How I learned to improvise

2 minute read
You don't have to be Thelonious Monk to improvise at the keyboard.
You don't have to be Thelonious Monk to improvise at the keyboard.

I started improvising at the age of five, when my mother bought an upright piano with money from an inheritance. Without knowing a note of music, I’d tell stories with the cacophonous sounds I brought out of the instrument.

I soon began formal training, and my propensity to make up music on the fly lay dormant for years after that. It wasn’t until I attended Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts that it came roaring back. Two teachers there encouraged improvisation. One of them, who I only remember as “The Scientist,” led a free improv class in which I played the piano and got into trouble for changing the chord progression in the middle of a group piece. The other was George Russell, a jazz pianist not to be confused with the saxophonist of the same name. He had a white baby grand piano and a sunny personality that illuminated the whole place. He once brought down a house full of nascent hipsters by performing a song called “Everybody Ought to Know Who Jesus Is” — one of the more unexpected audience reactions I’ve seen.

I was desperate to learn more about improvisation, so I approached Russell. He took me into his studio, scribbled an F blues scale on some manuscript paper, and said, “Now play.” He backed me up at the piano while I blew into my trumpet endlessly. Doo-bee-doo-bee-doo-bee….

He stopped.

“Nothin’s worse than someone who talks all the time but never says anything. Take some rests in there.” I’ve always tried to remember that advice, though with varying degrees of success.

Racket man

Outside jazz and some genres of rock, improvisation is uncommon in music. Many organists do it, but not all of them. After I left Governor’s School, my improv focused on the piano, which came in handy years later when I became an organist.

I once attended an organ improv master class given by Martin Baker, and, reminding me of how I got started, he said it’s often good to sit at the instrument and see just how bad you can make it sound. He compared it to a toddler babbling before learning to talk. In a sense, as soon as you even attempt to improvise, you are improvising. We learn by doing. There’s a thrill that comes with making music on the fly and the attending risks. Believe it or not, it is my preferred anxiety medication. There is nothing quite like making a racket.

One wonders what surprises could be in store for a classical music world that embraces improvisation more often. It’s exciting. It gives a sense of “play” to performance. It’s an excellent technique in crossover work: I showed up last December at a rock concert and played an organ improv on “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen,” mixing it up with dance beats, dissonances, and even a short fugue. The audience, largely unlearned in the ways of organ geekery, seemed to love it. An object lesson, perhaps?

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation