15 Tips on Learning How to Improvise


For the Worship Keyboardist

By Dr. Barry Liesch

1. Close the book! Start depending on your ear, not the notes on the page. When you are looking at the book, you’re reading music, not thinking how it functions.

2. Choose an easy key.  Play your songs first in the keys of C, F, G, and later in D or Bb at the beginning stages—keys with no more than two sharps or flats.

3. Reduce the harmony to three or four chords at the beginning stages.  Many hymns and choruses can be played with three or four chords.   Limit yourself to chords based on scale degrees I, ii, IV and V. Scale degrees chords on I, ii, IV, and V in the key of C are as follows: C (I), d minor (ii), F (IV), and G (V).

For example, Amazing Grace can be played using only three chords in the key of C: C (I), F (IV), and G (V).  Get these chords established in your ears so well that you can recognize them when they occur in any song.

4. Transpose to other keys.  When you transpose a song to another key, it keeps your ears open and your mind thinking. It’s a great way to learn how chords function.  For example, play Amazing Grace in G major and then F major.

5. Use substitution chords for variety.  A chord a third below can often be substituted for any chord.  In the key of C major, for example, a C chord can be substituted with an A minor, an F chord with a D minor, a G chord with an E minor.

6. Add a  7th or a ninth for more color.  For example, add a “B” (major seventh) to a C major chord, or a “Bb” (minor seventh) to a C minor chord, for more color.

7. Try different voicings.  For example, a C major seventh chord (C, E, G, B) can be played with the seventh (B) as the lowest note in the right hand (B, C, E, G) and a low C in the bass.

8.  Use added seconds for more color. Instead of playing a C major chord (C, E, G), employ an added second chord (C, D, G).  An entire book is devoted to added second chords at worshipinfo.com. (to be post later)

9.  Place the third or fifth of the chord in the bass.  When you play a C chord in the right hand, try placing an E (third) or a G (fifth) in the bass.  This is a great way to create effective bass lines.

10.  Practice specific chord progressions.  Practice the following chord progressions (here in C major) in all the keys:

(1) I, ii, V, I —> C, F, D minor, G, C.

(2) I, V, IV, I —> C, G, F, C.

(3) I, vi, IV, ii, V, I  —> C, A minor, F major, D minor, G, C.

11.  Pay attention to what falls nicely for your hand.  When improvising during a song service there is so much to occupy your mind, therefore efficiency is important.  Take note of what falls easily for your hand and sounds good.  Your goal: the maximum amount of effect with the least amount of effort.

12.  Let go of the melody.  When you let go of the melody it makes improvising easier.  You can then concentrate on chord progressions, rhythmic patterns, and invent melodies for the soprano and bass parts.  Besides, once the congregation gets the groove of the melody, they seldom need you to continue to play it.

In general, the faster the tempo and the quicker the melody, the more melody notes you should drop from the RH.

13. Better progress is made if you work out 10 variations of one piece than one or two variations of ten pieces. Why?  Ten variations force you to think, stretch, and develop new material.

14. Take down (transcribe) your favorite CD note for note.  It is not enough to listen to your favorite CDs; you need to track down exactly what is happening.  Play each phrase as often as necessary in order to determine each note.

It’s hard work but great for your ear!  It’s also the way to freedom—you’ll then be able to find how what is happening in ANY CD. Gradually you’ll develop your own style.  This is how many improvisers have learned their trade and have achieved greatness.

15. Ask the good improvisers in your area for help.  When you set up an appointment, take along your iphone, tablet, or computer, and record their musical examples and ideas.

Resources. Check out the keyboard books at worshipinfo.com.—browse the table of contents of Keyboard Improvisation I (see pull down menu).  Band-in-a-Box software is also a good resource.

12 thoughts on “15 Tips on Learning How to Improvise

  1. I play keyboard for a very small (50 attending) community church that meets in a 100-seater tent in our neighborhood in Kenya. I am also administrator of a home for orphaned and vulnerable school-aged boys, and several of them are interested in music.

    • With a little help from my son (he works for Google), I used the WordPress template provided, and devised the pull downs, etc. It took me about 10 days to figure it out and upload about 150 files. I’m a novice in this stuff. I didn’t find it that hard. barry

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  4. Dear friends, thank you so much for sharing your blessed and helpful information, so very much needed for musicians. This is my first visit and I thank the Lord, for leading me here. God bless.

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