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I've been playing the piano for around 7 years now. I took some lessons when I first started, but other than that I haven't had any lessons. In other words I'm pretty much self-taught. I have a good knowledge of theory. I'm pretty bad at sight-reading, but I can pull off a score with some time. I understand scales and chords very well. I am also fairly decent at playing by ear. And I have written some melodies. But my problem is with improvisation.

I have been invited to play at 2 events so far. And I've played in various church bands.

I normally arpeggiate the chords in the left hand and either mess around with the chord in the right hand or I invent a melody. But sometimes it sounds so dry and boring. Especially in slow songs when it's usually the only instrument playing. I know that with practice it will eventually become better. Is there some kind of technique I could use to make my improvisation sound better?

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I know that their are other questions on this matter. But they didn't quite ask what I needed. –  Caleb Oct 22 '13 at 20:24
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Well I'm surprised how you can play songs by ear and not improvise. To me, improvising is playing the music in your head (whether it's yours or someone else's shouldn't make too much difference). Personally, I make way less mistakes when I improvise compared to when I play songs by ear. –  Anthony Oct 22 '13 at 22:17
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I guess he is talking about improvising to make it more interesting while playing to a song that others are singing. This means it has to fit an existing melody, and not in the sense of just playing something at random that sounds good. –  awe Oct 23 '13 at 12:33

6 Answers 6

My experience of improvisation started out in jazz bands, although over the years I've adapted to other styles too (including some church bands).

The best technique I found in the early stages was learning a few scales which work well over common chord sequences (previously I was totally unaware that there were any scales besides major and minor!). The classic jazz/blues improvisation I started with was the pentatonic minor scale, over a 12 bar blues progression.

For example, if you're playing in C major, your basic 12 bar blues chords are C7, F7, and G. Play that with your left hand, or use a backing track. Meanwhile, with your right hand, play notes from the C pentatonic minor scale (C, Eb, F, G, Bb). Make sure you vary the rhythm and volume of the notes as you go along.

As you get more familiar with the scale, add in some more notes. In the above example, F# can act as a 'blue note', which works well when transitioning to F or G. You can also use Eb as a transition to E natural. As you get more comfortable, start including multiple notes in the right hand, based on the current chord. Later, start varying the chord progression too, throwing in some 9th and 13th chords instead of just 7th's. That lets you add D and A into your melody at appropriate times.

The goal is to get really familiar with the basic scale (whichever one you're using) plus the extra notes which can go along with it. Keep playing and improvising with it, over and over and over until you can rattle it off blindfolded. You might sound terrible at first, but stick with it. Eventually you won't even be thinking about the scale any more -- you'll just feel the music, and your fingers will do the work.

Obviously there are other musical styles out there besides jazz and blues, but the same principles for improvisation apply. You could perhaps buy a book or look at some websites which explain applications for the different scale types.

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Playing in a major scale and soloing in the minor? Never heard of that. –  Caleb Jan 31 at 12:38
    
@Caleb an entire genre is based on that very idea, check it out, it's called "the blues" ;-) –  Fergus Mar 6 at 2:09

When improvising, it's important imo not to force ideas out. You can keep arpeggiating chords (or hammering them) until you find a nice idea. If you're playing songs, it's not a bad idea to base your improv on the original melody. Whenever I'm "forced" to improvise (because it's my turn to solo or something like that), I really sound boring, and repetitive, because I'm just trying to play anything over the scale rather than playing the spontaneous ideas I hear in my head. Don't be afraid to keep people waiting, just play chords until you come up with ideas. If your problem is in applying your ideas however, than your only problem is your aural skills imo. Keep training your ears no matter what, I'm sure you still have some areas that can use some improvement. I'd recommend using some ear training software, and transcribing music on a regular basis.

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I often hear complaints from pianists learning to improvise that "I don't know what to do with my left hand except arpeggiate the chord" (and variants on this) - especially from people who are playing to a series of guitar chords.

I'm not a fan of learning sheet music myself but this is something it can really help with: learn more pieces (pick ones that inspire you!) and mimic the general 'techniques' they use for your improv. The more you expand your repertoire, the more improv tricks you will have up your sleeve.

For example

Bridge over troubled water (original version) -> teaches you to hammer out fast 4-note chords with the right hand

Pretty much any ragtime -> teaches you to jump around bass-chord-bass-chord with your left hand

And if all else fails, just play the damn thing, then play it quietly, then play it an octave higher. ;-)

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In my experience, improvisation is all about being fearless. My trigger is when I play something I'm "not supposed to" play because it "wouldn't sound right". For example, whenever I warm up, I run through some standard pieces. They have "rules" about which notes to play and when to play them. There are notes that I avoid because I've learned over time that they don't "fit" into the sound of the song (whatever that may mean). When I want to improvise, that's where I start. I go where I'm not supposed to go. I break the rules that I've established for myself. I'll hammer on the notes that I've been avoiding. It sets a completely new tonality for me and lets me listen to what's going on with the song, the melody, and the sound.

Perhaps the best advice I ever heard came from Bobby McFerrin. When asked by a younger vocal student if there was a way to get better at improvisation, he answered without hesitation. Take ten minutes every day. Start singing. Don't stop. Don't try to sing anything, just sing and let the song take you where it wants to go. After just a few minutes you realize that you're invested in what's going on with the melody. You can't go back and "fix" it or change it. It's yours. It's there. You have to work with it. And you can't wait around for something else to work from. It's all coming from you, so you have to balance between creating, listening, and reacting. After a week, you'll see a marked improvement in your ability to improvise.

Though he was referring to vocal improvisation, the idea of getting comfortable with allowing music to come out of you, listening to it, and then reacting to it is a great place to work from when improvising on any instrument. I personally find the whole process incredibly liberating. It also changes how I approach non-improvisational playing, too. I'm better at listening and can better connect with the mood.

Try playing your instrument with the lights off and no sheet music. Start with any chord you want. Then, drop a note that you've actively avoided when playing that chord in the past. Maybe it's a flat 5. Or a sharp 4. ;) How about a flat 2. Who knows? Anything that you'd normally treat as a "mistake". Then, use it. Make that note work in your chord. Dance around it. Let it grow. Let it take you anywhere it wants to take you.

And most of all -- have fun!

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Adding dynamics, expressions, and emotions to your piano playing (whether you are improvising or playing with sheet music) can help make your music more beautiful rather than dry and boring. Also, creating runs and fillers can ornate your piano playing.

Piano playing is also like singing. Very good singers don't just sing the lyrics. They put their soul and emotions into the song. Pianists should also do the same with their music. Be an expressive pianist. Let the emotions come from your heart thru your fingers and out on the piano keys. Then your music will not sound dry and boring.

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Please do not use answers to try and sell a product. This answer is effectively spam. –  Dom Jan 30 at 16:09
    
Now the spam links have been removed that answer does contain good advice. –  Sideshow Bob Mar 5 at 12:26

Use the melody of the song you're playing, add embellishments and change small parts. It takes time and dedication to get to the levels of the greats, who can invent coherent statements on the fly. Listen to the jazz masters. E.g. Sonny Rollins has a quite melodic style, and is usually basing his solos on the melody of the song.

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