Learning to improvise is typically quite difficult on any instrument, and if you want to be able to improvise naturally to a high standard, you will need to practice the piano for many years. Some may argue that this isn’t true, and it’s possible to improvise much sooner. This may be possible, but not to a high standard.
To improvise well and to make it sound natural takes a lot of practice, and years of dedication. However, it is possible to find a good routine to incorporate into your practice, which will help you on your way.
I’ve spoken with a lot of really good musicians over the years who struggle to improvise and play without sheet music, and they always say to me that they just can’t do it, and that you need a natural talent to succeed. This just isn’t true, and learning to improvise is possible for any accomplished musician, as long as they understand how it works. Most musicians who don’t believe they can do it only think this because they don’t know how to start practicing.
I started to improvise a long time ago whilst I was taking my classical grades. I was never a huge fan of classical, and I took a liking to blues and boogie woogie quite early on. I taught myself by watching YouTube videos, and any other recordings I could get hold of by Jerry Lew Lewis, Little Richard, Jools Holland and so on. I would also steal ideas from other musicians that I knew myself, and get them to show me a few things.
I would observe musicians and copy them almost note for note, and practice what they played over and over. Of course, I wasn’t able to replicate them exactly as I wasn’t that good at the time, but I slowly started to pick up on a few things. For example, I managed to learn a few left hand boogie woogie riffs just by copying these great artists, as well as some nice right hand licks. Once you can play what they are playing fairly well, you can then start to put together your own ideas.
Every famous musician who improvises will tell you that is how they started off. All you need to do is steal from other musicians and copy what they do, and then you are on your way to learning how to improvise for yourself. And this is the mistake that a lot of people make. They don’t realise that you can copy other musicians, and that you don’t have to instantly create your own material. Wrong, wrong, wrong! Don’t be frightened of copying someone, even if it is literally note for note. And don’t be afraid to ask someone you know to show you what they play, and again, steal, steal, steal!
After copying and playing for a few months or years, you will naturally start to develop your own style, as it will always shine through. So don’t worry about forever sounding exactly like your favourite artist or musician, because you will always be able to put your own stamp on your music.
Improvisation can be all about learning certain riffs, melodies and patterns, and then creating the ability to put them altogether seamlessly when required. So the more musicians you copy from, the better chance you have of storing lots of different patterns safely away in your musical brain. Over time, you will naturally be able to regurgitate them whenever you like.