When most keyboardists begin to improvise, the fingers lead the way. Most often, the fingers play permutations of patterns and scales you’ve practiced over a chord progression.
That’s fine as far as it goes. But if you have ever listened closely to the great improvisers, especially live, you probably got the feeling that their fingers weren’t leading the way, they were following what the player was hearing inside.
The bridge between the musical brain and your fingers is the voice. That’s why so many great improvisers sing along as they play. Keith Jarrett is especially known for improvising while singing in a voice that many people find distracting and even annoying. Despite the quality of his voice (which ranks far below Bob Dylan and Tom Waits), it’s no coincidence that Jarrett is one of the greatest living improvisers.
Other keyboardists don’t obviously sing along as they play, but you can bet that most of them are playing what they hear rather than hearing what they play.
In fact, if you sing as you improvise, you will not only become a better improviser, but a better keyboard player overall.
If you’ve never sung as you improvise, it may be slow going for awhile – what you play may be much simpler at first – but soon enough you’ll understand why it’s so useful. Here are 5 good reasons to sing as your improvise:
1. Your Improvisations Will Be More Original
Since what you play will be more deeply connected to your inner musical voice, what you play will be more original and authentically yours.
2. Your Musical Ideas Will Improve
Your voice is much more an innate musical instrument than your fingers. By connecting to the instrument you were born with, you establish a link between that instrument and the keyboard. As a result, your musical ideas will improve.
3. Your Phrasing Will Get Better
With your fingers following your voice, your phrasing will be more natural. Because good melodies are constructed in phrases, and because singers have to breathe between phrases, you’ll be less tempted to go on and on without a break as too many finger-oriented improvisers do.
4. Your Musical Memory Will Help You Out
When you sing, you will more easily remember and reuse melodic motives, phrases, and licks to create a richer fabric for your improvisation. This helps create musical unity, which is so important in both improvised and composed music.
5. Your Ear Will Develop
Your ear will improve, because it will be forced to! A better ear will not only make you a better improviser, but a better overall musician.
Start playing what you hear rather than hearing what you play, and your improv will become more natural, fluid, and musical.
Doug Hanvey is an educator, composer, pianist, and author. His Piano Lab Blog offers innovative tips and advice for keyboard players and teachers.