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#1347786 - 01/12/10 03:23 PM How did you learn to improvise?
Wizard of Oz Offline
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Registered: 08/12/09
Posts: 873

Seeing as we're talking about improvising, I thought I'd ask how you started improvising? And what methods did you find greatest success?

I learned only classical as a kid, so I never improvised until I was in my early 20's. Then I found jazz and the light turned on. But being self-taught I went through many frustrations and mistakes.

Looking back, I think the key to improvising well comes down to 2 things:

LISTENING- We need to listen and build up our musical knowledge before we are even able to say anything.

I've probably listened to over 1000 jazz records. There's a distinct sound for jazz, as there is to classical, rock, bossa nova, country.

I started playing by ear, hearing a jazz song and figuring it out on the piano.

This one skill alone will help immensely in improvising. Just as a baby learns a language by imitating what mom and dad speak, so we learn a musical "language" the same way.


THEORY- learning the structure of music and how it works.

Jazz and pop/rock music follow a very structured approach. The chord progression 2-5-1 is fundamental in jazz, and many pop/rock songs are 1-6-4-5 or variations of that.

Know your scales and chords. We can hear the difference between a major and minor scale. Same with a major, minor, dominant chord. They all serve a specific purpose in music.

Most songs end on a 1 chord of the key it is in. If you ended on a 5 chord, the song sounds incomplete, left hanging or unresolved. The 5 chord has a specific role in leading the ear to the 1 chord.


I read alot of different advice on these forums on how to learn improvising. Some like Gyro will say just sit down and play whatever comes to your mind. Sure, now have you heard a 3 year old kid plonking on keys, how good does that sound?

Start listening ALOT to the music you like. Hear the melody and how it moves. Go to the piano and play it, just the right hand. Look at what scale is being used. There will be many patterns and motifs that repeat and begin looking familiar.

I'm interested in hearing people's journey on how they started improvising. And if you don't, today's as good a day as any!

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#1347797 - 01/12/10 03:29 PM Re: How did you learn to improvise? [Re: Wizard of Oz]
eweiss Offline
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Registered: 02/28/09
Posts: 2393
Loc: Beautiful San Diego, CA
I started by learning a few chords and diving in. As far as what you need to begin improvising, I would say two things as well...

Knowledge of a few chords
The ability to suspend judgement and just play

By the way, there's nothing wrong with Gyro's approach - if it works for him.
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#1347803 - 01/12/10 03:36 PM Re: How did you learn to improvise? [Re: eweiss]
Ganddalf Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 07/28/09
Posts: 688
Loc: Norway
I improvised as a kid. It is hard for me to tell how I learnt it, but I probably just picked up small sequences form pieces I knew, and rearranged them and somehow made my own music out of it.
I still improvise within the style of music I'm acquainted to. However, I'm absolutely uncapable of doing jazz improvisation. I simply don't have the jazz chords and rythms under my skin.

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#1347805 - 01/12/10 03:41 PM Re: How did you learn to improvise? [Re: eweiss]
Wizard of Oz Offline
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Registered: 08/12/09
Posts: 873
True there's nothing wrong with Gyro's approach, I just want to hear the results to see if it's valid.

I bet if you poll all the pianists who improvise, less than 5% would say they just sit down and play random stuff. They are thinking melody, lines, underlying harmony, where the music is going, the mood and textures of the song.

To be able to just sit and play you need to be a true master, like Keith Jarrett. He can pretty much play anything, so the music he makes actually sounds good.

Try that with a guy who's had only a year of piano and see what happens.

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#1347808 - 01/12/10 03:44 PM Re: How did you learn to improvise? [Re: Wizard of Oz]
eweiss Offline
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Registered: 02/28/09
Posts: 2393
Loc: Beautiful San Diego, CA
Originally Posted By: Wizard of Oz
To be able to just sit and play you need to be a true master, like Keith Jarrett. He can pretty much play anything, so the music he makes actually sounds good.

Try that with a guy who's had only a year of piano and see what happens.

No use comparing oneself to Jarret or anyone for that matter. I like your sentence here but I would turn it around to read ...

