Anyone Can Improvise!

Beginning to Improvise

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Feel the beat – and just play the black notes!

Here is a four phrase (eight-bar) template to help structure your first improvisation. Your left hand will just be playing open 5th chords on F# and C#, and your right hand will only be playing in the five-finger position: C# D# F# G# A#. The key, or “home” note is F#.

The most important thing for a convincing and musical improvisation is to keep a steady beat. So concentrate on your left hand, counting four (or eight) beats per chord, and then play simply and naturally with your right hand in a way which supports, and doesn’t upset, the left hand. It is completely usual to have problems with coordination at first, with your right wanting to play when your left hand is playing, and vice versa. Independence of hands develops over a period of time with practice, persistence –and commitment to the beat!

So, begin every improvisation with a clearly counted left hand introduction (see below) and then, continuing in the beat, you might like to begin your improvisation by using the rhythm, but not the tune, of a song you know well. The rhythm of Old Macdonald is shown here to start you off. Most songs, including Old Macdonald, have four phrases (or four-phrase sections), so by continuing to play in the rhythm of the song, you will have played four phrases! Of course you can play your own rhythms, but always remember to feel the beat!

Fig 1.1 – Old Macdonald

An easy and effective bass - two alternating left hand chords

Here is a similar template, but this time there are two alternating left hand chords: Open 5ths (F# and C#) and open 6ths (F# and D#). And notice that the melody begins by descending from the highest right hand note, rather than ascending from the lowest.

Fig 1.2 – An easy and effective bass

More ways to make it interesting

Giving your improvisation a title can help inspire musical feeling, and a tip is to think what you would really like now: “A Sunny Day”? “A Beach in Greece”? Or “A Night on the Town”? You can extend your improvisation by playing four similar phrases an octave higher, and then returning to the original octave for the final four phrases. Twelve phrases in all! You can vary these improvisations by playing them in 3-time rather than 4-time, and you could also use a “swing” rhythm. In “swing”, quavers are played unevenly: long short long short long etc. Think of the rhythm of the words “Humpty Dumpty” to get you going.

Further reading and resources

  • Printable scores (click here to download)
  • For more ideas and help see Piano by Ear: Learn to play by ear, improvise and accompany songs in simple steps (Click here)