Improvising at the piano–where to begin?


Everyone who improvises knows how much goes into extemporaneously playing a melody. It takes time to learn how to do it. Bruce Lee described the learning curve perfectly.

Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just like a punch, a kick just like a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I’ve understood the art, a punch is just like a punch, a kick just like a kick. The height of cultivation is really nothing special. It is merely simplicity; the ability to express the utmost with the minimum.

Hearing precedes playing

The learning curve for improvisers has to do with acquiring the abilities to

  1. hear what you’d like to play
  2. play what you hear.

Hearing what you’d like to play is done simply by internal listening.
Things get simple if not easy with those two skills in place. Because improvising really is just a matter of hear it and play it. And repeat those two steps over and over again.

Joey Alexander and advice for improvisers

Joey’s an 11-year old pianist from Indonesia who’s completely self-taught as an improviser. To call him a prodigy or a phenomenal talent is understatement. Herbie Hancock, among others has been mentoring him.

Last I saw in news reports coming from New York City he was playing in jazz clubs there–with the supervision of his dad of course. The idea for Joey is to stay in NYC so he can learn in the epicentre of jazz.

I posted an interview with Joey not long ago. He has some advice in the interview for aspiring improvisers. It’s wonderfully simple: Tell a story in your music and if you don’t have a story make one up!

How to improvise?

If you have a sense of the what the music you’d like to play sounds like then it becomes much easier to play it. Because we’ve brought the ear into the process. And music is about the ear.

A perfectly sound approach, no pun intended, is:

Improvise with the skill and technique you have now instead of with the skill and technique you wish that you had! Play what you hear and whatever you hear is what you should play.

Ran Blake and The Primacy of the Ear

Context and background knowledge make everything easier. So I book I recommend to aspiring and accomplished improvisers is The Primacy of the Ear by Ran Blake. It describes an approach to improvising that, as the title suggests, is about the ear and hearing what you play. The book includes practical exercises. Every aspiring improviser should read it. Not to mention that Ran Blake’s been teaching at the New England Conservatory in Boston for 30 or maybe 40 years. He’s considered to be one of the most influential and original teachers of improvisation anywhere anytime.

Putting it all together

Find recordings of great improvisers who inspire you. Get the sound in your head. Read Ran Blake’s book and get a better sense of how improvisation, the ear, and inner hearing are connected.

Listen for what you’d like to play when you improvise. Then play it.

And remain non-judgemental while you listen and play. That means don’t worry about whether what you hear and and play is good or bad or a variation on either. What’s important really is just that you try to hear what you play and that you try to play what you hear.

Improvisation can be taught–improvisation can be learned

I specialise in teaching improvisation as a fundamental skill at the piano. My opinion is we should learn to improvise right from the start.

If you’re interested in lessons send email to There’s more information on my web site about how and what I teach.