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I would like to learn to improvise in different styles, including but not limited to jazz. For a classical music pianist with good technique and several years of experience, what is my best place to start?

I have a good knowledge of harmony and music theory so I can, in fact, extract from classical pieces the underlying harmony. I can also play around it a little bit. However, I feel that if I want to improvise on a particular style, there must be some tip and tricks that I am not aware of.

There are plenty of youtube videos out there. The problem is that they always assume a very basic knowledge of the piano, so that I spent most of my time skipping too basic stuff..

I have considered a jazz teacher. However, my interested is certainly not limited to jazz. Plus I already have a piano teacher for the classical part, and I would avoid spending more time and money on teachers if possible.

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    Possible duplicate of How can a classical pianist learn jazz piano? – Stinkfoot Feb 12 '18 at 0:38
  • jazz is not the only way to improvise. – Vaaal Feb 12 '18 at 10:50
  • jazz is not the only way to improvise : Semantics - first define 'jazz' - good luck on that. :) (AFAIK, jazz has no "way of improvising"-the jazz universe is vast.) All improvised music, even improvised sections of baroque pieces or a concerto can be referred to as 'jazz'. When improvising within the framework of a rhythm section of some sort, be it a bass continuo, a full string section, or a double bass and drums, that's 'jazz'. But regardless of the definition, jazz study is mostly the study of improvisational strategies and techniques - much of that is applicable universally, IMO. – Stinkfoot Feb 12 '18 at 16:53
  • without needing to define anything, this question asked about general improvisation. The question you point at ask about jazz piano. I doubt that you claim that you can only improvise when you play jazz. Thus the two questions are not equivalent :) - wait a second, you are claiming exactly that. Nevermind – Vaaal Feb 12 '18 at 17:03
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    Since the original question is by someone with a lot of classical experience, a good place to start might be improvisation close to the classical tradition, such as improvising a basso continuo parts for baroque pieces. The third Brandenburg Concerto, second movement, is written as just two chords, from which the rest is meant to be improvised. So, if your education is mainly classical, and includes baroque, you can start by studying baroque improvisation. – Steve Feb 13 '18 at 22:17
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I'd say there are a few different approaches which are not mutually exclusive and, in fact, all important. In other words, you need to attack the problem from a few different angles.

Theoretically

So you understand harmony and you probably know all the required scales. Now it's time to learn the intricacies of jazz harmony and things like what scale or arpeggio to use in a particular context.

I'd get a book on general jazz theory/harmony and a bunch of others that are effectively lick books. In other words they'll dive deeper into a particular topic and show examples of lines and ways to construct them.

Aurally

A goal for jazz musicians is to eventually get to the point where they can play what they hear in their head directly. Along with technique practice where hearing the same musical structures over and over will imprint them into your brain, you'll also want to put some specific effort into strengthening the connection between what you hear, what you know (theory), and what you play (muscle memory).

Singing is great for this. Don't worry if your voice or range sucks because that's not the point. Sing along to what you play. Sing something first without your instrument and then try to play it. Get a sight-singing book. Do traditional ear training, etc. Develop your ear in conjunction with your instrument so that can play what you hear (and hear what somebody else plays).

Idiomatically

Last but certainly not least, you need to study actual jazz recordings (and live jazz if possible) to build your "vocabulary". Listen to a bunch of jazz and learn about the different periods and sub-genres if you haven't already. When you find a style that you like or a lick that you like, learn it. Transcribe it, tweak it, and incorporate it into your vocabulary. Learn the harmony as well and tear it all apart and analyze it. Try to figure out what makes a particular style or person have that characteristic sound. You need to learn the idiom first to be convincing and then put your own spin on it.

"Every question you could ask can be answered by listening to the records". (paraphrased from Jamey Aebersold)

Experimentally

Ok so there's one more: experimentation. Don't forget that the point is improvising which by definition means being creative in the moment. If there were a blueprint to everything it wouldn't be very interesting. Let your fingers wonder sometimes and then let your ears decide if they like it. Don't be afraid to play a wrong note. And if you do, you're always a half step away from fixing it.

  • that's very valuable. Do you have any book reccomendation? :) – Vaaal Jan 7 '18 at 18:41
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    @Vaaal As far as general theory: The Jazz Theory Book (Levine) and/or Jazz Theory Resources (Ligon). Maybe Jazzology or Nettle's and Graf. Have a look at the TOC and see which fills the most gaps for you. Ligon is pretty detailed. – user37496 Jan 7 '18 at 20:23
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    @Vaaal Because you're instrument is piano, maybe [The Jazz Piano book (Levine)]() and/or Jazz Improvisation for Keyboard Players (Haerle). I'm primarily a guitarist so there could be better piano-specific recommendations? – user37496 Jan 7 '18 at 20:24
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    @Vaal (^*your) And then as far as licks things like: this, this (just ignore the tablature), this, etc. There are too many to list. Just pick a couple up, dive in, and go from there. Have a look at Aebersold and see what looks helpful to you at the time. Their play-alongs (and the accompanying booklets) are useful too. – user37496 Jan 7 '18 at 20:37
  • This is a very useful answer. Thank you! I'm in much the same position as the OP. – BobRodes Jan 7 '18 at 21:43
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user37496 has provided a very respectful and intelligent reply...

and I have a problem with that!

1) You haven't named an artist or work or subgenre that you love. Red flag.

2) You've got mechanical chops. Leverage that and put theory far on the back-burner. Instead, put in a lot of time listening to and playing blues. (There are lots of subgenres of blues. Form opinions! Change opinions over time!)

