Piano Improvisation: A Powerful Practical System

By Frank Caruso and Karl Mollison

Chapter 1: A Piano Improvisation System That Works

1.1  What This Piano Book Will Do for You

Musical improvisation that sounds good follows certain principles. Anyone can improvise if they are shown how. This book is the practical system used by a jazz virtuoso, a prodigy who has figured out the technical basis of his natural ability to play and improvise easily. It was written in response to repeated requests for pointers from classically-oriented piano teachers needing help with students wanting to know how to improvise and "play the changes" by analyzing chord progressions of a tune.

The art of piano improvisation, practiced routinely by jazz players, is applicable to any musical style. Now, finally, there is a practical guide that really shows you how to play keyboard ideas. All you need to get started is ability to read notes in the treble clef.

The book provides a simple system to understand the music theory behind all forms of popular music, and how to unlock its power as a creative tool from the beginning to intermediate level. You will be able to analyze tunes to determine what notes to use for improvisation, and learn beautiful piano chord voicings that work in any situation.

Developing the muscle memory for this piano improvisation system will enable you to easily play tunes from the chords of printed sheet music or a fake book and improvise your own melody variations, whether the style is jazz, rock, easy listening, New Age, country, or just the blues.

You will learn secrets for fingering which are the key to developing speed and never running out of fingers when you play piano. Fingerings are given throughout, unlike most books that fail to teach. You will learn powerful piano chord voicings to play in a solo piano style or to accompany other musicians, developing the muscle memory to spontaneously improvise arpeggiated chord tone and scale patterns for piano solos. Best of all, a simple exercise routine will enable you to improvise in all 12 keys.

1.2  Why You Need a System for Piano Improvisation

Scientists who study human performance have concluded that experts are made, not born. This applies to musical virtuosos as well as chess masters. Achieving top performance comes from purposeful work that stretches oneself beyond current capabilities. Many people remember Oscar Peterson as one of the top jazz players of all time. Not many know how he achieved that stature. According to his sister, when Oscar became truly serious about becoming a great artist, he spent years practicing as much as 12 hours a day in striving to become the best.

Few of us have that much time to devote to the piano, but the key thing is really not the amount of time, but what should be practiced. In fact, the more that practice time is limited, the more critical it is to know the best way to develop the technical skills and fluency to become a good improviser. If you are drawn to the idea of improvising at the piano, you have the desire and inner musical ability you need. The best way to develop skill is finding an expert mentor to show you what you need to focus on so your time and effort give maximum results. That’s what this book is designed to provide. You need to know how successful experts do it.

1.3  Why Studying Transcribed Piano Solos Isn’t the Answer

Learning "licks," playing printed arrangements of piano pieces, copying piano solos by ear from recordings and memorizing transcriptions of performances by famous pianists can be interesting and fun, but do little to impart piano improvising skills. Rote learning does not engage the creative part of the brain or help you understand why the music sounds good. Even when a style is thoroughly explained, you won’t be able to reproduce it unless you somehow build the necessary musical foundation in muscle memory. When you memorize a piano transcription, you only have muscle memory for those specific notes.

The number of lines an actor can memorize and recite does not determine whether he can give a convincing extemporaneous speech. A better comparison would be learning a speech in an unfamiliar foreign language by imitating the sounds. If you don’t truly know the language, its vocabulary and rules of grammar, you’ll never create anything original. To improvise spontaneously, you need to know the language of music and its rules, just like you know how to speak. We can teach you just what you need to know.

1.4  Benefits for Beginners and Advanced Piano Players

Although this book was designed for a college jazz program, it can be used by anyone who can read, and who has a rudimentary foundation in reading music. It is intended for beginning and intermediate improvisers of any age. The simplicity of the system will be especially appreciated by players of other instruments wishing to learn piano. It will also be helpful to professional piano players who are struggling with certain skills, like fingering, improvising in unfamiliar keys, or how to play keyboard solos with greater playing speed.

Even if you've studied music theory before, we encourage you to read everything carefully because we clarify the concepts that are critical for the improviser.

We will teach you the music theory and the basic skills you need, step by step. Beginners always have the advantage of not yet having failed at something because it was never explained properly. Beginners have no bad habits, no limiting beliefs about what is possible. To learn piano improvisation with our system sight-reading skill is unnecessary beyond the ability to follow a treble clef melody. Many professional piano players are not good sight-readers. They just don’t need to be.

