Friday, February 27, 2015

A Guide to Improvising with Chords by Anita Durairaj

To my fellow pianists:
When someone mentions "improvise" do you bang the keys in frustration? You print out the lyrics and chords of your favorite song and stare blankly at the chords. How in the world do you play a chord's notes and structures without sounding extremely, annoyingly, over-repetitive? Folks, I totally get you. So many times a conversation with a piano teacher goes like this:
ME: "On this verse, what kind of note combinations can I play with my left/right hand? How can I improvise with this chord?"
PIANO TEACHER:"I can't really teach you do improvise. You just have to... improvise."
ME: "Right, but how exactly do you improvise? You got to have at least some pointers."
PIANO TEACHER: "Just let your own creative juices flow."
ME: Very helpful. "Could you show me an example?
And he proceeds to play something so complicated that you can't even tell the difference between chord and melody.
Now, it's true that no one can teach you to improvise; everyone improvises differently. Still, little help along the way is greatly needed and appreciated.
What does improvise even mean? It is defined as: "to create and perform (music, drama, or verse) spontaneously or without preparation; to produce or make something from whatever is available." Since everyone has their own style, the key to get you started is to give you some simple tips that you can expand and modify to suit your preference.
My 5-year journey through learning chords and improvising with them has led me to some discoveries that helped me to finally start improvising. Here are some pointers.
> Play Octaves or Fifths with the Left/Right Hand
Let's say you're playing the simple chord progression G,C, D, E minor. What do you do with one hand while you're playing a chord with the other? If you're used to playing the chord with your left hand, you can use your right hand to play fifths or vice versa. A fifth is basically a chord that leaves out the middle note (for example, to play the fifth of the C chord you would play the notes C and G and leave out the note E). A fifth is also called an "open chord”.
Or you could play octaves, which should mainly be done with the left hand. An octave is spanning your hands over the length of eight white keys, and playing two of the same notes [For example, for C you would play a lower C with your pinkie and the next consecutive C, eight white keys away (12 keys if you're counting the black keys) with your thumb]. If you're playing with a bass guitar or some other instrument with lower pitches, octaves may not be the way to go, since they are typically played with the lower notes. If you can't play octaves, go for fifths; they sound just as good without too much of the bass notes. If you can, go for octaves; they offer a nice rich sound to your chord.
> Play Inversions
An inversion of a chord basically means playing the same chord and notes, but in a different order. For example, the usual order of notes in a C chord are the notes C, E, G. Inversion 1 would be in the order E, G, C. Inversion 2 would be G, C, E. Each chord has two inversions. Unfortunately, playing inversions smoothly requires practice, but it pays to sound good.
I like to use inversions to change up the feel of the sound a little. If you used the usual order of notes for chord C in verse one, switch to an inversion; when you move the notes a little higher or lower for a chord it sounds different even though it's the same chord. That way, you can help eliminate too much repetition. Sometimes, you have to play the same chord for a whole line in a verse; playing inversions helps vary it up a bit. 
>Play 2nds and Suspended Chords as Transitions
The 2nd of a chord is basically substituting the middle note of a chord (or the third note of a scale) for the second note on the scale. A suspended is substituting that same note for the 4th note on the scale. For example, the chord C would have notes C, D, G rather than C, E, G. C suspended would have notes C, F, G. Suspended and seconds act as good transition chords between chords in a song.
> Know Your Way around the Notes So You Can Improvise
Lastly, the only way to make a chord sound more melodious than a repetitive single-beat is to know your way around the notes so you can naturally play more melodies. If you want to play a song, and its available in both chord and sheet-music form but you don't want to take all that time to learn the sheet music, you can look at the basic melodies on the sheet music and incorporate that on one hand while playing chords with the other.
When I first started playing chords, I was frustrated because I couldn't make it sound good. First, I started using things like octaves and fifths so both my hands something to do. However, these new additions mainly add more volume color to the chord itself. I wanted to know how to add more rhythm and texture to the notes within the chord. That's when more practice with the scales and inversions of the chord comes into play. The more you learn about the chord, and start experimenting with the chords, the more you'll improve.
I hope this helps. Like I said earlier, no one can teach you to be creative with chords; but once you learn a little about them, you're ready to put your skills to work. Happy improvising!

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