5 Reasons Piano Improvisation Skills Will Benefit Your Students

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.

3 ways to use Improvisation to sharpen theory, musicality and performance skills

Have you ever had a student forget black key scale fingerings? How about read just note by note with no thought to how the melody is put together? I think we have all had the student (or been the student) who performs amazingly at home, but struggles on stage.

Simple improvisation exercises can encourage creativity while reinforcing these core stills that are sometimes tricky for students.

Today we are discussing the use of Improvisation in lessons as a way to involve the student in discovering concepts. We will look at strategies to reinforce skills, increase excitement and memory of core musical ideas. It’s fun to bring a sense of wonder and art around some skills that can otherwise feel a little ‘ho-hum’

In lessons I ask students to be detectives, to make observations, and we re-create them in improv. Suddenly the students are analyzing more quickly and this cuts down on practice time, since they are noticing patterns. It also builds confidence because they feel more equipped to learn new pieces on their own. This also builds the skills they need to play beyond lessons, so they can sit and express themselves with knowledge of common patterns.


How do we do this?


Some thoughts have come up already, I’m sure – the lessons are packed! How do I add one more thing! Well, when approached correctly, improvisation can be used to reinforce several things at once while building core skills. So it’s a valuable time investment.

Today we’ll discuss using improvisation to introduce scales (specifically drilling the passing fingering), Phrasing (observing and creating melodic ideas), and performance fluency (practicing that performance mindset, like the spotlight is on).

With a little thought most of these activities can be completed in 3 minutes or less, so they really aren’t a big time suck for those packed lessons. And can be a great energy shift after good focused drill.

Let’s take a closer look at some examples. 


1.    Introducing black key scale fingering (or any scale fingering)


With a quick review of tetrachord patterns you can tell the student about the rule that the thumbs go on the first white key for RH and the last white key for LH. Then play a background pattern that compliments while they noodle through the scale. Transpose to other black key tetrachords and have them visualize the steps, find the white key and be ready to put there thumb there.

Encourage the student at first to just play the keys up and down in order while you accompany, then ask them to get creative and vary rhythm, dynamics, and finally note order.

As you move through a few tetrachords, change accompaniment styles – even a few basic variations with different articulation and tempo can keep things very engaging for the student (and for you too! How many times have you drilled scales with ‘again,’ ‘once more’ ‘again’?).

Cutting the scale in half, and exploring a few keys helps the black key scales feel less scary, and helps the student feel more confident. It can also help them remember the fingering rules.


2.    Using a sight reading piece as a structure for ‘noodling’ and improving phrasing


I first learned this technique at a seminar with Christopher Norton. I was called up to improvise with him and I’ve found it’s a wonderful way to help students make observations about melodic ideas and to begin developing a sense of phrase timing and knowing when to repeat melodic ideas for effect and when variety is needed. Since I started working this way I’ve noticed my student’s natural instincts in their own improv elevate from ‘playing notes, and hopefully on the beat’ to thoughtfully putting melodic structure together and knowing when the phrase is going to end.

Each time we sit I ask “What do you see?”

After doing this activity a few times, the students are able to see more patterns without any guiding questions.

We begin by looking carefully at the melodic shape – where it goes up and down, it’s length etc, and use that as a model for their own riffs. We look at how the rhythm slows down at a cadence and discuss open and closed endings (sometimes more detail if they are more advanced).

Working through music at a level that’s a successful sight reading level allows the student to lead the conversation and perform confidently right away, then when we turn to their repertoire book suddenly the same concepts are right there!  Also, since the piece is readable, they are able to make musical adjustments like phrasing (or balance when more advanced)


I love seeing students notice structural analysis much quicker after a few of these in lesson activities.


-       Use a sight readable melody for a base

-       Be detectives together and notice what you see (melodic shape, rhythm, melodic repetition and contrasts


3.    Using improvisation to improve performance skills


The performance mindset sometimes feels ‘separate’ from the practice and lesson mindsets.

I have a t-shirt that says ‘I played it perfectly at home’ (my adult students especially love it).

My question is ‘how closely were you listening and how comfortable did you feel

Years ago I went to a seminar with Amy Greer who spoke about piano pedagogy and the psychology of learning. She pointed out that we are comfortable at home, and somewhat comfortable in lessons, and then usually very uncomfortable at performance. So practicing being uncomfortable regularly builds confidence and makes the uncomfortable familiar.

So the name of the game is to unlock the performance mindset more often than just at recitals. And improvisation can do this in a safe way.

When I was a kid I used to practice Friday nights with the piano lamp on and all the lights off. It was like I was on stage with spotlights. I would ‘perform’ every piece I knew. So the idea is to create 'performance' opportunities at every lesson.

Have the student ‘perform’ while improvising with you in the lesson. Begin with material they can easily and confidently perform. For example, with little ones, have them play one note while you accompany. Instruct them to keep the beat and rest when they want. The more you play together the easier it is for them to read cues (hand gestures and breath) begin to lead, and play through while ignoring ‘mistakes’

Prioritize performance standard over level. And try creating a ritual where during this part of the lesson it feels formal. Record, or save it for when the parent comes to pick up.

Challenge the student by playing ‘follow the leader’ with dynamics or by echoing a melodic fragment. (Depending on level of course.)

The activity can be as short as two phrases while practicing fluency and expression. Consistency will help those students who tend to stutter or over-correct.


So – we have 3 methods of using short improvisation activities to strengthen theory, phrasing, and performance confidence. There are certainly other applications too. I would love to hear about how you have used improvisation in your lessons.