To Improvise, Or Not To Improvise

By Rhonda Barfield

Listening House Studios believes in teaching a wide variety of music and music techniques. In November and December, for example, I concentrate on playing lead sheets. Our students learn to read a melody line written as notes, with their right hands, and play chords from chord symbols with their left hands. Eric focuses on this throughout the year.


Playing this way requires a certain type of thinking. It also allows a lot of elbow room. Beginners, for example, can simply play the notes C, E, and G all together to form a C major chord. Intermediate students can play C-E-G-E-C notes, one at a time, to form broken chords and make the left hand accompaniment more interesting. Advanced students can look at the same symbol, CM, and add even more notes into a complex arrangement. Lead sheets, in other words, allow for a great deal of improvisation and variation.


Classical music does not. The current thinking declares that the great composers knew exactly what they wanted when they marked, say, a decrescendo or a phrase, and those playing their repertoire must follow this to the letter. I’m not sure I agree with this. J.S. Bach, for instance, often improvised on his music. I think he would be delighted with 21st century pianos and their ability to play much louder than he ever imagined. However, traditionalists think we should play his “Minuet in G” quieter and with much less phrasing than a Romantic piece.


To improvise, or not to improvise? Well, why not both? That's why Listening House Studios incorporates both into our curriculum.