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How To Improvise And Play Piano By Ear

Learn how to play piano improvisation

Have you ever wondered why some pianists can improvise easily and play a song in their own style without any music sheets or even if there are music sheets, they are able to improvise intricate melodic notes and chords of their own to brighten up the song effortlessly?

If you have never or don't know how to experience the fun and the heavenly joy of improvising on the piano, then you are missing out the ultimate thrill as a piano player. If you can't improvise, then aren't you just like an artist who cannot paint without copying somebody else's work? How much  creative joy you can derive from that? 

That being said, then why is it that so many pianists are unable to improvise impressively? The answer is simple. This is the result caused by years of rigid piano lessons on structures and lack of guidance on how to improvise and an unwillingness to be adventurous in case they sound bad. Are you one of them?

Dare To Improvise

I started learning how to play classical piano as a little boy and if you are classically trained, you will know that there are a lot of rules, structures and rigidity in classical piano lessons. My classical piano teacher would slapped me on the wrist with a wooden ruler when I played out of those structures and rules.

Often times I would bawled my eyeballs out and I hated going for piano lessons way back then. However, today, I am glad that my parents forced me to continue with those piano lessons.

Then it happened. Sometimes when my lessons ended and when my teacher was waiting for the next student, I started to play and experiment with tunes which I heard from the radio and TV. At first, my teacher was aghast and scolded me because she thought that if I were to continue doing that, I would have undone all the rules and principles of "playing the piano correctly" the way she had taught me.

However, as time went by and as she watched me improvised pop, attempts to play jazz piano and even dared to improvise classical pieces with a rock feel, her curiosity peaked and asked me one day whether I had another teacher who taught me how to improvise on the piano.

I said no, she was my only teacher. Then she asked how on earth I can play all those songs without any music scores and I said, I don't know. Then a bombshell exploded when she asked, can you teach me how to play pop songs?

It was there and then that she realized that there are more ways to play the piano and her mind started to open up to accept new things and traditional rigidity and rules flew out of the window. God bless her.

I am not saying that rules and traditional structures are no good. In fact they are because they are the cornerstone foundation of which you can move beyond to discover new things, new borders and then pushing the borders to new horizons. I mean, the hills are alive with the sound of music, isn't it?

Years later, when I become a more proficient pianist, I realized that what I did was a natural progression of playing the piano well. It is not a matter of being able play the piano by ear, but the willingness to venture into new territories and to explore new boundaries.  

There are many great musicians in the world who are self taught and have never taken any music lessons notwithstanding which musical instruments they are good at. How do they get to be that good?

If you say they have got the talent and you don't, then you will never learn how to play your own improvisations because you have already given up. Talent is only half of the story. The rest is your willingness to try and to change your mindset and start to improvise.

Many people equate the skill of improvisation with the skill of playing piano by ear. Well, they may be related but both sets of skills are different and they can be learnt!

Many pianists rely on music scores to be able to play the piano. Then it bears to repeat that isn't that akin to an artist copying another's work of art?

I won't say that you are infringing copyright because you have paid for the copyrighted music sheets but you will never create something unique of your own style, of your own feel and a piece of music that is uniquely you, even though you may be playing a song written by somebody else.  

Improvisation on the piano is an exhilarating and thrilling process. If you disregard it or worse, think that you can't improvise, then you will never know the rapturous joy of creative improvisation. If you cannot improvise, you probably will never be able to write your own songs to play on the piano as well. 

Traditional piano lessons emphasize on the ability to read notes. Sight reading is of course one of the most fundamental skills a pianist should possess. However, emphasis on the rigidity of reading music sheets or charts has created many piano players who can only the play by reading notes. You want to be a versatile pianist, don't you?

So go on, have fun. Start experimenting. Play a song the way you want it to feel and to sound. If you can't get the sound or the chords that you want, try again, and again, then again and soon, you will be a master of improvisation.

Rome wasn't built in one day, right? But it can be built, so too piano improvisation can be learnt. The question is, are you willing to be a better pianist and improvise your own unique style on the piano?


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