In this post I’d like to touch upon several important reasons for piano students to learn to improvise as part of a standard curriculum. Improvising was once a prerequisite for pianists, particularly early in the history of the instrument when good players were (believe it or not) expected to provide unique versions of previously-composed music, to improvise cadenzas, and even to improvise entire concerts. As the classical canon formalized and, some might argue, fossilized, the art of improvisation was reduced in stature in the world of classical music. Fortunately it remained a critical skill in jazz and blues.
For good reasons, improvisation is now making a comeback in music pedagogy. Even if your focus as a teacher is classical music, there are several good reasons for introducing your students to the art of improvisation:
For Creative Self-Expression
While playing music composed by others is certainly a way to express oneself, improvisation takes self-expression to another level. When we improvise, we are creating the music that we are simultaneously performing and interpreting. Improvisation, perhaps even more than music composition, is the summit of spontaneous creative musicianship. Music is a creative activity before it is a reproductive activity, and every piano student deserves to taste what that means.
For Musical Understanding
By learning and applying some basic principles of improvisation, students can develop a more thorough understanding of nearly every aspect of music and piano playing, and will likely gain a new confidence and comfort with the instrument. If a student decides to take their improvising skills to the level required of a good jazz player, their knowledge of theory and harmony will likely surpass that of the average classical player.
For Musical Appreciation
Just as we can better appreciate the genius of Picasso by learning the rudiments of painting and then creating our own paintings, or the brilliance of Shakespeare by learning the elements of poetry and writing our own sonnets, by learning to improvise we will better appreciate the creative genius of great improvisers (and composers).
Once we get over any self-consciousness about how we sound, and relax into the music we are creating, we realize that improvisation can and should be fun. Why else would we do it?