The Role of Improvisation in Classical Piano

It might surprise some to learn that improvisation was once an essential skill for a pianist. Before the 20th century, great composers like Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Liszt were not only recognized for their compositions but also for their ability to improvise.

In the Baroque era, a figured bass – numbers and symbols below the staff – would provide the basic harmonic structure, and it was up to the performer to realize these symbols into a full keyboard part. Fast forward to the Classical period, and cadenzas in concertos became moments where performers could showcase their prowess in improvisation.

Improvisation’s Decline and Current Renaissance

As music pedagogy and the recording industry developed, improvisation began to take a back seat. There was a focus on perfecting and replicating the original score, leading to a diminished emphasis on spontaneous creation. A possible reason for this decline is the increasing complexity of written music and the desire to capture these nuances in performances.

However, in recent decades, we’ve witnessed a resurgence of improvisation in the classical realm. Contemporary pianists such as Gabriela Montero and Robert Levin have been championing and reintroducing improvisation into their performances, teaching, and recordings.

Source: GabrielaMonteroTV

The Value of Improvisation for Pianists

Technical Mastery and Flexibility

Improvisation is not merely a showcase of creativity but a formidable tool for technical development. When a pianist improvises, they are continually making on-the-spot decisions, testing their knowledge of scales, chords, and rhythmic patterns. This constant, real-time decision-making not only strengthens their understanding of music theory but also aids in finger flexibility and coordination.

Emotional Expression and Connectivity

One of the most striking advantages of improvisation is the raw emotional connection it can foster. While written music often conveys the composer’s emotions, improvisation allows the performer to express their own feelings in the moment, creating a unique bond between the artist and the audience. This expression can lead to more genuine performances, even when playing pre-composed pieces.

Cultivating Originality and Breaking Boundaries

By its very nature, improvisation encourages the breaking of conventions. When improvising, pianists often explore unfamiliar territories, pushing boundaries and expanding their musical horizons. Such exploration can influence their interpretations of classical pieces, bringing fresh perspectives to age-old compositions.

Examples of Pianists Incorporating Improvisation

While Gabriela Montero and Robert Levin are two names frequently associated with modern classical improvisation, they are not the only ones.

  • Maria João Pires has occasionally delved into improvisational encores, taking themes from the audience and weaving them into unique creations.
  • Marc-André Hamelin, while predominantly known for his meticulous interpretations, has showcased his improvisational skills in casual settings.

The idea isn’t about introducing improvisation for its own sake but rather integrating it into one’s holistic approach to the instrument.

The Way Forward: Embracing Improvisation in Modern Classical Training

To genuinely appreciate the richness that improvisation can bring to classical piano, it’s essential to incorporate it into modern training methods.

Integrating Improvisation in Curriculum

Pedagogues and music institutions can start by introducing improvisational exercises into their curricula. This can begin with simple tasks like embellishing a melody or harmonizing a given tune and gradually evolve into more complex improvisational frameworks.

Encouraging Live Improvisation in Performances

Live concerts can have segments dedicated to improvisation, allowing pianists to engage more dynamically with their audience. Not only does this provide a fresh element to concerts, but it also brings the audience closer to the creation process.


Improvisation in classical piano, while having historical significance, is not just a relic of the past. Its value in technical mastery, emotional expression, and cultivating originality makes it as relevant today as it was in the times of Bach or Beethoven.

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