An Introduction To Improvisation For Intermediate Level Pianists & Up

Early Classical, K-Pop, Contemporary Christian & New Age Music: When it comes to improvisation, what do these genres have in common?  Hint: You can sound great creating solos using just 7 notes!

For the above styles of music (plus certain Jazz & Gospel tunes), the 7 notes of the key center scale works well for improvising over the whole tune. It’s an easy concept to keep in mind that may enhance your solos, without having to think of too many confusing options, so you can focus on building nice melodic lines using rhythmic variety. When we build solos upon one scale it’s called improvising diatonically – which works fine provided the tune’s harmony doesn’t stray far from the home key.

Pianists, keyboardists, and guitarists also have the advantage of being able to build chords diatonically by combining notes built across a scale. In the following video tutorial I’ll show you how to do just that by using the D major scale (the key center of the K-Pop hit Euphoria, sung by Jungkook of the popular boy band BTS). Watch how the entire video – all exercises and examples – is created by playing with these 7 notes: D E F# G A B C#:

Subscribe to my official YouTube Channel for more easy piano arranging improvisation tips!  https://www.youtube.com/c/DebbieDenke

And if you’d like to have something tangible to put on your piano while you practice/listen along, find all 3 of my piano improvisation book/audio methods (The Aspiring Jazz Pianist, Amazing Phrasing – Keyboard, The Complete Church Pianist) see “Books” on my website or go here to order: https://www.amazon.com/author/debbiedenkemusic

Hope you have fun exploring the key of D like I did! – DD

Music Game #3: Playtime For Traditional Piano Teacher/Student

Piano Teachers: Want to play a fun new game that builds your student’s performance skills and practical knowledge of important music concepts? Try Music Game #3: Playtime For Traditional Piano Teacher/Studentdesigned for classical piano teachers with younger intermediate-level private students in mind. This game includes several practical ideas which pianists in the real world are expected to know, but often get overlooked during traditional music lessons. (The preceding 2 articles – Music Game #2 : “Happy Memories Retirement Home” and Music Game #1: “TipJar” – are games geared for high school-aged through older adult music students who have acquired more of a jazz/pop repertoire.)

In order to play any of these games, the student will need about a dozen pieces they can play reasonably well, either with or without the music.  This particular version could be beneficial if the student knows some basic music theory – key signatures for example – and terms used in classical music (tempo and expression markings). If not, this game would be a good vehicle to teach those concepts with teacher assisting as the student plays along. Remember to keep things playful, light and fun! Having handy access to notebooks, sheet music or a music book is fine too. Teachers will want to keep in mind the pieces each private student has studied in order to ask for appropriate “requests”. This helps ensure the most enjoyment from the game! 

During Game #3 the student pretends they are a paid actor playing the part of a pianist on a movie set, or filming a short TikTok video. Let’s pretend the student/actor gets a salary just for being on time acting the part, but may earn extra incentives/rewards for playing the piano convincingly well. The music teacher acts as the movie/video director and tells the student/actor to play certain  requests. The actor earns virtual “candy” or “stickers” if they play the director’s request. (Teachers can hand out real candy or stickers at their discretion of course, but just don’t offer to pay the child’s dental bills in case they score really high!)

10 Pieces of “Candy” are earned if actor/pianist plays the director’s request all the way through without restarting, making excuses or apologizing. Plus  actior/pianist must display an attitude of confidence – even when they make a few mistakes.

5 “Stickers” earned for attempting to play the request, but the result showed obvious struggles needing much more rehearsal and practice.

0 rewards earned for refusing to even attempt the directed request unless they promise to have it ready by next week’s lesson, in which case the teacher can give them 1 “sticker” for a sincere promise! When lesson time is up, the teacher/director totals the number of rewards, compares them with a potential 100% score of earnings. (For example, if there were 5 directions given during the half hour lesson, the highest possible score would be 50 “pieces of candy”. If the student earned 30 pieces of candy and 11 stickers they could keep trying to raise their score during future lessons.)

Below is a list of possible requests the teacher could ask of their student, depending on what they’ve learned during their lessons. I’ve included some very practical suggestions traditional piano teachers don’t normally teach, but are poplular requests in the real world: Playing for dancing, weddings, accompanying singers, keeping time to a steady beat for group practice, improvising to fill time, picking out a beloved hymn by ear, and the most popular song request that earns nice tips: Happy Birthday to You!

  1. Play music by a specific composer (Debussy? Chopin? Beethoven?)
  2. Play something in a minor key
  3. Play in a specified key of director’s choosing: This may include a scale, chord exercise, or piece of music in a key other than C major
  4. Play the newest or most recent tune you’ve learned
  5. Play the oldest tune you can think of (This may be the first piano piece ever learned, or something that was composed long ago)
  6. Play a music piece in 4/4 time (Moderato or medium tempo)
  7. Play a tune in 3/4 , 6/8 or changing tempo & meter (Chopin Waltz? Gigue?)
  8. Play a very slow tune (Largo, Andante, ballad tempo)
  9. Play the quickest tempo you can handle (Allegretto, Presto, Vivace,)
  10. Play music written for dance (March, Tango, or Tchaikovsky ballet selection?)
  11. Play a sad song, or a tune that evokes emotional release
  12. Play Happy Birthday To You (Key of “F“- roll a C7 arpeggio to give 1st pitch)
  13. Play a tune from a specific era (Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Impressionistic)
  14. Play the piano accompaniment to a Song (Shubert Lieder, Italian Art Song, Great American Songbook classic tune)
  15. Play a tune that has a key change (This could be a piece in Sonata Form or a 32 bar standard AABA piece that goes to a new key at the bridge)
  16. Play a tune with no more than 3 chords (Afro Cuban Montuno, early Mozart, Country tune, Children’s Song or a 12 Bar Blues)
  17. Pick out the melody to Amazing Grace by ear on just the black keys
  18. Improvise using just the black keys (you can’t go wrong with those 5 notes)
  19. Play a tune suitable for a wedding
  20. Play a piece in time to a metronome or with a play-along track

Do you have any to add to this list? Please reply in the comments below!