"To be a master you need to just sit down and play." The real key is the word "play" since so many adults try and make it much more difficult than it has to be.
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#1347821 - 01/12/10 04:00 PM Re: How did you learn to improvise? [Re: eweiss]
ChopinAddict Offline
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Registered: 08/29/09
Posts: 6153
Loc: Land of the never-ending music
It might sound very rudimentary, but sometimes I start with a piece I like in my head, like a piece by Chopin, and go from there, modifying, improvising, mostly maintaining the same "mood" though. whistle
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#1347830 - 01/12/10 04:11 PM Re: How did you learn to improvise? [Re: ChopinAddict]
keyboardklutz Offline
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Just made it up as I went along.
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#1347839 - 01/12/10 04:19 PM Re: How did you learn to improvise? [Re: ChopinAddict]
Kreisler Offline



Registered: 11/27/02
Posts: 13813
Loc: Iowa City, IA
I had great choir teachers in junior high and high school that taught aural skills and theory. From that, I learned a bunch of popular songs by ear, adding in little things here and there. (Everything from Enya to Billy Joel to Pink Floyd) I then joined jazz band in high school and did some improvising there. I knew maybe 5 chords and two blues scales, but spent hours and hours and hours and hours and hours on it.

All of it was basically trial-by-error and tinkering around at the piano thinking "I wonder what this would sound like." When I found things that sounded good (a chord progression, or even a few notes that sounded catchy), I'd write it down.

In college, I learned to read figured bass in theory classes and joined the chamber orchestra where I'd realize harpsichord parts to Torelli symphonies and things.

After I was out of school, I started sitting in with some friends who had a regular jazz combo gig. Learned a lot of standards with them and practiced along with Aebersold a fair bit.
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#1347905 - 01/12/10 05:13 PM Re: How did you learn to improvise? [Re: Kreisler]
Wizard of Oz Offline
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Registered: 08/12/09
Posts: 873
hey Kreisler, you said you played a morning jazz gig, where in the world would you play at that hour?!

The thing with Gyro is, even if you sit at the piano and just "play" I guarantee you'll be playing things you know like the major or minor scale, or chords. Your fingers will be guiding your mind, rather than the other way.

To truly play random stuff, you would actually have to think hard about it. I just tried it right now.

Played a D major 7th chord in the bass, superimposed on an Eb minor scale melody in the right hand. Weird but kinda neat. And then did some chord progressions I'd never play, like a C diminished to C # lydian to D dominant, all the while playing in Bb major in the right hand. Weird!!

eweiss, even with your improvs you are clearly thinking in terms of chords and structure. ( One song you posted was moving between 2 major 7th chords I think.)

I mean, try playing a melody where you switch from D major to F minor to B major to Ab minor every bar. It will sound horrible! There won't be any flow or pattern that the ear could latch onto.

If you've ever heard of some atonal free jazz, you'll know what I mean. Cecil Taylor or even Thelonius Monk isn't most people's cup of tea.

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#1347907 - 01/12/10 05:17 PM Re: How did you learn to improvise? [Re: Wizard of Oz]
Kreisler Offline



Registered: 11/27/02
Posts: 13813
Loc: Iowa City, IA
Originally Posted By: Wizard of Oz
hey Kreisler, you said you played a morning jazz gig, where in the world would you play at that hour?!


I accompany a couple of the modern dance classes at the local university.
_________________________
"If we continually try to force a child to do what he is afraid to do, he will become more timid, and will use his brains and energy, not to explore the unknown, but to find ways to avoid the pressures we put on him." (John Holt)

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#1347909 - 01/12/10 05:20 PM Re: How did you learn to improvise? [Re: Wizard of Oz]
currawong Offline
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Registered: 05/15/07
Posts: 5967
Loc: Down Under
I was improvising before I ever had a lesson as a small child - in the sense of Gyro's "dig in" and see what sounds good. As to whether that's "valid" - well it depends what your aims are, and what style you're playing in.

When I started learning piano and reading music, I started composing. I just thought that's what you do. I read books, so I wrote stories. I played pieces, so I made up pieces. As I progressed, my improvisation (which sometimes became solidified as a "piece" I could write down or repeat at will) was usually modelled on what I was playing.

