When I tell people that all of my piano is improvised I am often asked, "How can I learn to do it too?" There are many teachers out there who can help you with note reading and technique so I'll skip that part. I'll focus on how I improvise and how I can help you learn to do it as well. This is a little in the realm of being un-teachable but there are things I think you can do to progress.
What does it mean to improv
When I play my songs I have four things in my head.
Most of the time I don't plan a head what I will play. For simple intros I keep it similar, but as it gets more complex so does it's variety. I don't think, "FIrst I will play this note, then I will play this note, then I will transition". My brain just doesn't work fast enough to do it linearly like that. For me the feeling is that it literally just comes out of my hands directly from my brain. If the feeling I want is soft I play soft with fewer trills, but if I feel like going balls to the walls then comes large chords, arpeggios, and crazy rhythms. You can also do a lot with tempo and time signatures. Playing in triplets over quarter notes for example is one of my favorites. Or you can change keys if you really feel daring. There are so many possibilities!
I did teach myself how to play but It didn't just come by magic either. Admittedly I did increase my skill dramatically when I started writing and performing seriously early 2014, but It took me a lot of playing to get where I could record my album. From 11/13/2011 to 3/17/2014 (about three years) I recorded over 1000 recordings on my phone of my improv, and I only recorded ones that I liked. I played a lot more and I took many long breaks where I didn't play at all. Anyway, that is enough about me.
Full of mistakes. After all, I am making it up as I go right. Remember what is was like when you first played a song. Yeah, it is kind of like that, but for every time. Most of my previous songs came from recordings like this. You may even recognize some of them from my album. R21 G Melody is from Good Bye for example.
How to start
If you don't know what a chord is or what the names of the notes on the piano are then your going to go have to figure that out. It is really easy. Remember though chords don't just come in 1-3-5. You can use inversions to make things more interesting.
This is going to be very hard to describe. It is not an easy concept to grasp but I will do my best. If you want to improvise you first need to be willing to:
- Start really simple... I mean really simple
- Mess up bad, a lot, over, and over. (Don't worry no one has to watch you, but you still have to get over watching yourself)
- Boldly go where no sheet music has gone before. Remember there are no guide rails on this one. It is both liberating and frightening (at first).
- See more to the song then you currently can play. You can only play up to the level of your imagination.
Find a song you like
Find a song with a simple chord progression. Most popular songs are very simple. You could do Heart and Soul. That is the most simple, but it may also bore your eyes out. You can use http://www.ultimate-guitar.com/ to find one. Yes, the site is for guitars but all you need is the chords. They pretty much have every song, but remember it has to be SIMPLE!
Block it out
Listen to the song and play the chords at the same time. No extra anything. When they change chords, you change chords. Just get the feel of listening to it.
Now add variety. Roll your fingers up and down the chords. Try doing one in an inversion. You'll mess up, and it will sound bad, but if you've never sounded bad then you can never sound good. Just keep adding complexity as you feel comfortable. Maybe, play the bass notes lower. Rock the top chords back and forth. Try and feel something. Then try and feeling something new. Try adding notes that aren't in the chords but are in the same key or really whatever you want. (This is the part that I think is the hardest to communicate and get used to) This is creative expression. If I told you exactly how to do it it wouldn't be you, it would be my version. Your improv can become an expression of yourself.
Rinse and Repeat
Find other songs you like and try the same process with them. The more songs you try the more variety you will be able to play and the more chord progressions and key signatures you will learn. There is a depth and breadth to it. Working on one song will increase your depth. Working on more songs will increase your breadth. There is a balance. If you don't like a song, move on, but if you do like a song try it for a while, then move on. Changing to fast will keep your playing very shallow, but if you find it boring then you wont have the motivation to learn them in the first place.
It will be very frustrating and it isn't meant for everyone but if you can get past it it is amazingly rewarding. Now I just sit down and play. It is an incredible feeling to be one with the music. I really am not "thinking" about it I am "experiencing" it. The creativity of it is intoxicating. It takes 100% of my brain and I feel like I have rebooted afterward. I added a forum below for anyone who wants to ask me about improv and tips and such. Also help each other out. This is a creative music community. We can all learn from each other. I still have a lot to learn myself, and I hope I can learn from you.