4 KEYS to playing without scores
“I grew up reading notes on the stave! How do you improvise? How do you know what chords to play?”
Sound familiar? Over the years, I’ve encountered many classical pianists and musicians who ask similar questions. I then realised that there often is a real question of how to make the jump between playing what you see on a score and being able to improvise freely.
I can relate to this struggle. I grew up taking formal piano lessons, working tirelessly through the grades of the formal examination systems.
I’ve always enjoyed music, having grown up in a musical family. However, it was only when I joined the worship ministry in my home church when I was 13 that I discovered this whole new facet of music and improvisation that brought me much freedom and growth.
It was when I experienced the power of music to express thoughts and emotions beyond words and when I experienced the Lord’s presence powerfully during times of worship that my love and passion for music grew.
I began to experiment with chords and learned to play songs by ear, and soon grew to love improvisation! I could spend hours at the piano, playing, experimenting, and learning new songs, replaying the tracks in the CDs repeatedly and copy them exactly. As I grew in freedom to create and express what I could not in words and as I began to create new tunes to the Lord, my relationship with Him grew together with my musical abilities.
Some people think that you either improvise and play by ear OR sight read music very well – I would say that’s a myth! I know many brilliant classical players who are just as brilliant even in jazz improvisation!
Music is a language. This means that the ability to listen, speak, read, and write music are like that in any other language.
Ideally, we want to be able to do equally well in all these aspects as musicians. You should not feel handicapped when attempting to improvise because of your strong classical background. Instead, you would be more equipped because of the strong understanding of music you already possess.
How do you begin creating freely when you’ve been taught from such a young age to simply follow what’s on the page? I can imagine the trepidation because trying to play something that isn’t on the page has been ingrained as “wrong”.
May I suggest that the first place to begin? Dare to try.
The process of improvisation often challenges you to simply make a sound and create something first without prior judgement. It takes time and practice for one to get used to translating the God-given tunes and harmonies in your heart and mind to actual sound. If you are completely new, begin with playing a familiar tune that you have memorised with no written notes provided and slowly get used to doing so. Before you panic and think that this is all too abstract, here are some practical tips to help you on your journey.
1) Play any piece of music with a greater harmonic and melodic understanding.
Gotcha! Most of us are guilty of taking a piece of written music and playing through it without really getting a composer’s ‘bird’s eye view’ of how the piece was written and structured, both harmonically and melodically.
Pick a piece you are already familiar with. Study the chords and the harmonies that support the melodies! Once you understand those, take it apart and attempt to play it in another key.
For example, take apart the simple “Fur Elise” by Beethoven – could you find the chords and then transpose it and play it in E minor instead of A minor simply by knowing the chord numbers? (e.g. i, V, iv) The more songs you analyse, the more you will see patterns and apply it to your own playing!
2) Listen & Copy!
As a baby first encounters language by listening and then imitating, we can also learn the musical language by listening widely and attempting to recreate.
Listen to a piece of music, then attempt to replicate and play what you hear without the guidance of scores. Try to play it as closely and accurately as the original.
Begin with simpler pieces first - Pop songs or worship songs are a good start as they often have simpler chord structures!
Some quick tips:
Chart the bars with the relevant time signature
Identify the bass notes
Identify chord qualities, chords, and cadences
Identify melodies and riffs
Play back what you have learnt and compare it with the original
Attempt to play it in different keys, keeping true to the voicings, grooves, etc.
Learn to apply similar chord progressions, voicings, and styles to your playing
You may be used to playing the melody with your right hand (RH), and arpeggiated and moving harmonies with your left (LH). Try placing majority of the chord on the RH instead while keeping the LH simple with mainly the bass note or with the 5th.
When playing as an accompanist, refrain from playing the melody line throughout. Practise forming chords with good voicing and voice-leading with the RH and LH while being aware of the melody.
4) Dare to create
Take your instrument – (even your voice!) and create something new. Add chords to it. Or reharmonise a familiar hymn with different chords! It may not sound like the best composition at the start, but similarly, becoming eloquent in a language requires you to practice stringing phrases, then sentences, then an entire speech or poem together.
Ultimately, view music as a whole, while keeping in mind its ultimate goal of expressing things often intangible and communicating with others. I believe God created music for communication and for us to simply enjoy its beauty.