For teachers brave enough to ask students to perform their first improvisations, the excuses are all too familiar: "I don't know what notes to play", "I don't feel the rhythm", "It's too hard", and--eventually--just plain "I can't do it".
There are many factors preventing students from at least trying to make something up, among them nervousness, pride, and timidity. One important culprit, however, is frequently overlooked: fingering. As teachers know, student's intuition for fingering generally develops late in musical training. Because asking students to improvise entails asking them to create their own fingerings, improvisation presents a level of difficulty above and beyond that posed by notes and rhythm.
In order to quell some of these anxieties, I introduce fingering limitations when coaxing my beginning students to improvise. For example, I'll begin with simple improvisatory exercise like the following:
Play on the white keys and play with only your index finger (while I play a chord progression like this in the lower register). (See Example 1.)
Try playing the melody of your piece with only your thumb, and add one extra note every measure. "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" might look like this (see Example 2):
Introducing limitations eases students' stress and focuses their energies on making melodies rather than avoiding physical restrictions. In addition, such practice provides subconscious technical benefits. Use of only one finger teaches students how to make a melody sound musically cohesive without relying on "finger legato". This in turn develops their ability to phrase with their whole hand-elbow-arm-torso mechanism, creating a more unified, rich piano sound. Furthermore, exercises isolating each finger lead to balanced finger strength and help detect fingers with technical problems.
Such exercises can be expanded to isolate only two fingers, and then only three, with many possible combinations. I like creating unusual finger pairings like two-four and three-four to force students to think melodically rather than in familiar patterns and to distract them from the supposed difficulty of improvisation. For those interested in jazz feel, this exercise follow in the tradition of many great jazz pianists (Wnyton Kelly, Thelonious Monk) who limited their fingers for practical purposes, creating "swing feel" by alternating between the thumb and other fingers. I believe such alternation generates a natural swing feel because the differences in the fingers' weight and length inherently produce the loping unevenness characteristic of swing.
Scale the walls
As students move towards more advanced types of improvising, how can we minimize the difficulty of finding the right fingers? A partial answer lies in the way they practice scales. Most students dutifully practice going up and down a scale in the age-old pedagogical tradition. However, this kind of practice only prepares students to play the interval of a second. For an improviser, a scale is most useful when regarded as a set of notes that can be freely manipulated. When students interested in improvisation learn a C-major scale, they should practice not only up and down, by also in thirds (see Example 3):
in fourths (see Example 4):
in complex combinations using chromatic neighbors (see Example 5):
...and everything in between of all possible sales (major, minor, chromatic, octatonic, wholetone, etc.). Practicing patterns like these heightens students', capability to find the best finger for a wide variety of note and interval combinations.
Another way to address physical limitations is to work with them--to seek phrases and patterns that fit natural inside students' hands, avoiding crossovers, strange leaps, and too many black keys in a row. Many of our favorite jazz pianists capitalize on the handiness of these sorts of phrases. Bill Evan,s for example, frequently used this lick--easy to play because of the fingering's straightforward simplicity (see Example 6):
When memorizing phrases over essential chord progressions like ii-V-I, students can focus on licks with easy fingerings that don't require crossing over, like this one (see Example 7):
Advanced finger puppetry
For the very advanced student (and for the interested teacher) making solo piano arrangements, I recommend a different finger limitation exercise. One can practice utilizing only two fingers in each hand to achieve clarity in a tightly controlled four-voice texture.
A version of "My Funny Valentine" utilizing the thumb and fourth finer in each hand could be simple as (see Example 8):
or as complex as this (see Example 9):
Experimenting with limitations helps each voice form its own melodic and contrapuntal identity. Because of physical concerns (i.e. each finger can't move very far and will play at a relatively consistent volume) and psychological ones (i.e. our mind can more easily group notes together when played by the same finger), playing a voice with a single finger forms a mental partition, lending each melody a distinct identity. Such an exercise also helps ensure good spacing and raises the level of consciousness with which one plays middle voices.
Personally, I often practice fugues and the contrapuntal music with each voice assigned to only one finger to guarantee that my mind and body recognize different melodies as unique, even when played in the same hand (see Excerpt 10):
No matter what their level, pianists can move into richer zones of music making by giving extra consideration to fingering during practice sessions. Simplified fingering makes for more successful introductions to improvising and--through smart and creative practicing--can transform our hands' physical limitations into improvisational opportunities.