Successful piano players know the key to piano improvisation is developing the connection between the brain and hands, so that the creative impulse can exploit a musical vocabulary that has already been learned and stored as muscle memory. This vocabulary is mainly the scales from which the chords of a tune are derived, and knowing effective chord voicings that sound good. Our system for piano improvisation makes it easy to acquire the tools you need step by step, including the most under-appreciated critical factor for the player―knowing which fingerings to use to move fluidly about the keyboard.

Musically talented people can develop a superb ear for music even if they never play an instrument. But becoming a good piano player can be very frustrating because of the technical demands placed on a beginner. In fact, the more developed your ear has become, the wider the gulf will be between what your brain wants to hear and what it is possible for you to execute at the piano.

A highly trained piano teacher will find that just knowing classical fingerings for the various scales will not teach a piano student how to play the piano creatively. Even professional players find themselves “running out of fingers” and hit a wall in their playing.

Fortunately, with the proper technique for fingering chord and scale patterns, piano improvisation is actually much simpler than people realize. In the same way that a great painting is a series of purposeful brush strokes, whether you wish to play a jazz solo, a New Age composition, or a variation on a popular song melody or rock tune, a piano improvisation is merely a series of notes drawn from a musical scale that is already predetermined by the chords of the tune.
The virtuosity of Oscar Peterson, a master of technical execution, depended on his use of proper fingering for his ideas. Anyone can play piano with speed using muscle memory of correct keyboard finger positions. That is why we provide a system with practical fingerings for the chords and patterns you’ll need. The correct piano fingering technique you learn fuses the knowledge of music theory with the corresponding muscle memory for playing notes that fit, so that creativity can happen spontaneously and without hesitation.

1.5  How the Pros Improvise Effortlessly at the Keyboard

Good improvisers all have one secret in common. They understand music theory and have a command of how to play chords and scales preserved in muscle memory. Not only do their fingers know automatically which keys to strike for any chord, even their recognizable distinctive styles are the result of chord voicings and patterns they have internalized and programmed as muscle memory.

Here is how they do it. As they improvise, players follow and interpret the chord progressions (sequences of chords) and make a series of musical decisions about how to express themselves within that framework: to start in the upper, middle or lower register of the keyboard, to play a chord or its substitution, to play a harmonized chord change pattern or a scale pattern, to go up the scale or down the scale, and so on. These decisions are governed by what the musician is hearing and wants to hear next, an impulse that triggers the corresponding muscle memory to execute a phrase. There is simply not time to think about what specific notes to play. The only “thinking” is the awareness of the chord progression and what sound to reach for.

It may seem like an overwhelming task to develop such a level of proficiency but the knowledge required can be learned by anyone who is shown how to do it step by step. That's what this piano book was designed to do. The key thing to know when starting out is that in piano improvisation all the setups are simple. What a beautiful thing it is to be able to improvise fluidly, guided by your feelings. You can do it, too!

1.6  Quickest Way to Become a Keyboard Improviser

In this piano book, we present a series of piano exercises designed to establish the critical muscle memory for the piano chords, scales and patterns most frequently used in popular music. We start with the blues because it provides the simplest example for learning improvisation. We focus on simple but robust piano chord voicings that are used every day by professional piano players, and present these chords along with their corresponding scales, the musical vocabulary. We explain the secret to using the right keyboard fingering so that you can move effortlessly up and down the keyboard. This brings the hands and fingers up to speed with the ear.

Then, we explain in simple terms how to analyze the chord progressions of a tune according to music theory. This provides the rules of grammar for improvisation. Once you know which scale goes with a given chord progression, playing any notes on that scale will fit. You can't go wrong.

When you have the chords and scales in muscle memory, your ear will guide you towards better and better solos with ever-increasing spontaneity―playing from your heart and not your head.

We have streamlined the learning process to focus on the key essentials and provide exercises designed to keep you on the best path, but you need to work through each step to ensure all these ingredients are in place.  

1.7  Creating a Great Piano Sound

Once you know the basic chords and scales, it is easy to learn the simple rules underlying different musical styles. Most popular music, whether rock, easy listening, New Age, country, etc., increasingly incorporates jazz and blues elements.

