format and everything they play is going to sound OK. The same can be done if the student plays the black keys only and the teacher improvises the chords and base line in B, F#, or Db major.
Being able to make up the notes on the spot can actually help to smooth out the mistakes in classical pieces and other styles. As a classical pianist, I once completely forgot the ending of Haydn’s sonata during an important audition and simply improvised it. No one noticed a thing! The training that went into being able to do so was pretty substantial, but it totally paid off.
Kids can learn simple concepts such as what key they are in and how to play the major important chords in each key, and can then find their way through the trouble spots.
Playing pop, rock, Broadway and other non-classical styles is simply easier when you don’t play all the notes as written in the sheet music. If you know what chords make up your song it is faster to improvise your own textures rather than to strictly follow the score. And the beautiful thing is no one really expects you to play it as written to begin with. If you know the very basics of music harmony and improvisation you will spend less time figuring out your non-classical songs. There are sets of exercises that your teacher can give you to learn how to do that.
Knowing how to improvise in jazz, blues, or Latin styles as well as being able to play pop, rock, and Broadway songs is extremely rewarding for both beginners, intermediate, and advanced keyboard players.
It doesn’t go against the grain of traditional piano lessons. Rather, it’s a cool add-on that will definitely make you feel happier about playing piano!
Try adding improvisation to your piano lesson routine!
At Riverside Music Studios we will gladly be able to help with that. Expand your musical horizons and have some fun while you are at it!