Teach Your Students to Improvise Using … Silence – Doug Hanvey

Guest Writer: Doug Hanvey

Teach Your Students to Improvise Using … Silence

shhPerhaps more than any other musical activity, improvisation brings music alive for a piano student. Occasionally closing the music books and allowing your students to improvise is not only fun but helps them to better appreciate the creative space from which the greatest composed music and, of course, the greatest improvisations, come.

I’ve always believed in the “less is more” philosophy. One of the hallmarks of a trained yet still artistically undeveloped improviser is someone who plays – all the time. There are no spaces, no rests. But as we know, music is a combination of sound and silence. John Cage took this fact to the other extreme in his famous composition 4’33” (which he called his most important work!).


Here’s a simple exercise and variation to try with improvisers of any skill level. It will help you teach them about the importance of silence in music and to ponder the idea that less can often be more. And, since silence is a major component of the exercise, it can be as simple as you like.

“Sound of Silence” Exercise:

  1. Remind your student that silence is the ground within which sounds happen. Without silence, we would have no way to be aware of sound, just as “up” doesn’t exist without “down” and there is no “true” without “false.” Music requires silence!
  2. Have your student sit with hands on the keyboard and eyes closed. Tell them that in this exercise there should always be more silence than sound. You could even say their improvisation should only include 5 or 10 notes, with a lot of silence between them. (Creative use of the damper pedal can add a lot to this exercise.) You could tell them about John Cage’s famous piece and suggest they could even begin with silence.
  3. When they’re finished, inform them that their improvisation was a success because they remembered that music is both sounds and silence. You could even joke, “That’s the best silence I’ve heard anyone play today!” (They will love this.)

Variation:  Sit at the keyboard with your student. You will play, while it’s their job to add space and silence to what you play. (Remind them that you are actually improvising together, even though they’re not playing.) They should tap you on the arm or shoulder when they think your improvisation needs a break. To emphasize the need for silence, include very little or no space in what you play. They should tap you again when they want you to resume playing. If you are new to improv, use the G-flat major pentatonic scale – i.e., all five black keys – there are infinite possible melodies and it is hard to go wrong.

When you remind your students that music is not just sounds but also silence, you’re not only teaching them something that every creative musician should know, but also reducing the pressure to produce overly-complex music as they learn to improvise.

Less can be more, and silence can be golden.


CDC-Fall-2007-cropped-smallerDoug Hanvey is the founder of the Portland Piano Lab and the author of the instructional methods The Compleat Pianist and 88 Keys to the Blues. His blog features fresh ideas, tips and inspiration for piano teachers and students.




Learn to Play and Teach Improvisation this Summer

88 Creative Keys, Denver, CO, Ages 12+, July 6-11, $450

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At 88 Creative Keys camps, piano students and teachers learn to balance traditional reading skills with improvisation in an upbeat and supportive atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable exploring new concepts. Immerse yourself in engaging presentations with advanced teaching technology, hands-on instruction on your own keyboard, large and small piano ensembles, fun “off bench” activities, and optional private lessons.


1 thought on “Teach Your Students to Improvise Using … Silence – Doug Hanvey

  1. AMEN! I’m also always saying ‘less is more’ and have done this exercise with my students – it’s wonderful!

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