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Piano Improvisation: A Powerful Practical System

By Frank Caruso and Karl Mollison

 

Here are a few sample pages from the book to highlight its systematic and  thorough approach for simplified piano improvisation. 

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To make this piano course an effective piano teacher, we start with the blues because it is a simple style used in many types of popular music and it shows how to play the piano using a single scale to improvise over all the chord changes in a tune. Perfect to help the beginning piano student learn how to improvise.

 
We show the scales, comp chords and full two-hand piano chord voicings needed to play the blues in the three most popular keys. To simplify sight-reading, left hand piano chords are shown in treble clef and all fingerings are labeled.
 
Four sample improvisations are given as a starting point to show how patterns can be interchanged. With this framework, piano students
start developing muscle memory for correct keyboard fingerings and easily transition to creating their own melodies and rhythms. It gets them playing and builds confidence!

 

Blues scale example with blues comp chords and chord inversions.
Examples of blues improvisation exercises

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Music theory essential for improvisers is presented step-by-step to teach the different types of chords and show clearly how chords are constructed from interval notes of an underlying scale--that chords are really partial scales. 

Then, examples are given using the Circle of Fourths as a tool to identify chord progressions belonging to a particular scale to use for improvisation. This enables piano students to improvise on tunes in any music style: jazz, rock, easy listening, New Age, country, as well as the blues.

 

Two versions of the Circle of Fourths  for analyzing chord progressions
Book page showing scale analysis from a chord progression

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Tables of fill-in-the-blank chord progression sequences are given as a learning tool.

Self-tests of chord progressions and their resolution are also included.


Sample tables for learning chord progressions in each key signature
Example of chord progression self-test

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Powerful piano chord voicings are given for all 12 keys. Comp chord voicings for use when playing along with a bass player, and full two-hand chord voicings for solo piano are provided in treble clef for easy sight-reading (versions with traditional bass clef are also included). Chord inversions to use for variety are also illustrated. 

Figures with chords in II-V-I sequence following the Circle of Fourths for all 12 keys help develop muscle memory for chord progressions. Each section of the book includes a step-by-step Practice Sequence so students know how to use the piano exercises to develop muscle memory for a particular skill with greatest efficiency.


Book page showing full chord open voicings for major 7th, dominant 7th and minor 7th chords
Left hand comp chords with two alternate voicings

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A detailed description is given of how to choose scales to use for improvising on the chords of a tune. An example tune is shown with a simple melody, then with chords added, along with a scale analysis. The tune is a takeoff on a classic jazz composition.

The tune is repeated in multiple key signatures to take advantage of its familiarity to develop muscle memory for improvising over chord progressions in different keys. The main goal is developing muscle memory for the different scales which is easy when you see they just represent slightly different hand positions.

 

Book page showing step-by-step scale analysis of an example tune
Example tune with full chords and melody

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Sets of pages showing left hand chords and right hand scale and chord tone improvisation patterns are provided in all 12 keys. Following these patterns using recommended fingerings starts building critical muscle memory for easily playing up and down the keyboard with correct thumb cross-overs.

Repeating these improvisation patterns in each key signature builds on familiarity of the sound to more easily learn hand positions and note fingering for each new scale. Once students practice the patterns, they can comfortably begin to create their own and apply them to improvise on the changes of the example tunes or any others.


Example page of comp chords to play with improvisation patterns
Sample page of a major scale with scale patterns and arpeggiated chord tone patterns to learn how to improvise in all 12 keys

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A second tune example is a takeoff on a famous ballad. This provides variety, and an opportunity to analyze and explore additional key signatures and scales around the Circle of Fourths. A transcribed solo is shown for inspiration and more note fingering practice.

 

Another example tune is shown with scale analysis for improvising
Transcription of a complete improvisation on the example tune

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An extensive and detailed discussion is presented of keyboard fingering secrets that allow fluid movement up and down the keyboard without "running out of fingers." This is the key to developing playing speed and improvisational freedom so the flow of ideas is not interrupted by physical limitations. Note fingerings given for all the exercises in this book follow this approach, so everything practiced automatically builds the correct muscle memory.

Fluid improvising is achieved by teaching a proper hovering technique to position the hand and fingers properly and showing the correct finger to use for starting an improvisation on any given note of the keyboard. Unlike the approach taught by classical theory, optimum fingering of an improvised pattern depends on the starting note, not on the fingering of the scale being used for the improvisation. Once learned, these fingering principles can be applied for improvising in any situation so you can fly over the keys without hitting a wall.

 

Page of improvised scale and chord tone patterns shown without fingerings to check progress on developing fingering technique
Improvisation patterns are repeated on the adjacent page to include fingerings for easy reference while practicing

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It is not possible to convey the depth and breadth of the piano lessons in this book in these few scattered pages. The pages in between have much additional detail as well as many additional tips and suggestions to enhance your learning and enjoyment of piano improvisation for years to come. See the Table of Contents for additional topics discussed; you can also see the first chapter, which gives an overview of our system and its advantages:


                                                                                         
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                                                                            © 2010 Frank Caruso and Karl Mollison. All rights reserved