Piano Wellness Seminar Jane

Unwritten Notes: Improvisation for Classically Trained Musicians

In Music Improvisation by jan_mfp

Piano Wellness Seminar Duet

“That was fun!”

“I never thought of improvising right along with my students—what a great idea!”

“I’m going to make improvisation a requirement for my piano classes.”

“I think it’s sad that in all my long years of professional classical training, no one ever encouraged me to improvise my own music.”

These were some reactions to classes I taught at the Piano Wellness Seminar, held at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in August, 2004.

The Piano Wellness Seminar is an annual week-long gathering of performing pianists, teachers, and students familiar with the work of Dorothy Taubman. Her system of piano technique, based on principles of physiology and efficient movements, has helped pianists transform their playing and teaching, and has given people with playing injuries a road to recovery. Sheila Paige, the director of the Seminar and its keynote speaker, brings over twenty-five years experience with the Taubman technique. She commutes regularly across the country to teach university music school faculty and their students. During the Seminar, she covered topics such as sitting, fingering, memory, interdependence of hands, and movement corrections for pain in specific areas of the upper body, arms and hands, and did so with humor, deep knowledge, warmth, and clarity. Guest presenters included experts in Alexander Technique, Body Mapping, Developmental Fitness/Brain Gym, Meditation, Massage, Touch of Healing, Support Group facilitation, Meditation, Yoga, and the Peaceful Warrior Workout. There were small technique classes, master classes, and recitals by faculty and students.

As a teacher of improvisation, using my approach “Music From the Inside,” I presented three sessions: 1) Improvisation as a tool for learning and teaching written literature; 2) Free improvisation at the piano; 3) Group improvisation for self-expression and ensemble skills. I want to share my experiences here in the hope that it will aid the Music for People (MfP) community in teaching and improvising with those of us who are classically trained.

Making the decision to be a presenter at the Seminar marked a pivotal moment in my own musical journey. Eight years ago, at the end of my second year in the Musicianship and Leadership Program (MLP), David Darling asked me if I had any idea how I wanted to use this work in my own life. I responded without thinking: “I want to take this practice to people of my own background, the classically trained, and help them discover the freedom and joy I have found in improvising.” After having gained much experience teaching MfP techniques to a variety of populations, I now found myself returning to my original idea, and it proved to be profoundly rewarding.


Classical musicians bring to life music previously composed. They do this by forming a partnership with the composer: striving to read and play all notes and markings originally written, absorbing these creative ideas, and letting them spark their own interpretation. Much formal music education involves this approach, regardless of the style of the music taught.

Building an interpretation requires study, reflection, and artistic imagination. Composers of classical music write not only every note to be played, but also indicate the volume level (sometimes a different volume for each note), speed, articulation and spirit (as in “dolce”— sweetly). However, markings are sometimes ambiguous. And in the nineteenth century and before, when
performers were often composers as well as improvisers, fewer notes, and even fewer expressive markings were indicated. Classical musicians find much excitement and satisfaction in discovering how to interpret a written score and in developing a convincing performance while still respecting the original intention of the composer. It is the expressive nuance, both written and unwritten, such as tone quality or timing, that makes each performance of a piece sound totally different depending on who is performing it, even though the actual notes played are the same.

Classical music can be harmonically and rhythmically extremely complex, as well as long; pieces can last fifty minutes without a break. Players share the intense dedication and discipline required to master it, technically and intellectually, many of them beginning lessons in early childhood. They may spend hours of practice working to make a three-second segment of music as beautiful as possible. An hour’s program can take a year or a lifetime to perfect. Classical musicians also share a language: the sophisticated terminology of music theory. Detailed analysis helps them understand how a piece is constructed, and aids them in performing written music from memory, a skill expected of soloists.

Although classical musicians play written notes, some also use improvisation techniques in their music-making. Performers who specialize in music composed before 1800 study how to add ornamentation and play from a composer’s chordal outline, much as jazz musicians might play from lead sheets or fake books and fill in with their own improvisations. Some modern pieces direct the performer to improvise— freely or with composed material. Organists train to perform elaborate improvisations spontaneously in various classical styles. Other classical players use improvisation outside a traditional classical context—as cross-over musicians to jazz or popular idioms, or as accompanists for dancers. Recently college music programs have added a required a course in improvisation, often in jazz.

Some classical musicians, however, are intimidated by the idea of playing notes not in the written score. They may come from a demanding environment in which note accuracy is stressed, where neither mistakes or improvisation are allowed. For them, the pleasure of sharing with an audience a mutual admiration for a composition may be clouded. They are intensely conscious that many listeners may not only know the piece well through recordings, but may actually have played it themselves, and can keep track of each nuance, and each note in or out of place.

