Monday, January 26, 2009

The Art of Piano Improv: A History (Part I)

By Paul Kwo

I've played the piano since I was five years old in Hong Kong. My parents wanted me to study music mainly just to give me an extra skill and to play for church. So even when we moved to Los Angeles, my parents continued my piano lessons. Of course being in a predominantly Chinese area, classical piano was the obvious choice of study.

I hear music my own way. I have always had a hard time playing only what's on the page, not because I can't but because I have a tendency to want to add or subtract. Being a classically trained musician that's a tough concept to swallow. Very little freedom is allowed when we are dealing with music of composers like Beethoven, Chopin and others. Furthermore it is even more unheard of to improvise and play music of my own. None of my teachers have ever done so and I was never exposed to any improv in the classical arena.

Finally after a good many years of the stringent piano performance practice of Classical music, I decided to give Jazz a try. I have always wanted to improvise and thought perhaps this would be a fantastic opportunity to do so. Boy was I wrong. When I sat down with my new Jazz teacher I discovered that there were rules to learn and follow, and my improvisations were not correct. I gave up on piano.

My dream as a kid in music was simple. I wanted to just sit down and play music. I didn't want to practice. I didn't want to learn rules. I didn't want to read scores and I didn't want to memorize music. After so many years of study I learned that music is something to study and learn and then perform. I learned it all and finally said farewell to music.

Fortunately I discovered Second Life and online performance. It took me a good nine months before I decided to give my first concert since I was not all enthused to learn a ton of music just to play a concert online. It was certainly too much work. Finally I decided since it's just an online concert, I will just play a couple of pieces of music that I can easily pick back up and then fill the rest of the concert with some improvs. I thought if they don't like it what could they do but just leave. Fortunately the audience enjoyed it and supported my performance. So over the next few months I played less and less standards and eventually began to perform all improvs.

I have performed improvs at my church. Throughout my life since I was playing at my father's church I had a lot of liberty as to what I could and couldn't play. It was a small church and very quickly I was their music director. For a long while I played the standard piano solo preludes at the beginning of the services. Eventually I because a little sick of playing the same thing over and over again and I was also too lazy to learn anything new. So I decided I'm just going to make it up right there. No one really cared anyways what I played. All they want is just some pretty and peaceful music. What's the difference if I played something that I composed on the spot versus something that's pre-composed. So I just played, as I have always dreamed music would be.

That is music to me, as it needs to be. I have always wanted to just sit down and play and now I do just sit down and play and make music.

Visit us online at:

Paul Kwo, Los Angeles Area Composer and Master Pianist

Visit our other online blogs: ||| ||| ||| ||| ||| ||| ||| ||| ||| |||

No comments:

Post a Comment