Beginning to improvise is an important step in your piano education. It can seem scary, intimidating, and difficult. When asked to improvise, take a solo, or “make something up,” beginners often feel nervous and think to themselves “What notes should I play? How do I know when to start or stop? What if I don’t sound good?” These are completely normal questions. But these questions usually mean that the pianist does not fully understand what improvisation is all about. Most pianists feel good when they find out that improvisation has some “rules,” or parameters, that act as guidelines. In this article we’ll share three tips to help you as you begin practicing improvisation.

Beginning to Improvise Tip #1: What NOTES Should I Play?

Ok. You’re asked to improvise. There are 88 notes on the piano. Which notes should you play? Well, for starters, the secret to improvisation is that you start by dealing with a very specific set of notes. For example, scales often serve as the first place to begin improvising. And what are scales exactly? Scales are simply a collection of notes that make up a particular key. Maybe you’ve learned that a C major scale is built entirely of white notes.

But let’s learn a NEW scale, one that uses only 6 notes (you see, now instead of thinking of any of the 12 different notes of the piano, your improvisation practice is focused on half of that). The blues scale is an excellent, jazzy, fun, 6-note scale that sounds very… well, bluesy.

Start by simply playing the C blues scale in your right hand, up and down, while playing a C dominant chord in your left hand.

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Beginning to Improvise Tip #2: When Do I Start and Stop?

Now we’re going to add our metronome so we can focus on keeping time. Improvisation – which is sometimes called “taking a solo” by jazz musicians – usually has a very specific beginning point and ending point. Many songs leave space for a “solo section,” a specific number of measures that are specifically intended for improvisation. Using your metronome to practice keeping time (not rushing or slowing down) will help you mark the beginning and ending point of a solo section when you begin improvising over a specific song.

Beginning to Improvise Tip #3: Transcribe, Listen, Have FUN!

Probably the scariest part of improvising is the fear that you might not sound “good.” Improvising can make a musician feel very vulnerable. Having something that you can play that you know will sound good is often a great ice-breaker. Start by listening to music that you like. When you find something you like, listen again and again and again. Then go to the piano and try to play what you listened to by ear – no sheet music. This is called transcription, and it can drastically improve your listening skills. You’ll get better at transcribing as you do it more and more.

Then, practice inventing your own improvisations. Don’t be concerned with “right” notes or “wrong” notes. Instead, practice playing some quirky rhythms, use extreme dynamics, experiment with the high and low notes on the piano, and when you hear yourself play something you like, memorize it, so that you can play it on command.