Formal theory came much later. By then I was into Stravinsky and Bartok, and I improvised and composed in that style too. But my father had taught me to play from lead sheets when I was about 11, so I knew about chords and what was the "right" chord for the sort of popular songs which were around then. And I found that improvising and playing by ear went hand in hand.

When I did my degree the keyboard course was right up my alley - playing (and improvising) from figured bass, harmonising Bach chorales at sight, improvising continuations from a given section of a piece, up to (in my final year) improvising a fugue. (Wot fun! smile )

Improvising cadenzas for Mozart concertos is great fun also - though I've never been quite game enough to play a totally improvised one in performance! And like others, I've written music which has an improvisatory element, and performed similarly in the music of others.

I don't play jazz so I haven't done any but the most basic jazz improvisation. Life's too short, and I'm basically not that interested in jazz.

I also spent years teaching classroom music where I did a lot of improvisation with the kids - Orff and Kodaly-based, but also less tonally-based sound explorations.

So in a way I also agree with Gyro - just "dig in". As long as you also listen.
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#1347925 - 01/12/10 05:43 PM Re: How did you learn to improvise? [Re: currawong]
Wizard of Oz Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/12/09
Posts: 873

Some of the jazz greats are/were heavily influenced by certain classical composers. Herbie Hancock has said Debussy and Ravel were 2 of his favourites, and his style could be called "Impressionist jazz".

Listen to his 2nd song Dolphin Dance and see if you can hear it:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=93561473


Same with Bill Evans, his Reflections in D by Ellington is stunning:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=92185496

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#1347936 - 01/12/10 05:54 PM Re: How did you learn to improvise? [Re: Wizard of Oz]
Wizard of Oz Offline
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Registered: 08/12/09
Posts: 873
Interesting side note, at 19:00-22:00 of the Bill Evans interview, he talks about pre-planning and having a basic structure in mind while playing. He plays a song in C major and talks about modulating through to a dominant chord and shifting keys, and using a C pedal point.

Bill Evans was one of the greatest jazz improvisers in the world. His approach was completely opposite of what Gyro is suggesting. Who would you rather learn from?

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#1347942 - 01/12/10 06:04 PM Re: How did you learn to improvise? [Re: Wizard of Oz]
currawong Offline
5000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/15/07
Posts: 5967
Loc: Down Under
Originally Posted By: Wizard of Oz
His approach was completely opposite of what Gyro is suggesting. Who would you rather learn from?
Well I'm not talking about jazz improvisation so it's a non-question. Gyro can make his own decisions. I mentioned his name, but I don't intend to discuss him.
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#1347950 - 01/12/10 06:13 PM Re: How did you learn to improvise? [Re: currawong]
Wizard of Oz Offline
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Registered: 08/12/09
Posts: 873
Bill Evan's quote at 25:00 says it all. "Intuition has to lead knowledge, but it can't be on it's own otherwise you'll flounder."

Improvising is the same, whether for jazz, classical, rock and rock or hip hop. Those guys who rap freestyle are still adhering to the structure and rhythms of that style of music.

I am refuting Gyro because all he says is to "just dig in". Well you can't do that without knowing the process behind it or your will sound pretty bad.

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#1347954 - 01/12/10 06:20 PM Re: How did you learn to improvise? [Re: Wizard of Oz]
eweiss Offline
2000 Post Club Member

Registered: 02/28/09
Posts: 2393
Loc: Beautiful San Diego, CA
Originally Posted By: Wizard of Oz
I am refuting Gyro because all he says is to "just dig in". Well you can't do that without knowing the process behind it or your will sound pretty bad.

Gyro says...



Just dig in!
_________________________
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#1347968 - 01/12/10 06:37 PM Re: How did you learn to improvise? [Re: currawong]
Claude56 Offline
Full Member

Registered: 03/02/09
Posts: 469
I don't know if anybody learned to improvise like the way I did(and I would like to know someone who did something similiar to the approach I did), but I first had to learn the chords in the major scale. I read theory in my jazz book, but I didn't understand any of it.

