Improvisation: on Stepping out of Comfort Zone

My work as a contemporary pianist in the modern era for the last decade has been all about exploring the sphere of improvisation on piano, recognizing the need for a diversification in music training for classically trained pianists.

Playing the piano has truly been my lifelong hobby. More specifically, improvising on piano has been a passion that guides me through reimagining the way music is created. It is also extremely therapeutic; it serves as an opportunity for me to release all sorts of thoughts and emotions on 88 keys that I’ve been in relationships with for the past twenty-six years. Improvisation, is a term that is most commonly associated with the Jazz tradition, so it would be false for me to claim that I am a jazz pianist, since I am simply not very familiar with jazz.

The first encounter I have ever had with the concept of improvisation on piano was at the age of six while watching a family show on television one weekend. The program featured an interview with a pianist who demonstrated ways of playing the same song with different feelings. The combination of chords used by the pianist, that evidently varied from one version to the next, was definitely distinguishable in terms of how it made me feel: one version made me feel happy; the other sad. As I was only taught to play the piano with music books, I was fascinated by what she was able to do without using any notes. Though I didn’t know how to comprehend the feeling at the time on a deeper level, it felt as if she had really owned her tool, while expressing her musical freedom. I recall running to my bedroom to my piano with an attempt to play back what she had demonstrated, but that didn’t go so well. I was puzzled.

Starting in 2nd grade, I was active as my elementary school’s accompanist. There were school-wide singing competitions held every few months that helped tremendously with developing my sight-reading skills. I would be called down to the school recital hall an hour or so before to accompany the singers without any rehearsals, and it was utterly terrifying. But that thrilling feeling under pressure was something that I found at the time to be addictive, and I wanted more of it. While I knew that I couldn’t play every note correctly - considering it was my first time looking at many of the songs - I was exhaustively meticulous to make sure that I never missed a beat. Otherwise, I knew it would mean the musical flow would be disrupted for the singer. So, I listened extremely carefully.

How I went about developing and learning improvisation skills in the later years came from exploring and seeking challenges by engaging in various non-music-related activities. It was not until I decided to actively step out of my comfort zone, that I finally discovered what it was that led me to have more control over my musical abilities more than ever before. I googled and found all sorts of activities to attend, some of which included hip hop and popping dance classes, comedy improv workshops and singing lessons. While I experienced extreme discomfort in most of these classes, I realized that letting go of my fear and turning those uncertain feelings in action was a very similar feeling I had when I was forced to sight-read music for the singers in elementary school. There was no turning back.

In 2008, the abundance of popular music tapped my curiosity to start exploring songs that were not written for piano. I practiced ‘active listening’, a term that I refer to as I engage in dissecting and manipulating musical layers aurally that carry distinct timbre and rhythm. Based on active listening, I transform these songs into solo piano pieces that capture the essence of the “fullness” that the original song carries.

The ability -  as a classically trained musician -  to be able to improvise, enables a new level of creative power and freedom that is truly magical. When it comes to music studies, whether it be for educators or performers, I hope to come across more learning opportunities to further develop the essential creative processes of improvisation.