5 Reasons Piano Improvisation Skills Will Benefit Your Students
There are so many amazing activities to spend time on during piano lessons. It can be tricky to fit them all in and feel like the student is progressing at the right speed. In my own experience as a student improvisation was completely left out in favor of repertoire, etudes, sight reading, and ear training. Sometimes, taking time out for creative activities can be seen as a ‘time waster’ since the result isn’t immediately measurable. However, consistent, small pockets of time invested in improvisation skills can have massive results for your student’s long term skills. Here are 5 reasons piano improvisation skills will benefit your students:
1. Students who improvise have a clearer understanding of musical elements.
Seeing the concepts in a different perspective, learning how to create and manipulate simple forms, harmonies, and develop melodies effectively from an improvisation perspective shows students the core elements in a new way, and helps them recognize them independently in their own repertoire. Anytime we can show rather than tell in a piano lesson the message is much more memorable.
2. Students who improvise can always confidently play whenever they see a piano.
Have you ever had a student or parent say they were out and saw a piano but had ‘nothing ready to play?’ Isn’t that a shame? Maybe you’ve felt that way – I know I did before I started improvising regularly. How odd to be a musician, but feel unable to play in public without extensive practice on a particular piece. It happens – and perhaps your own musical upbringing was centered around classical music and recitals (much like mine was). I had zero guidance on improvisation until after I had earned 2 performance degrees, and then it was terrifying to feel like a beginner on an instrument where I felt I should be an expert. I didn’t know where to start! But as a improviser with knowledge of a few common chord progressions or even just one simple baseline and the blues scale – the piano is always a source of fun, and never fear.
3. Students who improvise always have an outlet for expression.
We discuss ‘music for life’ and I hear teachers say ‘they can still play piano when they are 90, but they won’t be on the soccer field.’ Yes, that’s true. I bet they will more likely play at 90 if they know how to improvise confidently (we might not want to rely on the memory then?)
Students who are consistently at the piano are able to explore harmonies and sounds to express their current mood. Piano can be a source of comfort and a place for students to express and process feelings.
4. Students who improvise can easily play in ensembles.
Choose a key, name the progression and go for it! Students can have instant community playing with other instruments or with several people on one piano when they can confidently improvise. Simple ensemble improvisation can offer a chance to rehearse cueing, listening, phrasing, dynamics, and following in an ensemble without the pressure of 'getting all the notes correct.' Plus - practicing improvisation with peers grows meaningful relationships that pianists sometimes miss in the private lesson world.
5. Students who improvise are more confident performers.
Improvising creates musical problem solving in the moment and comfort with the performing mindset. Just performing more often – even if it’s on a piano at a friends, at each lesson, or as part of their practice makes performing feel more normal and less stressful. The repeated thought process of ‘oh, that sounded good, let’s repeat it again, or shift it up a third’ or ‘uh, didn’t love that, will just do something different next phrase’ Students become more resilient and comfortable performing on the spot and forgiving mistakes. As they grow in improvisation the anxiety of mistakes begins to melt. Also, once improvisation becomes more comfortable students can use it in a pinch if their memory fails.
Improvisation is a great way to augment and reinforce core skills, build confidence, and have fun at the piano. Students beam with pride when they see a piano and know they can go and make great music anytime they want – they might not always remember that Sonatina they memorized for the festival, but with solid improvisation skills, they will sound great making their own music.