And then, all the pianists told me to copy chords and learn theory and learn licks, and learn scales.

So I did....

I went to learn songs and learn lots of chord progressions of jazz pieces, and I also tried to analyze the music using the music theory I knew. I copied all the chord progressions and I tried to learn dissonant jazz chords and tried to learn them, one by one. Then I tried to make up rules by myself, but after that, I went and studied harmony, and suddenly, it all started to make sense. All the stuff was beginning to click.

After a long process of studying harmony, I finally realize that, in any point in a piece of music, harmony is relative to the harmony around it.

There are no shortcuts to being able to improvise. However, if you want to be able to compose, there are shortcuts. All harmony is determined from scales(and even made up scales- you don't have to stick to standard scales like modes of melodic minor, harmonic minor, major), and you don't even have to learn scales to know what to do. You can pretty much go where ever you want with chords. All you have to do is with chords, you have to place notes between the chord tones.

For example if you had a D major chord - D F# A, you can stick any combination of notes between the chord tones. D Eb F# G A B C# D is an example.

There are no rules regarding dissonance. There is such a chord as A minor 7th Add b9(it comes from G melodic minor) for example. The only rule is that you have to have a dissonant chord stay relative to a certain scale(meaning that, all the notes in a chord must be part of a certain scale).









Edited by noSkillz (01/12/10 06:53 PM)

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#1347977 - 01/12/10 06:54 PM Re: How did you learn to improvise? [Re: Claude56]
Wizard of Oz Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/12/09
Posts: 873
HAHAHA...that's so funny eweiss. I think of that everytime I say his name!! He must be greek or something.

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#1347978 - 01/12/10 06:55 PM Re: How did you learn to improvise? [Re: Wizard of Oz]
eweiss Offline
2000 Post Club Member

Registered: 02/28/09
Posts: 2393
Loc: Beautiful San Diego, CA
Originally Posted By: Wizard of Oz
HAHAHA...that's so funny eweiss. I think of that everytime I say his name!! He must be greek or something.

Glad you're amused Wizard. Actually, that picture looks so good, I might have a Gyro for dinner.
_________________________
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#1347981 - 01/12/10 06:59 PM Re: How did you learn to improvise? [Re: eweiss]
Wizard of Oz Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/12/09
Posts: 873
Give me 2 with lamb and extra tzatziki. Mmmmm

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#1347994 - 01/12/10 07:16 PM Re: How did you learn to improvise? [Re: Wizard of Oz]
Claude56 Offline
Full Member

Registered: 03/02/09
Posts: 469
So basically... did you guys learn how to improvise by memorizing tons of chord progressions and the scales that work with then, and be fluent in all keys?

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#1348048 - 01/12/10 08:14 PM Re: How did you learn to improvise? [Re: Claude56]
Kreisler Offline



Registered: 11/27/02
Posts: 13813
Loc: Iowa City, IA
No. I learned to improvise by learning two chords and two scales - C Major and e minor, and fully exploring all the possibilities within. (Basically, the beginning to Enya's "Watermark" in C Major.)

Then, as I got more comfortable, I started adding and exploring new territory bit by bit. My next major milestone was three chords and one scale - a 12-bar blues in C. Then I tinkered with that a lot.

I know people often say you need to learn a lot of scales and chords to improvise, but it's simply not true. You need a solid command of all your scales and chords to gig at a full-time professional level, but you can dive in and do a great deal with very little. This is what's so valuable about Weiss's approach - he doesn't bombard people with tons of material, he gives you a basic vocabulary that can serve as a strong, simple, and useful basis for creative expression.
_________________________
"If we continually try to force a child to do what he is afraid to do, he will become more timid, and will use his brains and energy, not to explore the unknown, but to find ways to avoid the pressures we put on him." (John Holt)

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#1348144 - 01/12/10 10:43 PM Re: How did you learn to improvise? [Re: Claude56]
currawong Offline
5000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/15/07
Posts: 5967
Loc: Down Under
Originally Posted By: noSkillz
So basically... did you guys learn how to improvise by memorizing tons of chord progressions and the scales that work with then, and be fluent in all keys?
No. I learnt by exploring the piano and music I was playing. This resulted in my being fluent in all keys, but that wasn't my method.
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Du holde Kunst...

