Robert Estrin - piano expert

What is improvisation?

Learn the basics of musical improvisation

In this video, Robert tells you the basic secrets of musical improvisation with clear and easy to understand examples on the piano.

Released on October 16, 2013

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Welcome to and I'm your host, Robert Estrin. Today the subject is what is improvisation? Well we've all heard that word. As a matter fact, we think about in comedy, improvisation could be a great deal of fun and it could be almost anything. We're going to cover what it means in music and what it means generally. And I think you'll get some value out of this and then later on we can go into specifics with different styles of improvisation.

Improvisation, it seems almost like an impossible thing. If you've ever watched a great comedy routine where they just take some strange objects and create a story, you can't imagine how people can be so creative. But if you go back to your childhood or watch kids playing together, they're constantly improvising, making up elaborate stories. It's actually the most natural thing in the world to improvise as a human being. Unfortunately, we are taught to be afraid to let ourselves express freely from the top of our head. You ask any little kid to make up a story or sing a song, without even thinking, they'll just start spouting off a song or a story. And yet you ask the same kid a few years later, when they become young teenagers, and they will clam up like you can't believe. And sadly, most people remain that way the rest of their lives.

It's great if you can allow yourself to express things freely, but in music, there are many different type of improvisation and there are many that actually have certain structures that are built upon. For example, you hear a great Jazz artist and they are improvising a song, yet it's a song, so how could they be improvising when it's already a written song? Well they use the song as a starting point. So if they're playing, for example, a song...etc., and the melody line is in there, but it's embellished. And later, after the audience knows the melody, they'll take off and make up whole new melodies based on those cords. This is one sort of improvisation, but it is by no means the only type.

Have you ever heard any of the Keith Jarrett recordings, where he'll go out and play an entire concert totally improvised, not based upon any previous material. Now sure, there are riffs and chord changes he's done countless times before, but the actual structure and the melodies are all fresh and new. And this is an incredibly interesting type of improvisation. In fact, there are many types of music in this world that are built this way. For example, Indian ragas are essentially an improvised music where they could have 90-minute ragas, then certain players are playing certain parts, but it's never the same, and it evolves over long periods of time. Some new age music shares this quality which could be improvised, dreamy-like chords that could go on and on.

So to kind of capsulate, there are sort of two kinds of improvisations in this world: those that are totally freeform such as making a story out of thin air or making up music that had never been written, something fresh and brand new; but a lot of the improvisation is embellishment, whether it's in jazz taking a classic song or in classical. Baroque era trio sonatas, for example, were written not without the notes but chord symbols called figured bass and the keyboard is what essentially improvised the part. That was kind of a lost art today in classical music.

I love to improvise classical pieces. That's right. Just because I've grown up with it and I have the musical language, I make up classical music all the time and have played concerts that way. So there is all sorts of things that fall under this umbrella we call improvisation. Today was a little bit of an introduction for you. You can expect more videos going into more depth about these various style.

Thanks so much for joining me, Robert Estrin, here at and
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Marge Shery * VSM MEMBER * on October 28, 2015 @4:00 pm PST
I absolutely don't know how to improvise and would love it if you'd give more instruction on this. But as usual, you're the greatest!
Robert - host, on October 29, 2015 @11:31 am PST
Don Caron on October 28, 2015 @9:53 am PST
Thank you
Anthony Gildea on October 28, 2015 @8:30 am PST
The best drills to be able to play with both hands?
Christopher s * VSM MEMBER * on October 22, 2013 @11:10 am PST
Tks. Look forward to more play less talk. I was so disenchanted with modern "music" I started to write my own stuff but tough for anyone else to read due to My lack of formal training. I was also bottom in math so counting in music makes it difficult to know where exactly to place the bars.
DAVE WILKINSON on October 17, 2013 @6:41 am PST
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on October 17, 2013 @8:30 am PST
Hi Dave. I am sorry to hear you are unable to play videos on your browser, could you please give me the following information:

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2. Your Operating System and version.

3. Are you able to usually watch YouTube videos?

I look forward to hearing from you.

DAVE WILKINSON on October 17, 2013 @9:12 am PST
I wrote out a whole reply then changed web pages and lost it!
The problem seems to have fixed itself and the videos are accessible once again so I guess we'll never know what caused it. Thanks for your quick response anyway.
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on October 17, 2013 @9:29 am PST
Good to know your video problems has been fixed, but I am sorry to read that your written reply was lost! Please, let me know if you experience any other issues on the site.

Thank you again!
DonCaron on October 17, 2013 @4:20 am PST
Thank you I love music and your presentations and so interesting. I am a singer and at 85 still create a mood singing The Great American Song Book. I struggle with the Piano and you are so much help, I can't give up. Thanks again .
Melanee * VSM MEMBER * on October 16, 2013 @8:51 am PST
Thank you so much for explaining this. I am looking forward learning more on this subject!
Phyllis Patukas * VSM MEMBER * on October 16, 2013 @4:16 am PST
I have been enjoying your informative videos very much.
Our little amateur recorder quartet (SATB) wants to add some small or light percussion. However, none of us knows anything about percussion. We have done some research on the internet, but can't really find much that would be applicable to our group. Do you have any ideas about how we can learn more?
Robert Estrin - host, on October 16, 2013 @1:40 pm PST
You may gain some feel for percussion playing in a drum circle. You may then try adding hand percussion like congas, bongos or simpler percussion instruments like wood block or claves to your arrangements. My suggestion is to start small. There may be some of your songs that lend themselves to simple repeated rhythmic reinforcement. Remember to allow yourselves to experiment freely in your practice so you get comfortable and discover what is possible.
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