Find music video tutorials here:  https://www.youtube.com/c/DebbieDenke

 

Music Game #2: Happy Memories Retirement Home (Playtime for Piano Teacher & Student)

Are you ready to play The “Home” Game? Truth be told, many music students, hobbyists, and professionals bring on the smiles playing for audiences in retirement homes. The power of music can be both healing and comforting. Famous singer Tony Bennett has been in the news of late as we witness him suffering Alzheimers disease, yet to see his face light up as he sings with amazing recall is incredibly inspiring. Aspiring musicians of all ages can test drive their upcoming concert material in front of receptive senior audiences. Teen piano students get not only performance experience, but may earn high school community service credit by playing in retirement homes. Continue reading “Music Game #2: Happy Memories Retirement Home (Playtime for Piano Teacher & Student)”

Music Game #1: “Tip Jar” (Playtime For Teacher & Piano Student)

Feeling slightly “under the weather” but still wanting to teach, I asked 2 adult jazz piano students to meet online for lessons. Educators know that teaching over the internet requires extra energy to communicate, and I was a bit short of breath. What valuable lessons could I give my inquisitive students that would keep their fingers busy while I listened, hydrated,  and encouraged them, with minimal talking on my part? I took a couple hits off my inhaler and came up with a “game plan” (modeled after real life situations I’ve had as a performer), and tested it out on my students. Together we had a good deal of fun playing these online socially safe music games. Continue reading “Music Game #1: “Tip Jar” (Playtime For Teacher & Piano Student)”

Block Chords (Locked Hands Style) vs Spread Chords: How Pianists Create Them

There are certain types of rich chord techniques the jazz pianist ought to have under their fingers in a piano/bass/drums or larger group setting. Both Block and Spread Chords may be used for a full sounding effect during the melody of certain tunes. Additionally, these styles may be used to build intensity during a piano solo, or culminating in impressive spread chords at the solo’s highpoint. Continue reading “Block Chords (Locked Hands Style) vs Spread Chords: How Pianists Create Them”

Notes To Choose For a 12 Bar Blues (Easy RH Improvisation Tips)

By popular request I filmed this tutorial exploring my easy go-to ideas a pianist may play over a medium-up tempo jazz blues in the key of F:

The original tutorial shown below was meant to be simply a lesson on a LH device called The Bud Powell Shell. Many of you then asked if I could share what RH “licks” I was using on my video, Improvising 28 Bars of Blues.  Continue reading “Notes To Choose For a 12 Bar Blues (Easy RH Improvisation Tips)”

Big Ideas For Small Hands: How To Write a Full Sounding Piano Arrangement

Let’s take the lovely ballad Skylark (by Johnny Mercer/Hoagy Carmichael), and learn how to enhance a ballad’s melody with beautiful chords and a foundational bass line. In this video observe how I took a chart from an old fakebook and updated some chords more to my liking, a process called reharmonization:


Continue reading “Big Ideas For Small Hands: How To Write a Full Sounding Piano Arrangement”

Growing Up Around A Piano: Memories of My Brother

Frank Denton Denke (6/17/1934 – 1/29/2021)

I didn’t get the opportunity to ‘grow up’ with my big brother Denton and oldest sister Diane, since these first born 2 siblings had already left the nest. Our mother Virginia (singing in the photo) behind our father Frank R. Denke (playing the piano) really spread the 4 of us out in age: My brother was born about a year after our parents married, followed by my sister Diane (not pictured) a few years later. 10 years after Diane my sister Connie was born (the teen girl singing), and 12 years later I came along. I’m the little girl in this newspaper article, looking up at her big brother, who planned to leave for the following 3 years doing Catholic Charity work as a teacher in Chile. Continue reading “Growing Up Around A Piano: Memories of My Brother”

Add Jazz Pizazz To Holiday Hits: Play by Ear & Improvise Piano Tutorials

December is the perfect time of year to develop one’s ear training skills. We’ve been by saturated listening to Christmas & Holiday tunes playing all over the place since Halloween, and know those familiar jingles a jing-jing-jingling quite well by now, so well in fact we can’t seem to get them out of our heads! So you may as well face the music and do something creative with these tunes as long as you are hearing them over and over, right? Continue reading “Add Jazz Pizazz To Holiday Hits: Play by Ear & Improvise Piano Tutorials”

Arranging Tip for the Pianist’s Left Hand: Broken 10th & Variations

 

The Broken 10th device most likely got introduced during a Nocturne by composer Frédéric Chopin. It’s a very rich sounding accompaniment for the pianist’s left hand, made with only the root, 5th, and 3rd of a chord. (If you take the 3rd out of the middle of a close position triad and transpose it up an octave it is now called the 10th.) Pianists with large enough hands may be able to play the 10th solidly as a chord, but those with smaller hands fear not – the video below shows 2 handed “cheating” ways to play walking 10ths, plus some lovely ways to break up 10th chords in a variety of rhythmic patterns. Continue reading “Arranging Tip for the Pianist’s Left Hand: Broken 10th & Variations”