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#1348210 - 01/13/10 12:01 AM Re: How did you learn to improvise? [Re: Claude56]
LimeFriday Offline
Full Member

Registered: 11/02/09
Posts: 303
Loc: Australia
Quote:
did you guys learn how to improvise by memorizing tons of chord progressions and the scales that work with then, and be fluent in all keys?


I learned to improvise using C, G and F major chords - by exploring consonance and dissonance - and by immersing myself in a wide variety of music. As I learned more chords... my improvisation could take on new possibilities... and as I learned more and more about harmony and theory - I was able to take it further.

But I learned to improvise purely because I wanted to make music... and it didn't matter to me if my earliest attempts sounded wrong or unsophisticated. That just made me more aware of what I *did* want my music to sound like!

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#1348325 - 01/13/10 03:38 AM Re: How did you learn to improvise? [Re: LimeFriday]
Nikolas Online   content
5000 Post Club Member

Registered: 11/26/07
Posts: 5369
Loc: Europe
I learned to improvise because of being too lazy. Same with sight reading. For about 10 years (age 5-15) I would go to piano class without having touched the piano once at home! Yet I did have some 'notable' (as it appears by my parents saying) talent, and they kept me going. I didn't study but I played anything I'd like to play, composing, etc.

My teacher was an old woman who thought that the proper way of teaching is to go through all the etudes of Czerny, so the 100 etudes of Czerny... I'd have to do about 90 of them. This is probably the reason I really can't stand Czerny, although he has a few moments! laugh

Anyways, because of my lack of interest in what I was forced to study, I would play virtually anything.

Thus I started composing.

My idea of success was twofold: Either be EXTREMELY good at what you do (piano playing) or be original (composing). No studying meant no good at piano, apparently, and thus I stuck to composition at a young age! laugh

Along with that, I picked up the guitar and started learning a few chords and a few songs. I was quite popular for that, although teachers wouldn't want to know I wanted to become a composer: "What will you be in life? A musician? how will you earn your living? What about your parents?", etc... frown

Of course all initial compositions were improvisations. Song learning was ear training for me. Combine the two, get me to a few jazz concerts (btw I DON'T do jazz, I DON'T know jazz and don't claim otherwise...), and I also picked up a few scales, a few ideas on different chords, etc.

Nowdays my improvisation comes quite easily, only it goes to rather dissonant roads, to begin with... :-/ Still unless you put me in a crowd of well experienced jazz players, I can probably follow pretty much 'anything', including jamming at music houses with guitarists! laugh (don't get me started on guitarists on this posts... oh no...)
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#1348389 - 01/13/10 07:42 AM Re: How did you learn to improvise? [Re: eweiss]
JerryS88 Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 04/15/06
Posts: 638
Loc: Ringwood, NJ
Originally Posted By: eweiss
Originally Posted By: Wizard of Oz
I am refuting Gyro because all he says is to "just dig in". Well you can't do that without knowing the process behind it or your will sound pretty bad.

Gyro says...



Just dig in!


What a perfect opportunity for a segue into a comparison between improvising as a musician and as a cook. Herewith the great Julia Child's improvisational Moussaka recipe demonstration.

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#1348406 - 01/13/10 08:33 AM Re: How did you learn to improvise? [Re: JerryS88]
keyboardklutz Offline
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Registered: 05/21/07
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Loc: London, UK (though if it's Aug...
Never tried segue, taste nice?
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#1348453 - 01/13/10 10:04 AM Re: How did you learn to improvise? [Re: keyboardklutz]
Larry Larson Offline
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Registered: 08/10/05
Posts: 992
Loc: Carmel, Indiana
I started improvising some time early during my 10 years as an accordion student from age 5-15. I have never learned a lick of theory. For me it started because of boredom. I was assigned one new song per week, which I was usually able to master after 2-3 days during my mandatory 1 hour daily practice sessions. After learning the piece, I would improvise just to fill the time. And I had to fill the silence, because if I wasn't playing something, from the basement where I practiced I'd hear my ever vigilant mother upstairs yelling "I don't hear anything!!".