Others who hesitate may assume that one can improvise only in jazz style. They may also believe that one must acquire advanced skills in order to improvise, developed arduously in the same way that they achieved mastery in playing written music; they assume their present skills don’t transfer. They may think that it is acceptable only to improvise at their present advanced technical level, or in the style of a specific composer. They may feel that because they are not the trained composers whose works they play, their efforts do not, and never will, sound good enough.

The practice of improvisation can help classical musicians reach a higher artistic level. For those who already improvise, the MfP approach can be particularly useful because it is based on free improvisation: inventing tones outside the structure of a pre-composed piece. Improvising freely can refresh the classical player’s perspective—by moving the focus from what is already written by someone else, to what is created in the moment by the player. The inner ear can function not only as an evaluator of sounds produced, a guide to what is already in memory and a source of interpretive imagination, but also as a creator of tones. A jazz musician who most often plays his/her own music by ear would similarly expand his/her perspective, but from the opposite angle, by learning and performing a written transcription of another’s music note for note.

For those who are apprehensive, the MfP approach to improvisation can blow apart preconceived assumptions, and the player who is the most terrified has the most to gain. Just the idea of simply accepting whatever sounds we produce, regardless of our training or experience, can transform the classical player’s attitude towards the music s/he plays, whether improvised or not.


Let me summarize the benefits:

  • Freedom and spontaneity. Playing music without the written score releases our inhibitions about “wrong notes” and “perfect performances.”
  • Connection. Improvising provides a direct, intimate connection between our emotions and feelings, our instrument, and the world of sound and music—without the mediation of written notes.
  • Opening our ears. Research has shown that while reading music, as well as words, our other senses function at 20% capacity. Problems in mastering a piece can sometimes be traced to our not really hearing what we play. Without the score, we are free to listen deeply; we expand our inner ear and aural memory.
  • A composer’s perspective. Inventing our own music puts us intimately in touch with the compositional process and gives us a way to take part in it. We gain a different kind of knowledge about the composers whose pieces we play—how they might feel, think, and work.
  • Confidence. A rewarding improvisation shows us that music belongs to us, not only to other composers or performers. Playing other instruments, using our voices or movements, redefines our identities as total musicians, not only as pianists or violinists. We cast off preconceived ideas about what we can or cannot do on our instrument. We can play anywhere, any time, without having our music along.
  • Complete learning. We understand fully such theoretical concepts as harmony, tonality, and form when we create music using these concepts, rather than knowing them through analysis. Improvising strengthens intuitive learning.
  • Reducing performance anxiety. The ability to listen in the moment, and the awareness to act and react spontaneously help us to focus during performance, and give us the ability to play our way out of a memory slip or other tight spot.
  • Physical self-discovery. Aided by the ear, we notice unknown technical abilities which are more evident playing our own music than that created by another’s hands; we develop a heightened awareness of our physical sensations. Exploring the sometimes intimidating range, volume, and physical size of the piano while improvising helps us feel more comfortable at the instrument.
  • Emotional and physical release and fulfillment. Expressing our feelings through the instrument we love brings calmness, openness, a meditative focus and improved concentration.
  • Authentic performance. The ability to express our emotions sincerely through sound, a skill that we learn from improvising, directly translates into a performance— whether improvised or not—that touches others.
  • Enlivening composed repertoire. When we record a simple improvisation, write it down, then play it from score, we realize at once the nuances impossible to include in notation. Improvisation shows us sound possibilities beyond the written markings.
  • Quality rather than quantity. In a successful improvisation, we focus on issues of subtlety and nuance, and simplicity of material. We learn that the process—the act of improvising—can be often more important than the end product.
  • Current music performance skills. Comfort with improvisation and exploring new sounds, including vocal techniques and unconventional uses of the piano, prepare us for playing contemporary classical compositions, and much of the music we frequently hear— popular idioms, world music, jazz—which use improvisation techniques.
  • Physical challenges. Improvisation provides a meaningful musical experience when we have hand and arm injuries, or visual impairments. It allows us to play music which accommodates our condition, particularly when written music cannot.
  • Teaching techniques. Improvisation opens a whole world of options and approaches which motivate students, add variety, and reach those with different learning styles.
  • Discovering our own voice. Regularly inventing our own music builds our musical vocabulary and shows us our own unique style. Improvising reveals our hidden talents and creative abilities in other instruments, the voice, composition, and other arts.


Piano Wellness Seminar Jane

Since the majority of participants in the Seminar had no previous experience with improvisation, were classically trained and played mostly classical music, I began my presentation by suggesting how participants might use improvisation in their daily routine, as a tool to improve their teaching and learning of written literature.

We began with warm-ups: replacing the traditional scale/arpeggio/technique drill routine with some body/breath/voice warm-ups from MfP’s publication, Return to Child. Starting away from the piano, guided by our feelings of the moment, we took our voices to the piano with Sing What You Play, Play What You Sing, followed with singing while you play, to establish an organic connection with the instrument. These were new ideas for most of the participants.

