Learning Piano Improvisation

By John Hart

There are basically two main ways to play the piano, and BOTH are very important:  sight-reading and improvisation. Sight-reading is the skill that the majority of teachers (and schools) emphasize because it enables the student to reproduce the music of the masters. Like learning to read, sight-reading music requires many years of diligent practice to achieve competency.  Unlike sight-reading, improvisation skill can be developed quickly--overnight in comparison!  A student can get started knowing only the first 7 letters of the alphabet and where these are on the piano.  After that is accomplished, here are the steps that I teach:

  1. Learn to play a scale.  (We also start with C major because it uses only the white keys.)
  2. Learn the 7 triads of C major (in and out of order).  Note:  Their hands must be strong enough to play 3 notes at once.
  3. Learn to add a single bass note with the left hand (the root) while playing a triad with the right.
  4. Learn to play simple progressions with 2 hands in root position (i.e. I, IV, V, I)
  5. Learn to play the inversions of the primary chords (I, IV, V) of C major. (This means playing the notes of each triad in a different order:  CEG, EGC, GCE)
  6. Learn to play from one inversion of a triad to the next in “close position”, which makes the music sound more beautiful because chords are now more localized and continuous with each other.
  7. Learn to play all the triad position of the scale in “close position” along with a single note bass.

These same steps are then repeated for all major and minor keys going around the circle of 5ths:  C, G, D, A, E, etc.  I believe anyone who learns music at the keyboard in this way will soon be able to play a chord chart or make up their own music, even if they are not yet very good at sight-reading.