Improvisation Piano Exercises from Chick

Note: This is Part 1 of 5 in the Improv Series (currently only available with Chick’s Piano Masterclass, here.)

“I’m just trying to share my own way I look at music, with others.

“Musicians, non-musicians, whoever is interested. And try to show a few basic things that I think are kind of true for everybody.

“One of which is that an individual’s taste and his own judgment, what he likes, and what he doesn’t like, is his own God-given right, you could say.

“Everyone has the right to like what they like, not like what they don’t like, listen to the kind of music they want to, not listen to the kind of music they don’t like. Say what you like, say what you don’t like.

“There’s a kind of a code about that. A human right, a spiritual right.

“And I want to encourage that in people. I want people, and musicians, to realize their own judgment and have them think for themselves about how they see art, especially. And trying to portray that and say that in various ways.

“Share things I do, or just my opinion.

“So improvisation is a big interest, with a lot of musicians. So I have my own ideas about what it is, and I know there are an infinite number of other ideas, so I’m just throwing my own idea into the pot here. About ‘What is improvisation?’

“We did 5 shorts on that, so have a look.” – Chick


Chick Corea: So this is the beginning. First one. Here we go. So we’re going to cover improvisation and Bill’s going to – we’re going to talk a little bit. We want to define it first.

Bill Rooney: Start at the beginning.

CC: I though that was a good idea, because when people ask me – musicians ask me, they say, “Well, how about improvising? How do you improvise? What’s it all about? What do you do? What do you think about?” All these various questions. I think to myself, well you know, I’ve never seen a satisfactory definition of improvisation. So, I want to try to give you what my – what I think of when I think of improvisation, which is something natural. Something natural you do.

Improvising is living. Like, what I’m doing now is improvising. I have a thought in my head and I’m trying to get it out using the cumbersome medium of the english language. It’s really difficult. I mean I could go like this – [ plays a phrase ]. See that?

I don’t have to then try to say in words what that was because that was improvisation. But to try and define it in words, it’s the natural thing you do that you already decided that you’re going to do something and you’re going to make a movement. So with improvisation, the decision that – there are decisions that have to be made. What kind of freedoms and what kind of rules.

There’s freedoms, then there’s rules that you make. And that’s how you come about deciding how much improvisation there’s going to be. Like, you determine a pattern. Let’s use the term “pattern.” So let’s take, for an example, a pattern. I thought it would be good to start demonstrating right away, rather than trying to put a verbal definition.

So, you take a pattern, how much freedom or how much rules and decisions you want in it. Let’s take an example. I thought we’d use “Armando’s Rhumba.” Some people know “Armando’s Rhumba”.

This tune here – [ plays “Armando’s Rhumba”]

Okay here’s the first phrase of “Armando’s Rhumba.” It’s written right here. If you can read music it’s starting right at “A.”

So, thats the first phrase. If I’m going to play it exactly I’m going to play that exactly. [ Plays “Armando’s Rhumba” ]

Not much improvisation cause I already decided. So let me play the same phrase and keep everything pretty much the same but let me change the melody a little bit. I could do something like – [ plays “Armando’s Rhumba” ]

That was a lot of change, I mean comparatively. Or I could do – [ plays “Armando’s Rhumba”]

Or I could do even closer. I could change the tempo. [ Plays “Armando’s Rhumba” ]

It’s endless. So with that kind of thing you have the pattern and you decide how closely you want to stick to the pattern and the improvisation part comes as what freedom you give.

For instance, what if I say to myself, I decide – it’s all decisions. What if I decide I’m going to play something before I start the melody? I’m going to improvise something and then play the melody. So I’m going to go add it, it’s free, I can play what I want. [ Plays tune and “Armando’s Rhumba” ]

There you go. Like, play something even stranger: [ Plays tune and “Armando’s Rhumba” ]

See there. There would be an infinite number of ways to take a theme. So thats one basic way to describe improvisation. It’s what you decide will be there as a pattern and what you decide you’ll be free about interpretive. Improvisation.

BR: That’s great. Do you have a way somebody could try that? Like, you know, apply what you just said.

CC: If you want an exercise on that, do something like I just did. Pick out a melody and a piece of it or the whole tune. Right now we’re confined to my tunes in terms of publishing and all that. I’ll explain that later. Don’t worry about it. You pick out – come on – “Happy Birthday” is public domain, right? So I can explain “Happy Birthday.” You take a melody that you like, I mean you know, hopefully you like. [ Plays “Happy Birthday” ] Right?

Actually I put that in a rhythm. [ Plays “Happy Birthday” ]

They sing it like that. They also sing it like – [ continues to play ] But that’s the melody we know. So then you can play with that and do it different ways. Let’s do it straight. I’m going to do it in tempo. One, two, three, four, one, two, three [ Plays “Happy Birthday” ]

Or I’ll do it in a waltz. [Plays “Happy Birthday” ]

Then they take the melody, any melody, and start varying it. But the trick of you – you know we’ll go into this another time, of how to practice, ‘cause that’s really important of how to be a success at that. But briefly, what you do is take gradient steps, take it as slow as you need to build it up to the next step. [ Plays “Happy Birthday” ]

And then build it up. [ Plays “Happy Birthday” ]

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