Several pianists volunteered to join me at the piano playing piano duets (piano four-hands). Duet playing, at one or two pianos, with the teacher providing an accompaniment for the student’s improvisation, is a persuasive way to teach improvisation, and creates an intimate bond between student and teacher. It is especially effective at the beginning or end of a lesson; an activity with no pressure to perform prepared material, requiring only that the student listen and explore in the moment, releases nervous tension and reminds the student why they came—to discover the beauty of sound and make music.

To construct a duet accompaniment, remember that any simple ostinato works well; a one-line pattern that centers around the first and fifth tone of the scale will give the student the most freedom. Begin by playing the ostinato in your left hand, and modeling an improvisation in your right; drop out your right before the student begins, and after s/he is secure, add your right hand to imitate and interact with his/her music. Experienced improvisers can handle thicker textures in the accompaniment, but stay with one chord for some time before changing to another. Leaving out the third of the chord gives them more options.

Improvisation is an effective practice technique for mastering a written piece. Isolate any element which needs attention (a rhythmic pattern, chord/harmonic change, technical challenge), reduce it to its simplest playable form, and use it as a structure for improvisation. When we take the element out of context, we often learn faster, and with a depth of understanding that goes beyond traditional repetition.

To illustrate, we examined a section of The Little White Donkey by Ibert, a piece in F# major, where the right hand plays the donkey’s bray in a tricky legato rhythm, and the left hand maintains the trot with a staccato ostinato. The challenge is not simply performing the rhythm correctly, but coordinating it with the left hand, playing staccato mostly on the black keys, and maintaining a fast tempo.

We start with what is easiest (this can be different for each person), exploring hee-haw sounds all over the keyboard with either/both hands, at first without rhythm, then using the original finger pattern on any keys, then with the right hand in the original rhythm.

Repeating the opening ostinato in the left hand (pared down to two notes if necessary), we invent black-key donkey music over it in the right, at first staccato, then a mix of staccato/legato, eventually using rhythms from the piece, including the hee-haws. We can then return to the original notes on the page with a physical body which has absorbed the given material freely, at its own pace, while following the ear. This intuitive learning secures physical coordination that lasts.

We saw how this approach also can be used to introduce a new piece to a student: by improvising first with the basic elements of the piece before actually playing the written notes. For the example Nocturne (night piece) by Jon George, ask the student what visual image or sound “night” brings to mind for him/her, then ask him/her to create that image/sound on the keyboard. Have the student identify the key, meter, and register of the notes of Nocturne, and ask him/her to apply those (either all at once or one at a time depending on skill level) to some of the sounds s/he invented. Whatever else catches the student’s attention on the page (dynamics, texture, etc) can be further incorporated into the improvisation. Even though the actual piece may sound different from his or hers, s/he will have a head start in learning it. The overall feeling in his/her body and ears, and a personal connection, will have been securely established.

Improvisation can also help us learn the harmony (vertical blocks of sound heard at any given moment) of a composition. Chord changes are sometimes hard to hear, and lack of comprehension can cause memory problems or an unmusical performance. For example, in Burgmuller’s Arabesque, after an unambiguous harmonic opening, we hear a surprising shift in bar 7.
How do we identify what is happening here? Let’s reduce the music to its basic chords: A minor–D minor–A minor–C major (bar 7). (The passage finishes with G7-C.) We can now make chord music, using the procedure in Mathieu’s Harmonic Experience (pp 367-69). Start with two chords and add more only when the two are secure. Play them as block chords, three tones each, holding over the common tones. Play in a register that matches your comfortable singing range. Sing each part, or voice: the top tones of each chord, then the middle tones, then the bottom ones. Hear each chord in your inner ear as a block of sound in a unique relationship to its neighbor. Hear the next chord before you play it. Ask yourself: “What am I hearing?” What does this sound mean to me?” “What is my name for this sound?”
Continue by singing melodies over the chords. Improvise with the other hand: first with chord tones on each beat, then adding rhythmic variation, then non-chord tones, and expressive elements like volume changes. Break up (arpeggiate) the chords in rhythmic patterns, low to high, then vary tone order. Stay with each chord long enough to ornament with non-chord tones in various rhythms: one voice at a time, then two, three, four at a time. Expand the register and voicing, and improvise on that model. Transpose the chords to different keys. This chord practice will not only secure our harmonic knowledge of the Arabesque; it will make this sound-print part of us, ready to be accessed when we meet the same chord relationship in the future.

We can also use improvisation to freshen our perspective on a previously mastered composition. The MfP game, “Playing a Familiar Piece in a New Place,” was particularly effective with a volunteer who played a Chopin Nocturne in the bass register at a slower tempo. She then experimented with her own melody over the original left hand pattern, and voila! A magical composition in Chopin style emerged. She had never improvised before and was thrilled that she could do it—so were we!


