In-Depth Post 3: All About Improv

Since my last post, nearly three weeks have passed. I progressed a lot, too – here’s a quick recap:

With a lighter course load in second semester, I had a lot more time to practice jazz piano. I worked on Autumn Leaves for a long time, as well as a new piece called “Holy Land”. Below is my favourite instrumental recording of the work, performed by the Bill Evans Trio.

At the end of my previous lesson with my mentor, I asked him if he had a few recommendations of jazz pianists that I could listen to. He came up with a very long list of pianists, and I was able to listen to most of the performers he mentioned. It definitely helped me feel the style and rhythm of jazz more, and my favourite pianist was probably Keith Jarrett (shown below). He is well known for his eccentricities when he plays, including stomping and standing up when he plays. But the music was incredibly phenomenal!

Image from

I also practiced once with the jazz combo, in preparation for the Jazz Gala taking place in just a few weeks. We played over Autumn Leaves multiple times, and started to practice Holy Land. I played the vibraphone (an instrument similar to the xylophone) to get used to the melody, since I had never played it before.

Finally, to finish off my Family Day long weekend, I had a lesson with my mentor. We covered a large amount of ground, especially about improvisation, which I had no idea was so complex and detailed, and I wrote down several notes during the lesson that are shown below:


To summarize:

  1. First of all, I asked him about how to finish any piece of music: with a scale, glissando, arpeggio, or any other kind of embellishment to signify that it was over. My mentor responded by saying that it depended on the style of the piece, and gave me a few ideas.
  2. To help with my improvisation, my mentor said I could try singing a random tune that came into my head. Basically, it’s vocal improvisation, but also helping my piano skills.
  3. Together, we went through and used Roman numerals to analyze the chords that were given in one piece of music. This skill could help me memorize the piece of music more quickly, and also help give me some ideas for improvisation.
  4. I also started using scales to help my improvisation. My mentor had me play the chord progression with my left hand, while playing a simple scale (in whatever key the piece was in) with my right hand. I would change directions whenever I thought it would make the most sense.
  5. During my first improvisations during my lesson, I often found myself losing my spot in the progression, and playing a chord too early or late with my left hand. My mentor said that he struggled with it as well when he was learning jazz piano, and told me just to keep a steady beat in my head while I was playing.
  6. To compensate for 4), I started playing my right hand in straight quarter notes on the downbeat. This gave my music a certain stiffness, and my mentor told me to start playing more on the offbeat, and experimenting with the different rhythms I could use.
  7. He also said that I should start leaving more rests in between improvisational ideas; that is, realizing that silence was just as important to a strong improvisation as the notes themselves.
  8. Finally, skipping the line “Don’t have to respond” and the three lines following, my mentor told me that the improvisation was mine to work with, and every musical choice was mine to make.


To finish off my post, here are some more aspects from “How to Have a Beautiful Mind” that I focused on in my last lesson:

  1. How to be interesting: I tried to actively engage as much as possible in my lesson yesterday. First of all, I connected some tips my mentor gave me about improvisation to a recording I had listened to, and that helped spark a conversation about different jazz piano styles. Also, when he taught me a scale that had an interesting physical shape on the keys, I displayed genuine surprise and interest that the scale worked like that. Finally, when we were talking about jazz piano “endings”, I brought up various scenarios where the endings would change with a “what if?” statement.
  2. How to respond: My mentor is very skilled at giving me clear tips and instructions, so I am rarely confused with what he says. However, I was once puzzled by a progression he showed me, and asked him about it. After he went into some more detail with it, I understood what he meant. When we were discussing Keith Jarrett, I had read an interesting article about his performance in Paris, and shared it with my mentor (the article can be found here). Moreover, I also shared a personal experience before where the audience was disruptive when I was performing. I felt that it help connect me and my mentor more. Lastly, I slightly changed a point he made about improvisation to me that made more sense, and wrote it down so I could understand it later.


The Gala’s coming up soon!

In Jazz, improvisation isn’t a matter of just making any ol’ thing up. Jazz, like any language, has its own grammar and vocabulary. There’s no right or wrong, just some choices that are better than others.

-Wynton Marsalis