We show you how a jazz performer plays the blues and straight changes. We show you beautiful piano chord voicings with a full rich sound you can use in any situation, whether for solo or group performance. We show you how to interweave arpeggiated chord change patterns and scale patterns to construct a beautiful improvised melody line. Once you have this foundation it becomes possible to not only understand the musical devices used by the great players and employ them in your own performances, but to unlock your own creative potential. Your ear will guide you to the sound you seek and your hands will readily translate that desire into action.

1.8  Why This Piano Improvisation System is Superior

Other books mostly focus on music theory and largely train the mind but not the hands. Or, they offer piano exercises and transcriptions that do not develop sufficient knowledge to apply the underlying musical principles more widely. Piano exercises are not given in all 12 keys. After a time, the knowledge of theory fades without the physical skills to apply it. Memorized tunes and patterns lose their novelty and ultimately become boring, are little used, and forgotten.

Piano courses attempting to be comprehensive provide such detail that the student is overwhelmed with information before the necessary manual skills are in place. None of the books show how to approach fingering and vary it as needed for fluid improvising. Without this starting point, keyboard technique is very limited. Piano students find they can’t progress and often give up, wrongly thinking they will never be able to play piano spontaneously or with any speed.

Our piano improvisation system depends on four superior approaches. First, we provide a logical sequence of study and piano exercises so the system of practical piano chord voicing and keyboard fingering technique in all 12 keys can be learned with great efficiency both at the level of conscious thought and by the hands, the critical combination for execution.

Second, we focus only on key concepts of music theory that relate to popular music and break them down into simple rules, avoiding jargon that impedes learning. 

Third, we describe the tips and tricks used by the piano pros to quickly analyze unfamiliar tunes and point the way to constructing effective solos, along with the proper fingering technique for rapid execution. This approach successfully shows you how to apply music theory and gives you a solid foundation for musical creativity.

Fourth, our piano improvisation system will help you find your sound by giving you the technical skills to express it with your fingers. No amount of knowledge or analyzing how others play piano can equal the power you'll have when you know chord changes and their scales and can move your fingers up and down the keyboard with ease. The muscle memory you develop for this will expand and grow automatically as you discover new sounds you like. Unlike most students without our system, you will be truly prepared to move on to advanced concepts of harmony and rhythm and successfully incorporate them in your piano playing.

1.9  How to Use This Piano Book

Every word in this book is there for a reason. We recommend that you read everything carefully as you go. Then, reread the words after completing each chapter to be sure you have absorbed the meaning behind the choice of exercises and examples.

Going step by step in the sequence we show you will ensure you develop the basic foundation you need to be a good keyboard improviser. When you learn how to play the piano in a way that sounds good, and see how your ear trains your hands to remember it, learning the theory and developing muscle memory is easy.

Remember, it is when you are doing something challenging that growth occurs. Skill building depends on concentrated, focused attention with lots of repetition until execution becomes automatic. You will only need to put in enough practice time to get the foundation we describe into your hands, but there is no way to substitute for this step.

To practice you should go slowly, take things bit by bit and repeat the piano exercises over and over until you have mastered the skills involved. If you work in a slow deliberate way, you will learn better and retain more than if you try to hurry the process. Most students waste their practice time playing tunes they already know. Do that for fun another time, or at the end of a work session. You will learn much more from each practice session by working through something you have to struggle with. Science has shown that we actually grow our brains when we tackle difficult problems. 

Once you have learned the material in a chapter, return to the exercises in previous chapters and replay them to reinforce what you learned previously. What you don’t use you may lose. You will find that previously learned material becomes easier and easier to play. Studies of learning show that new skills need to be repeated again and again over a 30-day period to become stored permanently and become automatic. The brain actually develops new hard-wired connections.

We recommend that you practice the piano at least 30 minutes a day while working through this book, whether in one session, two sessions of 15 minutes, or three sessions of 10 minutes each. Studies of expert musicians show that the kind of deep practice that accelerates learning requires intense focus and concentration which is difficult for some to sustain for more than an hour at one time. But if you are highly motivated and don’t mind long sessions, by all means go for it. How often and for how long you practice will determine when you reach your goal.

Chapter 3 discusses common problems students encounter and how to fix them. Reading that chapter carefully will help you avoid mistakes that may become bad habits, and will give you valuable suggestions for improving your keyboard performance. Many piano players settle for having an average level of skill when in actuality, if they knew some of the secrets for optimizing piano technique, they could do much better. The most important goal of this book is your empowerment!

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                                                                   © 2010 Frank Caruso and Karl Mollison. All rights reserved