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How to Improvise – An Introduction

Guest Author - Allan Harris

You can read music, write it and speak it. Improvisation is speaking with music. Sure you can always play what someone else has written. But it’s incredibly satisfying to write your own music or improvise.

Improvisation allows you to express your mood. If you’re having a “down” day, you can express what’s inside you and let it out. If you’re having an “up” day you can express that too.

Most people think you have to be born knowing how to improvise. But you can actually learn it step-by-step. At its simplest, you can go to a piano and play using only the black keys. Try thinking how you would feel if snow was softly falling and use the black keys to describe your feeling. Then think how you might feel during a raging thunderstorm or if you were very angry. Use the black keys to describe that feeling.

How about thinking of a time when you were unusually happy? Describe that using only the black keys. You can play them slowly, quickly, with a light touch, with a heavier touch, with one finger, with many fingers, with your whole hand, with your whole arm. There are no rules, only what you choose to do. You’re improvising – making something up that expresses how you feel.

To take it a step further you will need to learn scales. Actually, if you were playing on a piano using only the black keys, you were already using a scale called a pentatonic scale. “Penta” means five, so it’s a scale that has five notes. A blues scale is a six-note scale. A major scale uses seven different notes.

Each scale is like a box of crayons that has different colors. And you can use those colors to paint different shades of how you feel. A certain kind of minor scale might have a Middle Eastern flavor to it. Another scale might sound Chinese or Japanese. Still others can sound bluesy.

Chords are often derived from scales. And if you know which chords come from which scales, you can play notes from that particular scale and they will “fit” the chords.

When I first took classical piano, I thought scales were only for exercising my fingers. No one told me how to use them. Later, when I learned jazz piano, I was shown you can play the notes of a scale in any order and in any direction: up, down, up then down, down then up, skipping notes, etc. Fun!

What a sense of freedom it gave me to know that certain scale notes always sounded good against certain chords!

Try this: make up a song using C, F and G chords. If you play keyboard, play the chords with your left hand. Then, with your right hand, use any notes of the C scale to improvise against those chords. If you play another instrument, have a piano player friend play the chords, and play around on the C scale with your instrument.

If you have a Bb instrument, your piano player friend will have to transpose and play Bb, Eb and F chords. If you play an Eb instrument, the chords will be Eb, Ab and Bb chords.

When you first explore improvisation, go easy on yourself. There are really no right or wrong ways to improvise, but the more you learn about scales the more you will probably start to pick notes that sound pleasing to you.

We’ll be looking at what chords are built from what scales in other articles. For now, if you’re not sure what you’re doing, it’s okay. Improvise. (Okay, so that’s a funny way to end an article, but I was improvising).

All the best,

- Allan
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Content copyright © 2014 by Allan Harris. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Allan Harris. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Sabira Woolley for details.

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