Start Improvising


in Composition

One of the joys I have is in sitting down at my piano and improvising. I bring this up today as part of my continued thoughts on Kenny Werner's Effortless Mastery book and what I'm reading.

As I start reading the introduction and his story of how he was taught in school, several ideas come to mind. The most significant idea is how teaching in a structured environment can often lead to the suppression of creativity.

Two opposites, but beneficial needs

As I think about this, two polar opposites of thought tug at my emotions.

Structure can give a framework to grow your abilities and skills. It can also limit your creativity by confining you to a set of rules and keep you from trying things that might be the solution to the problem.

In classical music this was very much the norm. Scales and harmonic systems were defined and you created with in those system. It framed music and the masterpieces of that age were created.

As music progressed, those boundaries were expanded and tested allowing for an expansion of the structure into our world and may be exemplified by jazz.

Another aspect is that without the structure you will make sound and test until you have found something that pleases you. The creative side is in full motion. This is how many folk songs or styles are created.

So how can one bring these opposites together to improvise?

Many music students simply struggle with trying to improvise. Believe me, I do all the time. But when I get into a groove and just let my soul play it's incredible satisfying.

Let me suggest a short sequence for you to try in helping you begin the journey into improvising your inner creativity.

Let's start by using structure to form a launching pad.

Pick a key signature, it can be the key of C if that is what you are most familiar with. I personally have a favorite in C minor, and float to Eb major as the related key.

Write out the harmonic system chords for C it will be C, Dm, Em, F, G7, Am, Bdim.

Now pick two or three of these chords and work the chords in various inversions and rhythm until you find a pattern that you like. You may only start with a I – IV – V pattern or you may find a ii – V7 – I as a place to start.

Work that pattern until you are comfortable with it. I'll often use a simple bass pattern like playing a the root fifth and octave notes to start. Then experiment with some variations like adding 7ths. Soon you should just be grooving on that pattern and getting into a zone.

In the next step you will work the scale associated with each chord. Let's say you pick pentatonic scales. With C you decide to play only the notes of C D E G A. You may decide to write each pentatonic scale used with each chord or even just stick to the basic C pentatonic to experiment with each of the chords.

Play the chords and scale together. Create your own melody. Now you have set a place to launch your experiments from.

To let the creative juices flow you have set up the framework, then you have to let go and play with these chords and scales.  Start with one chord and one scale and make up a melody. As you play let that sound be the best sound you have ever heard.

Recap of Improvising in Structure

At the piano I often start with just finding a rhythm and groove. Pick one or two chords and a scale and let myself relax into it. At some point a transformation happens and I get into the sound and just start slowly working one new sound into the pattern. Soon I have 3 or 4 new ideas creeping in.

After allowing myself to work in this structure over several sessions I continue to expand on the theme and create and improvise more.

WARNING: When you first attempt this you may not want an audience. You may not be creating a sound that is pleasurable to them as you are first experimenting. That comes latter as you are able to master some chords, scales, and techniques and use them at will.

The suggestion this time is to use the structures you are learning in music as a way to create from you inner self. Go out and try it let us know how you feel about the process and the experiment.

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