Why Improvise?

Really, why do it?

Whether or not you are familiar with my philosophical approach, you must understand that playing the piano is 90% about the mind and 10% about the fingers (1% each).  This article will be no different and challenge you to find real answers to very important questions which must be understood and answers which must be acknowledged before you dive blindly into the world of improvisation and its related theory.

(Consider my new eBook: Water Pianism)

As you can see in the title image, I have selected a blank canvas and posed a question: What will I become.  Perhaps you understand the significance of this image?  It refers to yourself as an individual just as much as it refers to the canvas itself under your creative hands.

Associated video

You may want to be able to improvise, embellish basic chords or play a large repertoire in a restaurant however you feel like playing it, all without music, but all the theory and songs you could ever cram into your brain will not enable you to improvise in the most natural way possible.  In other words, the more time you spend on theory and 'practice', the more you neglect your Self.

A true improviser must know his true nature.

Having a conscious awareness of your true nature will guide you on a fantastic improvisational journey.  It will also enable you to conserve time and energy for the theory and technical aspects which matter most to you; You being different to everybody else.  Examples of this way of thinking are to learn songs with which you have a personal connection first, then songs you like, then fill in the spaces with popular numbers to keep the listeners happy (should you be in a public setting); or focusing primarily on blues if you don't particularly have any audible interest in the smooth jazz chords available (or, counter to that, not learning blues scales because you don't like the blues!)

Your true nature is how your mind and body listen to, feel and want to perform jazz without any conscious interference (article on this subject).  It's when you hear some new jazz performer or piece for the first time and respond in this way or that way.

Let's test this.

Below are three quite different jazz piano improvisers.  I do encourage you to go off and discover related videos by the same pianist to get a deeper feel for the style, but we'll use three for this article as a taster.

You are to consciously observe your natural reaction to the piece and the improvisation when it comes.  Do you naturally like it?  Is it too simple or complex?  Too fast or slow?  Boring or exciting?  A load of rubbish or melodically satisfying?  Close your eyes whilst doing this to stop visual interference.  Just listen, feel and imagine if you'd like to head in such and such a direction with your own playing.

I'm sure you haven't done this before so comments about your results would be most interesting to all readers.  Discovering your natural self is really very eye-opening, as is getting rid of your judgemental ego.

Having discovered a variety of jazz piano styles that you may never have considered or even heard of, and identified what you are naturally attracted to, you may then begin to spend time studying related topics through research online (not forgetting that theory does not affect performance, it's purely for casual interest and a greater ability to discuss the topic in detail with others).  Spend time on your piano with your eyes closed playing over a few chords or even a song you know and see if you play anything differently that before.  Surely, something will have changed in your mind since you gave it chance to channel itself with less obstructions.

The Canvas, of course, represents the piano.  The boundaries of the canvas represent the chord and structure limits of a particular song, but despite these restrictions, you are still entirely free to play how you wish.  Even in sports, boundary lines exist but a sport is still just as enjoyable on the field itself.  A football game going on down the street having left the stadium would be quite... odd.

A painter has different brushes and colours for his canvas, a sculptor has different cutting edges as well as finger techniques for his block of clay and a pianist has 12 major scales and 10 fingers for his piano.

But what to do?

In the video associated with this article, I focused on three approaches:  modal theory/scales, blues scales and what I call Note Value Awareness; the DNA of jazz.  Modal theory involves using a pool of safe notes, each with a particular flavour to represent how you feel (just as the artist may choose colours for his sunset), blues scales add a powerful, emotive quality to almost any chord type by highlighting minors, flattened 5ths and dominant 7ths and Note Value Awareness involves having an emotional connection with a root and every interval up to a 13th.

(click for larger)

With this, one is able to notice and choose notes at once, in any key, based on the moment.  A longing sound?  Hit that 9th, then that physical note, let's say a D in the key of C (the 9th), becomes the Major 7th of Eb in the next chord.  This is NVA and requires absolute mastery of each major scale (all 12 - learn them now!)

Having notes available from modal theory, blues scales or any old notes and knowing their note value is simply not enough to be able to improvise.  You need to know what to do with them, and this is where the ego comes in and must be ignored entirely.

By having identified your true musical nature, your musical personality, there is even less reason to worry about what to play because whatever you produce will be honest and nobody, whoever they are (even your ego) can take away an honest performance.  Nobody.

Do you like octaves? Play in octaves.  Do you like chromatic runs between target notes?  Run up/down chromatically.  Do you like crushing one note against the note one semitone higher?  Crush away!  You see, if you're playing honestly, technique goes out the window; you will find, despite whether or not you believe it now, that your fingers are able to produce or at the very least find a natural way to produce the sound you feel inside.

The more you do it, especially with your eyes closed, the better you will become.

So, in a nutshell:

1.  Stay away from your piano;
2.  Listen, listen, listen to as much jazz and identify traits of each performer's style that you are naturally positively affected by but also notice what you don't like (I don't like avant guard, freestyle, modern jazz, I find those sounds grate in my ears);
3.  Go to your piano after some days and fiddle around with some chord sequences (available everywhere online), try out some sounds with your eyes closed and try to reproduce what you heard
4.  Recognise how your playing has improved and technique no longer seems to be so much of an issue.
5.  Close your eyes from now on and just feel it.
6.  Spend time mastering all 12 major scales (1 a day, done in 12 days)
7.  Acknowledge mentally every note value in every major scale and associate an emotional connection with it.
8.  ...
9.  ...
10.  Play You.

If you enjoyed this article, consider sharing, Liking my Facebook Page and joining me on YouTube!
If you would like to apply for online Piano Lessons with me, see here