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I'm a classically trained pianist and I've spent a lot of time in the last year or two really learning the blues. I've worked through some of my favorite pieces and it's safe to say I can now rip a 12 bar pretty hard. The last boogie I learned was "Kenner Boogie" by Jon Batiste.

Kenner Boogie

I've been continually feeling this urge to move forward and learn how to play more "outside" the blues pocket; I want to learn to freely improvise over things that aren't the boogie woogie.

That said, I do not have (and never have had) any real interest in the real heady jazzy side of things, especially the later, high art bebop stuff. I love the sound of a lot of the classic New Orleans style, and I appreciate stuff like Louis Armstrong's melody-based improv. I did learn "New Island Midnight" by Dr. John (by ear) because I liked the rich sounds so much, and it even got me into learning about tritone substitutions, which appear throughout the piece.

New Island Midnight

In essence, I want to be able to freely improvise, but I think that, for me, immersing myself in thick jazz theory may not be the best route if I have no interest in playing or listening to straight ahead jazz. Another part of me feels like I have to go through it to get to other jazz-infused-but-not-jazz genres/styles. So, my question is: how does one learn to freely improvise outside of the jazz realm?

This question differs from this one in that I'm not attempting to transition straight into jazz from a classical standpoint; I am asking what angle I can take to further my blues improvisational skills without diving into the heart of the jazz idiom.

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  • Does this answer your question? How can a classical pianist learn jazz piano?
    – Aaron
    Jun 15 at 23:15
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    Improvisation is improvisation. Style is secondary.
    – Aaron
    Jun 15 at 23:35
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    Why not improvise in a classical style? Mozart-era classical is very highly formal, so you could probably learn to improvise a sonata allegro movement pretty well. Take requests, and turn them into high art! :D Jun 16 at 0:24
  • It is not clear what you are asking. Sorry. To improvise in any style immerse yourself in that style and emulate. You can do it in classical as well.
    – user50691
    Jun 16 at 0:46
  • Is it important for you that your improvisations are idiomatic for the style of the accompaniment?
    – Theodore
    Jun 16 at 13:38
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You learn to improvise by improvising. Play something. Did you like it? What did you play? Over what and when did you play it? If you can in some way explain what you played and where, then you have theoretical tools to improve and guide your improvisation.

If your problem is not being able to break the mental barrier and play something, anything, or if you feel stuck with the same ideas coming to mind all the time, then try overcoming that with a systematic approach. Limit and narrow down your expression in terms of dimensions of music: rhythm, harmony, melody, timbre. Select a pitch, and over a two-bar loop, play ONE staccato note of that pitch, with mf dynamics. Now you've locked down all aspects and your only job is to select WHERE in that two-bar loop you play your one note. But there's still a decision to be made, and you have to improvise that minimal decision! Try all possible timing positions for that one note. Then you'll learn what each alternative feels like. And after you've done this enough, you expand in some direction and play for example TWO notes. Or one note, but try different pitches. Etc.

Another perspective for improvisation is: instead of improvising a melody over chords, improvise a chord progression UNDER a melody. Play a simple two bar melody line into a looper, for example triad pairs Am and G: A C E, G B D. Then let that loop repeat and try different chord progressions under it. This is another way of learning how harmony tastes, and how all the "backing" notes are combined together with the "leading" notes. Because in a way, a good improviser thinks about and create the whole package!

So, try things. That's the only way to learn improvisation. If you need more ideas for things to try, in addition to the systematic break-down approach you can simply play tunes and modify them, create variations. (How? Try a systematic approach!) As long as you keep trying.

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My own ability to improvise really started to materialize after I came across a list of melodic patterns that I started practicing much like scale practice. There are hundreds of them and after a short while I would hear them play in my head as nice parts that would fit nicely with music that I had already been playing rhythm parts for years. Now a fair amount of my time is consumed by my recording parts and then going back and improvising with those melodic patterns, which once learned, can easily be adjusted to fit any number of styles. I also jam on a pretty regular basis and sometimes the experience is absolutely fantastic. Incidently I still look for new patterns that I can add to my list because I feel the need to continue my growth and development musically.

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Remember that improvisation is not a "new thing" (jazz improvisation just followed an already well known -and now mostly forgotten- practice), and it was very common even centuries ago: for instance, Liszt was known to be a virtuoso improviser, and many consider that the harmonic innovations of Chopin have origins in his improvisations. A lot of "written music" we still play nowadays was born while the composer was just improvising.

The basics of jazz harmony and improvisation don't differ that much from other styles (including classical), as the harmonic concepts are almost the same to some extent: voicing harmonization, harmonic rhythm and resolutions, etc.

What you can't avoid is theoretical and practical study of harmony. Chord functions, relations, cadences, modulations.

You can start by creating small chorales based on simple cadences, then trying to play simple melodies based on the harmonic progression. Don't try to do incredible and wonderful things, begin with simple lines. Try to improvise by singing or whistling, and playing that in the meantime.

The issue is more with the style of accompaniment and melodic part, depending on the "era" you're trying to improvise on.
The accompaniment depends on the style you want to play. You can use omorithmic patterns, such as alternating the bass with the (remaining) notes of the chords, or doing the "Alberti bass" to imitate a Mozart-ish sound.

Take some "simple" piece you already play, and try to change it. If the left hand is more "static" and repetitive, you can concentrate on the melody and begin to improvise on it, starting with small variations in rhythm and notes, up to complete changes. Study those pieces again from a composition (and improvisation) point of view.

Finally, the real improvisation comes when you're also able to completely improvise the harmony of the piece, without predefined progressions throughout the whole piece. This requires lots of study (theoretical and practical) and practice, but it's certainly not impossible.

Bonus: do some research on Jean-Jacques Hauser (also known as "Tartarov"). He was a Swiss born pianist that was known for being able to improvise in almost any style of classical music, including imitating the style of specific composers. Sometimes he even asked the audience to provide a theme, on which he would then improvise in a era/composer style again chosen by the public. This kind of practice has been (unfortunally) forgotten by performers for more than a century (except for organ players), and it's actually a shame, as improvisation is a incredibly useful skill that should always be taught, even if the musician isn't going to become an "improviser".
Another musician (that you probably already know) important for modern improvisation is Keith Jarrett: while he usually plays (or, unfortunately, played) jazz, he's well known for his improvisation outside that style. Consider the beginning of his Paris Concert, which is a strong remainder of his exploration and study of Baroque music.

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  • Improvisation does not have to be harmonic at all and does not have to divide into melody and accompaniment. I improvise atonal music sometimes. I can't quite improvise a fugue, but I can improvise invertible 2 part counterpoint. I think too much emphasis on harmony is counterproductive. Jun 16 at 19:36

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