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.