Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Piano Battle! Forget your sheet music, start Improvising!

Don't do improvising? Well, all the classical composers did, it was an essential skillset. Just think of any Theme and Variations - these are basically improvisations on a theme; Cadenzas in Mozart or Beethoven's piano concertos - these were essentially improvisations that in many cases we have some notated down. There were even piano duels,  improvisation battles, like one between Beethoven and Steilbelt. Victory in a piano duel cemented one's reputation as a supreme virtuoso.
Improvisatory piano duels were notorious among composers such as Beethoven,  Mozart, & Liszt

Yesterday, I attended the EPTA Improvisation workshop at London's Chappell's music store run by Lucinda Mackworth-Young. Lucinda,   heads the UK's Practical Piano Teachers' Course. The workshop left me inspired. Firstly, Lucinda illustrated the point well of why improvisation is so important:  if you're at a friend's place, you're a classical trained musician and may give the excuse, I can't play on the spot, I am not prepared,  I don't have my music! What would you have to show for all your years of training and lessons!?

It's actually very easy to start improvising, and with a few guidelines, you and your student or friend can start right away. So in this workshop, we looked at the various scales you can improvise on, there are just so many, but here are just a few examples:

  • Pentatonic major scale on the black notes with left hand accompaniment on F# and C# (or both simultaneously)
  • Eb minor Pentatonic scale on black notes
  • Phrygian mode - has it's roots in ancient greece but is also used widely in Spanish  music - the scale comprises of the notes E to E So we practiced a Habanera accompaniment with the left hand E (dotted rhythm; rise to) B (rise to) G (down to) B
In all the above examples, one or more persons can participate, one can take the accompaniment while the other improvises a melody. 

Lucinda covered three approaches to improvisation which were fascinating. I summarise them below:
  1. Keep the improvisation like a musical conversation: question and answer, finish the improvisation like you'd end a conversation or a piece.
  2. Using the scale of your choice, use the rhythm of a familiar song to you - this could be anything from a pop tune to a nursery rhyme as the rhythmic formula for your improvisation (so this means, if you chose London Bridge is Falling Down, you'd use that rhythm, but the notes can be anything you want!)
  3. The last approach, I'd call a Sound Painting - what you do is look at a photo or painting, and pick out an element (it could be the clouds, the sunshine, a dog) to use the piano to describe it. Put these elments together and you have a musical tale to tell!   


  1. I make my living accompanying for dancers. What has kept me sane is perfecting that composer's skillset. You look at the dance being taught, and you mentally compose the accompaniment. It's not quite the same as improvising. Improvising is where the fingers do the composing. (Also fun, but then you can't repeat it.) Did you think of that sentence you just typed first, or did you just let your fingers type any old thing? I do some improvs, but most dances are a given fact and need to be accompanied by something repeatable. So I call it "instant composing." This is pretty much the way Mozart and the boys did it, but they had no zoom recorders, nor youtube. Had they had any other way to capture the drippings, they might have, as I have, given up on pen and ink. What happens in your mind, re: melody, harmony, counterpoint, and all of that, it's the same old composers skillset. It might not take you as long to perfect as it has me. You might be a genius.

  2. Its great when people can find out its not so difficult to improvise. The key thing, after finding what notes to play, is to keep the pulse, or beat.