For many classical players, creating sounds from silence, from our own inner ears, without any specific reference to a composed piece, is a totally new experience. A common exclamation I hear from beginning improvisers is, “I don’t know what to play!” I explained to the participants, “Music is a language, and one you know extremely well.” Just as they effortlessly put words and phases together in speaking, they could put the elements of music together as they played; all they needed was some experience doing so. To show them that they already could improvise rhythmically, I led them as a group in call/responses, with and without a pulse; they continued by speaking their own syllables and rhythms to each other in partners. No one seemed to be struggling to do this; in fact, it was difficult to make them stop!

Sometimes our uncertainty comes from not knowing how to begin. The most structured approach might involve starting with a written piece and changing one note; the freest approach might produce music invented from a feeling. Some of us respond better to more structure and traditional idioms and are intimidated by the unknown; others feel restricted by them. Sometimes our response depends on the mood of the day. Our challenge and joy lie in finding the right limits for our particular moment in time— setting up just enough structure to inspire exploration, but not so much that we lose our spontaneity. We also need to stretch ourselves by choosing limits that may not be comfortable. If freedom is lost, however, by our preoccupation with a specific rhythm, form, or style, then we must return to less heady ideas to keep heart, ears, body, and mind in balance.

I demonstrated for the participants ways they could begin a free improvisation, a sampling from a list of 36 “Starters” I compiled from MfP games, Mathieu’s The Listening Book, other sources, and my own ideas. The starters were arranged in four categories so we could choose one, or combine several, according to our comfort with the material and how we are feeling in the moment: For our Hearts, Emotions, Imagination. For our Ears—Inner and Outer. For our Bodies/Physical Sensations. For our Minds’ Awareness. Some of the starters were: One Quality Tone, One Quality Chord, Gesture, Atonal, One Note After Another, Following the Hands, One Tonal Center, Time Limit, Set of Tones, Meter, Drone, Ostinato, Formal Structure. Volunteers tried these, some joining me in duets, and were encouraged by the results. We talked about ways of expanding the improvisations we started, by adding expressive elements such as dynamics, articulation, texture, etc., and focusing on various compositional techniques such as repetition, imitation and modulation. They applauded after my one-minute piece. I was surprised; I had practiced time limits so much in my MLP training, I had forgotten how challenging it was at first!

I gave them a few reminders from MfP to keep the focus on the process, rather than the product: Breathe. Trust your intuition. Listen deeply and the music will tell you where to go next. One note is enough. There are no wrong notes—only missed opportunities. Don’t think; let your muse take over. Silence is your friend. Play, enjoy your sense of humor, have fun.


Piano Wellness Seminar GroupThe last session, for a smaller group, was a traditional MfP break-out, using several pianos and my own percussion instruments. We started with physical/vocal warm ups, call/response and introductions around the circle, then moved to a vocal sound circle. When I wordlessly began experimenting with the instruments, they followed; the result, after a chaotic period, was a cohesive group improv. Because of all their musical experience, they quickly learned the solo/ostinato game in quartets. We closed with three One Quality sounds in a vocal circle. Some of the participants often had huge smiles on their faces, while others were more guarded and serious. In the sharing circle, some commented on the new feeling of relaxation while making music; some doubted their ability to lead a group in such experiential activities, while others were enthused about trying some of the techniques in their group piano classes, or for student parties.

For information about Piano Wellness Seminars and workshops, go to www.sheilapaige.com/.


Jane Buttars is a pianist, vocalist, and dancer who has taught and performed professionally for many years. Her CD of original live solo piano improvisations, Keys to the Inside, has gained critical acclaim. She teaches improvisation, playing by ear, harmony, rhythm skills and popular idioms, as well as traditional piano studies, in her Princeton NJ studio and over speaker phone. She directs Music From the Inside, a group program of courses and workshops which develop self-expression and musicianship through music and movement improvisation. She has brought her presentations to performance groups, schools, colleges, teacher trainings, and community and religious organizations.

Jane is an MLP graduate, and was graduate coordinator for several years. She has served on the keyboard faculties of Elmhurst College and Northwest Missouri State University. She holds a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in keyboard performance, and was educated at Indiana University and in Germany as a Fulbright Scholar. For several years she studied improvisation and composition with W.A. Mathieu.

I had a ball at the Seminar sharing what I love most, and the participants went home with fresh ideas, most of them outlined on a set of hand-outs. I am so grateful to MfP, David, and the staff for giving me the opportunity to develop my leadership skills. I originally joined the MLP to learn how to improvise at the piano, but I never could have imagined presenting at the Seminar without the training I received. Pass it on: long live the joy of creating our own music!