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Have you ever heard of a “writing prompt?” It’s a tool creative writing instructors use to give students focus. For example, a writing prompt could be a photo of a beautiful nature scene. The instructor will then create an exercise where students write 1000 words or so about the picture.
The beauty of exercises like this is that it gives you focus! Focus to think of nothing but writing about and describing what’s seen in the photo.
We musicians can do the same thing. We can use pictures, a descriptive phrase, or in this instance, a timed exercise using just a few chords. While the medium is different (music) the method is the same - get students to stop thinking and start creating!
The reason why this works so well is because you don’t have to think about what materials to use. In the above video we have 3 chords to play around with. We know the names of the chords and we know the chord type (open position.) Now all that’s required is to sit down and just play for the allotted time.
We’re not worrying if the music is good or bad. We just play. And the more involved we get with this exercise, the more the music “loosens up.” No thinking is required here. Just the ability to play around with chords and melody.
When the allotted time is up, we can either stop or continue playing. I advise students to stop playing when they feel themselves growing disinterested or bored with their playing.
The more you work with timed piano improvisations, the freer your music will become. Why? Simply because you are not concerned with the outcome! Instead, your focus is on the process. And from this comes a music that is never forced or willed into being but one that is inspired right from the start.