Unlock Your Creativity: 10 Tips for Exploring Musical Ideas on the Piano
I still remember doing my first photo shoot for this website way back in 2012 (might want to update those soon...) Simeon Rusnak was the photographer and he was trying to get some action shots out of me so he kept saying 'play whatever'. I had just finished my fourth year recital at the University of Manitoba as part of my piano performance degree and to be quite honest I was a bit tired of the pieces I had been diligently practicing for the last few months. Instead, I just started to play around with chords in C, improvising on white keys. I got a bit into the zone and it turns out that was great for the photo shoot!
Exploring sound with the piano in a non-judgmental way is very liberating and pulls you into the present moment, which a great place to be. If you aren't sure how to do this or where to start, here are some ideas I've curated over the many years I've been teaching and performing:
Creative Piano Idea #1. Sit down and explore a key
This is a good a starting place as any since most modern music is tonal and based around either a major or minor key from the circle of fifths. Pick your favourite (it can be C major, nothing wrong with that) and explore chords and melodies within that key - see where it takes you! Start with the primary chords (I, IV, V, vi) and then branch out from there. You can also hold on to a 4 chord pattern like many songs do to give it structure.
Creative Piano Idea #2. Play a mood
Pick a mood that you are feeling, maybe the weather, maybe something about your day, and see if you can express it musically. You don't need to be in a certain key or have a certain chord pattern, but it is good to know a few different chord qualities so you have more to work with.
Creative Piano Idea #3. Pick a pattern from Einaudi or similar composer
If you play the piano in the modern era, you've probably heard of Einaudi's prolific collection of minimalist and beautiful solo piano works. He tends to have a very simple idea that he develops over countless repetitions. I'm sure he does a lot of exploring the piano on a daily basis! You could go to one of his pieces and use his pattern as a springboard for your own improvisation.
Creative Piano Idea #4. Use your own piece
You can also explore, change or adapt a piece that you are working on. You can decide to create an intro, an ending, maybe even a whole improvisation section. You can change the harmonies, add chord tones to the melody - the sky is the limit! Don't worry about the composer rolling over in their grave, this is just for you in this moment.
Creative Piano Idea #5. Use Canon in D
As a wedding pianist, Canon in D is always under my fingertips. This 8 chord pattern provides a great framework for improvising in the key of D/b minor. I do this often when I need to fill some extra time during a wedding ceremony.
Creative Piano Idea #6. Use other media as inspiration - a story, paining, video, etc.
When I was a teenager, I would sometimes have my sister read a story to me and I would play along on the piano. I would do my best to create a soundscape for the story and of course pay attention to any dramatic moments where things would shift. This was a huge boon to my ability to think on my feet as a musician. I should do this more with my students, it is a great way to get out of our head and into the moment. This is great training for budding composers as well!
The main improvisation book that I use with students is called "Pattern Play" by the late great Forrest Kinney. Each piece gives ideas for melody, harmony, use of different scales and modes, and there is the opportunity to improvise as a duet or trio. I like his use of patterns from all over the world as jumping off points.
Creative Piano Idea #8. Peace Piece - Bill Evans
I just discovered this piece attending a Toronto meetup recital for amateur pianists that two of my students were performing at. One of the other participants played this to end off the recital and it had us all reflecting and at peace. Hoping to do this more with my students in the coming weeks - a little more peace can't hurt.
This series of books are required study for the Conservatory Canada Contemporary Idioms syllabus, but also just a joy to explore and play with! These are a bit more jazz based and put together by Christopher Norton, a well known Canadian composer.
Creative Piano Idea #10. Blues form
If you do want to explore jazz improvisation, there is no more common structure than the basic 12 bar blues. Being able to jam on this in any key with the appropriate blues scales will make you much more likely to succeed at a jazz jam session and to feel competent as a jazz pianist.
Improvising in general is not just for jazz as some think, it's just a big part of the jazz tradition. Improvising is a bit part of the classical tradition as well, but it's just less common to see today. In general when we explore the piano, we may find things we recognize, sounds that are beautiful, notes that clash, but it's all good if we reserve judgement and let our intuition guide us. Hope this helps you on your journey of creative exploration!
To be added to my wait list for piano lessons, check out my teaching page.