Learn I-IV-V patterns, both major and minor, both chords & bass lines, with your left hand; and, melodic phrases with your right. You must learn to "borrow" (steal) phrases from masters, and then, to anticipate each phrase's sound (emotional resonance), and then, to surprise and delight yourself with variations on the predictable.

Learn to HATE overly scale-driven playing. Learn to play charming (parts of) solos consisting of sequences based around JUST ONE NOTE (using volume dynamics, note duration, off-timing, lazy vs. assertive phrasing), and similarly, to go off on little "story-telling" journeys using just 2 or 3 notes at first.

3) With conventional major blues, it's important to know how to use (in melodies) the flat 3rd (often in transition to the major 3rd), and, the flat 7, and, to avoid the 2, and to use the 6 somewhat sparingly (well, it depends...). Give yourself lots of time to become a real owner of this.

4) The transition from (improvisational) blues to jazz should happen organically, ie, once you can play blues with groove and feeling. As you develop, if/when you start feeling the pull of more and more out-of-scale notes, not just as passing notes (a nice sized subject on its own), but as "first class" notes in lines, that's when to start learning more complex chords & chord patterns and the scales that work with them.

I am not a super talented (guitar) player. In my 40's, I found myself experiencing these episodes of mastery, sometimes while practicing alone and others while jamming with others, where every phrase, every note, was "on purpose" and deeply satisfying, and I started realizing how much of my playing prior to that was not real music making, even if it was a necessary precursor. So, what I've written above is motivated in large part by what I'd wished I had been nudged towards when much younger.

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There are two ways to approach this sort of learning: (1) practice specific licks, chord voicings, etc. methodically in all 12 keys, and (2) using songs as case studies. I recommend approach #2 for two reasons. First, you plan to learn improvisation in addition to all of your existing classical training. Second, you already music theory and know how to play piano, and so learning a technique in all 12 keys is less important. If you learn a voicing for FMaj, you're going to see pretty quickly how to play it in different keys.

Start by picking a song that's somewhat simply that you like. Whether it's jazz, funk, blues, pop, etc., learn to play the chords in your left hand. There are many choices when deciding how to voice left-hand chords. Some techniques you might consider are:

For each chord in the song, choose 1-2 voicings and learn them both to the point that you can put your left hand on "autopilot." This will free you to focus your mental energy on what the right hand is doing. In your right, practice improvising. Just as you did with the left hand, the key is in targeted practice. Choose one thing to practice at a time. That one thing might be:

  • constructing melodies from heptatonic scales,
  • constructing melodies from pentatonic scales,
  • playing scale patterns,
  • playing scale runs
  • combining scale runs with arpeggios,
  • using chromatic and diatonic approach notes, etc.

When you practice that one technique, it's fine to play other things too, but the goal is to focus your mental thoughts to the particular technique you've selected. Try the technique starting on different scale/chord tones. Try it starting at different beats. Try it with different rhythms. The goal in the beginning is to think about the melodies that you're creating in these terms (of scale degrees, rhythmic variation, etc.). This will help you begin developing a vocabulary of licks, lines, etc. that you can use in your improvising. It will also give you some good theoretical structures for identifying licks that you like when you listen to recordings of improvisation.

Practicing in this way won't be the sort of training you'd receive if you were to start lessons with a jazz teacher or if you started an undergraduate program in jazz studies. But it has the advantages of (a) being fun, (b) catering to your existing strengths, and (c) allowing you the flexibility to learn what you want at your own pace. To continue improving, you simply expand the range of techniques you study. Or if you become really serious about improvising, you can start to approach your practice more methodically, taking a ii-V-I lick through all 12 keys at different tempos and with different rhythms, etc.


Note 1: In my experience, the most common difficulty for classical pianists who transition to jazz (or blues or funk) is the rhythmic complexity. Classical music often surpasses jazz in terms of harmonic complexity, but mastering the syncopated rhythms is often quite difficult. During your practice, focus on rhythmic development. Take a simple eighth-note lick, and anticipate the first note by an eighth note. Or delay the last note by an eighth note. For more such ideas, you might check out Jerry Bergonzi's book Melodic Rhythms. Like Mark Levine, Bergonzi is a giant in jazz education.

Note 2: If one of your short-term goals is play with other jazz musicians, then definitely choose jazz standards as the songs you'll practice. Two good standards to start with are: Bag's Groove (an F blues) and Autumn Leaves.

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Jazz is a special form of improvisation that doesn't always translate well to other idioms. Speaking from experience, if you learn the principles of classical improvisation, you will be able to improvise in almost all genres, except jazz. The reason jazz is an exception is that it follows harmonic principles not commonly found in other forms of music.

If you're a classical musician and you want to improvise in a classical style then I strongly recommend you get the book "Improvising: How to Master the Art" by Gerre Hancock which explains improvisation in the classical idiom.

I'm not certain which country you're in, but in France church organists are trained to improvise in the classical idiom because in church things sometimes take longer than the piece that was written for it.

Another group to seek out are the piano accompanists who work for ballet companies and college dance programs. They have to be able improvise in particular styles. I remember talking with one who said he could improvise in the style of various composers for quite a while.

Study cadenzas. Cadenzas were originally improvisations but as classical musicians lost the ability to improvise they became dots on the printed page.

Seek out Robert Levine. Levine is a proponent of bringing improvisation back into Mozart and has quite a lot to say about classical improvisation.

For more on this subject see the question Does improvisation in the classical idiom differ significantly from jazz and folk improvisation?

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