Another factor was that my father was also an accordionist, and improvising and playing flashy was one of the few things I did that got affirmation from him. I never heard him improvise a single time, nor my older sister who was a very good pianist. She was a much faster sight-reader than I was, but she couldn't play "Mary Had a Little Lamb" without music if you held a gun to her head. I could play by ear very well, so for me improvising and playing by ear the stuff she played on the piano was my way of distinguishing myself from her. Sometimes childhood angst can contribute to artistic skill, I guess.

My accordion teacher was a rigid purist so I never improvised in front of him. But in 1967 he had an assistant I would play for who did appreciate my improvisation, with the caveat that I did not let the maestro know what we were up to. My earliest memory of improvising is doing jazzy versions of "Hello Dolly" and "Misty" by The Association.

So now at age 55 I'm studying the piano and composing music. And whenever I play along with other musicians, whether on piano or accordion, I'm always comfortable improvising and doing creative harmony lines. I think it's just an innate ability for me. My piano teacher and 2 other top musicians who have heard what I do are baffled at how I can do it without any knowledge of theory. Sort of like the idiot savant thing, I guess.

My piano teacher is pushing me to learn theory because she thinks it will propel my composing even more. Maybe she's right, but I don't understand why.

One time I was jamming on the accordion with some very good rock and roll musicians. We were playing a Steely Dan song and it occurred to me to play a section of "Rhapsody in Blue" simultaneously. It matched perfectly, at least to me. I saw some very interesting looks on their faces, and to this day I don't know if they were dazzled or horrified, or both!
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#1348471 - 01/13/10 10:44 AM Re: How did you learn to improvise? [Re: Larry Larson]
Claude56 Offline
Full Member

Registered: 03/02/09
Posts: 469
I think the number of chords and progressions and scales you learn depends on what kind of style you want to improvise, right?

If you play blues, you only have to learn 3 chords in about 3 and the blues scale.

If you play rock, you might have to learn the same amount as blues, maybe a little bit more if you want to learn modern rock.

If you want to learn jazz, your going to have to know a lot of scales and dissonant chords to improvise off of, and you must be fluent when your playing all the scale chord relationships.

If you want to improvise classical, youre going to have know pretty much everything in jazz, and your going to have to be fluent in all keys.

If you want to free improvise, jazz or classical, than you must know a lot of theory chords and scales to do it.

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#1348474 - 01/13/10 10:47 AM Re: How did you learn to improvise? [Re: Kreisler]
Claude56 Offline
Full Member

Registered: 03/02/09
Posts: 469
Originally Posted By: Kreisler
No. I learned to improvise by learning two chords and two scales - C Major and e minor, and fully exploring all the possibilities within. (Basically, the beginning to Enya's "Watermark" in C Major.)

Then, as I got more comfortable, I started adding and exploring new territory bit by bit. My next major milestone was three chords and one scale - a 12-bar blues in C. Then I tinkered with that a lot.

I know people often say you need to learn a lot of scales and chords to improvise, but it's simply not true. You need a solid command of all your scales and chords to gig at a full-time professional level, but you can dive in and do a great deal with very little. This is what's so valuable about Weiss's approach - he doesn't bombard people with tons of material, he gives you a basic vocabulary that can serve as a strong, simple, and useful basis for creative expression.


I think the number of chords and progressions and scales you learn depends on what kind of style you want to improvise, right?

If you play blues, you only have to learn 3 chords in about 3 and the blues scale.

If you play rock, you might have to learn the same amount as blues, maybe a little bit more if you want to learn modern rock.

If you want to learn jazz, your going to have to know a lot of scales and dissonant chords to improvise off of, and you must be fluent when your playing all the scale chord relationships.

If you want to improvise classical, youre going to have know pretty much everything in jazz, and your going to have to be fluent in all keys.

If you want to free improvise, jazz or classical, than you must know a lot of theory chords and scales to do it.

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