How to Teach Your Piano Students to Improvise

Inspiration and How To Tips

After hearing my presentations about improvisation at a couple of conferences, my friend and fellow piano teacher, Gilya, suggested I consider offering “less cheerleading and more content.”  Her wise comment helped me solidify advocacy into a two-pronged strategy for integrating improvisation into music lessons.

diving-inAs an advocate for musical creativity, half of my job is to encourage (okay, prod) the uninitiated to “dive in” by closing the music books now and then. The other half is offering teaching tips to those who have already taken the “off page” plunge. You’ll find plenty of both by digging deeper into this blog, my “That’s Jazz” books, and by attending my professional development events on this topic.  And now, thanks to Andrea and Trevor at Teach Piano Today, you have a new way to check out my ideas on this topic.


Grab some headphones and listen in for “hands-free” professional development while you drive or do dishes this weekend by clicking here.  Scroll to the bottom for the “play” button after reading Trevor’s delightful introduction.


Steps To Introducing A New Creative Concept

Lest I only “cheerlead” with this post (thanks again Gilya), here are some details on one of the points Andrea and I discuss in that podcast.  To get a student to try out a new improvisation idea, start by demonstrating a level-appropriate left-hand accompaniment on a chord progression or ostinato bassline. If you need ideas, you can always use the bass clef part of a tune they have already learned. Then, follow these steps, which you can remember by thinking of the acronym for the vocal jazz style known as scat:

Ask questions
Turn them loose

  1. Specify

Ask your student to improvise a right-hand melody within specifically limited parameters. For example, you could limit it to creatively using just one note, mixing up the melody, or playing around with the pentatonic scale.  Hold them to it. Initially, they mustn’t stray from the limitations.

  1. Compliment

Fire-7No matter what they play, praise their attempts. You can always find something to reinforce. For example, if they play timidly and quietly, compliment their use of dynamic shading. If they play loudly and enthusiastically without rhythm, tell them how you admire their willingness to dive in. Even if they refuse to play at all, you can smile and say how creatively they use rests!

The main thing is to make them feel safe so they know that whatever they play, it will be okay with you. You are puffing on a tiny creative spark in a pile of kindling. In order for it to take flame, they have to feel good about their attempts.  Your approval encourages further exploration.

  1. Ask questions

Here is where you tease out the creativity while simultaneously teaching the elements of music. You might say, “I noticed you played those chords way down low on the piano, how would they sound in the octave below middle C?” thus demonstrating where Chopin, jazz artists, Joplin and the rest place harmony on the piano.  For a forte fanatic, you could help them understand dynamics by asking, “How would your improv sound if it started very quietly and then grew louder? What kind of a story would that suggest to a listener?” For a non-rhythmic player, “I like how you have so many ideas with all those notes. How can we get all those notes to fit into a steady beat?”

  1. BonVoyageTurn them loose

Having experimented with limited parameters, students are often itchy to expand their options.  Send them off on a voyage of musical discovery with travel tips such as, “I loved how you fascinated me with dynamic, rhythm, and articulation on that one-note improv.  See if you can keep that going while also adding more notes.”

Rinse and Repeat

Then compliment the results, ask more questions, and turn them loose again on a new exploration. Repeat week after week always reinforcing musicality. When it’s time for your student to say goodbye, you’ll feel the satisfaction of knowing you’ve set them up for a lifetime of enjoyable piano playing.

Until next time, enjoy your creative music-making journey,






Bradley Sowash


To learn more about integrating improvisation into music lessons, consider attending or sending your students to our 88 Creative Keys piano improv camp.

Q & A about 88 Creative Keys

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3 thoughts on “How to Teach Your Piano Students to Improvise

  1. I loved this podcast and the practical tips it provided! It has inspired me to sit at the piano and just play (although not tonight, since it’s time to go to bed…). Thanks for all the wonderful info!

    • Thank Kelsey. It was a first for me to be interviewed for a podcast. I enjoyed Andrea’s (the interviewer) easygoing manner and good questions.

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