By Loren Gold
I’ve been playing keyboards on the road with The Who since 2012. It is the greatest job I’ve ever had, but it was a long road to gather all the techniques needed to get this dream gig. My journey started with classical piano lessons when I was seven. My first piano teacher may not know it, but they nurtured my love of piano, and got me on the path to “stardom” by giving me a solid foundation in technique. Having a solid background in classical music has allowed me the freedom to become creative with my composing and while playing other styles like ragtime, blues, rock, gospel, and R&B. Here’s how you can start incorporating improvisation in your piano lessons with your students:
- Establish a strong foundation in technique, ear-training, and theory: During lessons, you’re likely already focusing on fingering, hand position, scales, and other techniques that help create a strong and healthy musical foundation for students. Having a strong ear and theoretical understanding of compositions will allow students to be more creative improvisers.
- Choose repertoire that makes sense: The goal is to provide your students with all the tools needed to learn to improvise in lots of different styles, but to make the best impact on your lessons, introduce improvisation along with pieces that compliment what you are working on, or songs the student is already familiar with.
- Seek Inspiration: Before diving into soloing themselves, students should study and listen to example solos by other artists to help inspire ideas. Students can transcribe these solos and learn to play them lick-by-lick, including dynamics and articulations.
- Connect the dots: Like any other piece of music you’d teach in your lessons, point out how the chord progression is utilized in the construction of the example solos. Connect the dots between how scales, modes, and popular licks relate to chords, and how they can be used in crafting original solos.
- Leave the page: Once your student has mastered an example solo, encourage them to slowly branch out and incorporate their own ideas. It is essential that they are encouraged to eventually stop thinking about what they’ve learned verbatim, and begin to “go off the page” and play from the heart. You can try comping the chords, so the student can focus solely on their soloing, or use a backing track if one is available. Remember, there are no wrong notes when experimenting with improvisation! It’s time to explore and find a voice. Encourage mistakes while also helping them remember what works.
A great example of a familiar tune that can be used as a starting point in introducing improvisation is “Whiskey Lights” from Sitting In: Rock Piano. “Whiskey Lights” is in the style of The Doors’ “Light My Fire” and includes a repeated eight-bar section for improvising (mm. 26-33). The first thing you’ll notice in the piece is that there is a solid repeated bass line throughout the entire song. Once this bass line is mastered, the right hand is free to explore mixing and matching various rhythms, ideas, and patterns to create something unique through improvisation.
If your student isn’t familiar with “Light My Fire,” encourage them to listen to a recording of it, and particularly pay attention to what keyboardist Ray Manzarek and guitarist Robbie Krieger play during their solos.
A great way to correlate “Whiskey Lights” to their standard repertoire is to show how those pieces present similar challenges. For example, look at the first four bars of Mozart’s “Sonata K. 545.”
If the simple Alberti bass pattern is played evenly, the top melody can sing above it just as an improvised solo should be free to soar above the accompaniment in “Whiskey Lights.” It is a simple correlation, but critical to being a good soloist. You can also talk about the makeup of The Doors: they didn’t have a bass player so Ray played all the bass lines on the organ. Rock trivia and history can be a huge inspiration to some students!
Next, play through the entire written music of “Whiskey Lights” including the notated comping in the solo section. Point out how the chord symbols above the right hand show the chord progression, and how the same progression is used in the solo section. Show the theory behind the chord construction and related scales including the E Dorian mode which will be useful in soloing.
There are also four sample licks on pages 9-10 that provide notated ideas and suggestions. Note that “Lick 1″ adds a flat-5 to give the solo a more bluesy sound.
Now it’s time to start improvising! While it’s great if you and your student play a duet on the piano—you comp on the chords while your student solos—the tracks that accompany the book include live bass, drums, and guitar players (and sax on some tracks) who are playing in the appropriate style. Encourage students to use the “Rhythm Section Only” tracks at home when practicing on their own. Click here to access the rhythm track for “Whiskey Lights.”
During lessons, continue to focus on fingering, hand position, and other techniques while your student is learning improvisation. The idea of soloing in a lesson shouldn’t be a foreign concept. Mix it in with standard pieces so you can focus on the similarities of techniques needed to play well, no matter what style the student is playing. Having correct technique lets you be a more creative improviser, and maybe you’ll even have a dream gig with The Who someday!
Loren Gold is an in-demand keyboardist, vocalist, and songwriter who has played extensively with international pop and rock acts such as Roger Daltrey, The Who, Kenny Loggins, and more. He has served as musical director for artists such as Taylor Hicks, Selena Gomez, and Demi Lovato. In addition to touring and session work, Loren composes original music for films and TV. Learn more at www.lorengold.com.