Free Improvisation and Using What's Already There
by John Morris FRCO, GRSM, ARCM

Part 1 : Free Improvisation

You do not need to be a genius in order to be able to improvise. There is no doubt that some find it easier than others, but this is true of many things! Like everything else, it will improve with practice.

Improvisation can be fun!

We tend to think of improvisation as a necessary evil for filling in unexpected gaps in a service, but do we ever improvise purely for pleasure in the privacy of an empty church or at home? Try it sometime and, as you improve, keep a recording machine handy, or a manuscript book, just in case you strike gold!

Don't try to be too clever

Your improvisation does not need to be startlingly original. Everyday ideas in a coherent form will do. A well-made speech is a good example of structured improvisation. Generally a speech which is read word for word can come across as stilted, whereas the speaker who just uses notes for the outline and supplies the actual words spontaneously can be much more convincing.


Start with singing and creating melodies only. If nothing comes to mind think of some evocative words or phrases, for example: Pastorale, Ode to Joy, Sicilienne, Praise the Lord!, Lugubrious, Toccata, Let us give thanks!, Sorrowful, I will lift up mine eyes.


Find a favourite poem and sing a line of it: this is included in the Associated Board's Grade 7 and Grade 8 Practical Musicianship Tests. Or maybe you can think of a melodic shape by using a picture for inspiration.


Perhaps you can think of a rhythm on its own and then clothe it with a melody. "I must pay the gas bill" will supply ideas for a rhythm, as will most everyday phrases, pleasant or otherwise!

One thing at a time

Notice that so far we have not mentioned playing. It is quite difficult at first to successfully attempt both stages, i.e. creating a melody and cope with the mechanics of playing it. However, if you are prepared to work on them separately for a while, combining them will become much easier.

Answering phrases

Singing an answering phrase is a good way of encouraging logical musical thought. The phrase should balance the given phrase, maybe include an idea or two from it, and have a 'finished' feel to it, in other words, not leaving the music 'up in the air'.

Group work

Singing answering phrases in small groups is good as it can stimulate the imagination and produce constructive criticism. The AB Practical Musicianship tests for Grades 1 and 2 include examples of two-bar answering phrases and four-bar phrases in Grade 3.

Putting it together

So, how do we link up the brain with the keyboard? Start with a very well-known melody, one that you could sing or whistle in your sleep. Then try playing it by ear. Choose an easy key like C major. When you are satisfied that you can play your melody accurately, (fingering is not important), try it in another key. Don't worry if accuracy takes a while - treat it as a 'hit-and-miss' experience. Just use one finger if you like.

A peek into the future

We have not mentioned much about harmony as it's better to wait until fluency is gained with the melodic side of things. If you find that things are happening quickly, have a look at AB Grade 4 Practical Musicianship, (tonic and dominant harmonies), and Grade 5 (subdominant and supertonic harmonies).

Chord symbols / harmony

Grade 5 also has the opportunity of improvising an accompaniment using chord symbols. This is an alternative but useful way of gaining fluency with chords. Plenty of popular music uses chord symbols and some recent hymn books also use them. There is a very useful section in David Sanger's Play the Organ Volume 2, pages 202-207, in which he talks about taking a chord sequence and improvising a melody above it. As you progress, you will find the wider your harmonic vocabulary becomes, the easier it is to improvise.

Part 2 : Using what is already there

This is a collection of ways of 'manipulating' a tune so that it will spin things out if the unexpected happens. If the collection took too long, you could continue playing from the midway point of the tune. So, if it is 'Glorious things...', I would pick it up from 'Fading is the worldling's pleasure' and play the second half of the tune again, maybe playing the last line, (None but Zion's...), twice, with a good rallentando to wind up the proceedings.

Gentle, reflective music

Start playing from the middle on strings, slower than normal, and then play the whole tune through, melody soloed on quiet oboe / clarinet / flute. Very often, the last phrase can be repeated. It is a useful exercise to arrange hymn tunes so that the melody can be soloed in the right hand. All it really involves is the left hand taking over the alto part.


Playing the melody as a right hand solo can be effective at the end of a funeral where the last hymn has been e.g. 'Abide with Me', 'The Day thou Gavest' , 'Amazing Grace', etc. With 'Amazing Grace', I have found it effective to extend the final phrase as such:

Was blind but now...   (clarinet solo)
Was blind but now...   (strings)
Was blind but now I see   (clarinet solo)

A variation is to play the gentle tune all the way through with strings and right hand solo then pick it up from half way through, strings only, and play the final phrase solo, (maybe with extended cadence – see below).

Extending cadences

It is often useful to be able to extend the final cadence to pad things out: e.g. quadruple 3rd and 2nd chords from the end...

Come, with all thine angels come,
Bid us sing thy Har - - - - vest - - - - Home
2-3-4 2-3-4

Echoing part of a phrase

Right hand soloing the melody – melody in brackets played on accompanying manual.

The angel Gabriel from heaven came (from heaven came)
His wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame (his eyes as flame)
"All hail" said he "thou lowly maiden Ma-ry" (-den Ma-ry)
Most highly favoured lady,
Glo-, (Glo-), Glo-ria


Obviously, the same thing won't work in every case - that's the whole point of improvisation! But these comments cover a fair range of situations. I am sure that once you start experimenting and extending your musical imagination you will find many more ways of doing things as you practice, develop and improve this very useful skill.

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