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What Matters Most: Technique, Improv, or Confidence?

What Really Matters for Success

Today, I landed in another hip hop circle, by accident.

The deafening music and dancing was doing a good job of distracting me from waves of food poisoning pain, so I watched the circle.

There are rows and rows of chairs, but sparsely occupied. Three groups of guys, most of them wearing dark backpacks, walk to the centre of the stage. They cue some too-loud music and toss off their backpacks.

But they don’t do anything else. They just stand around. Then after forever, one of them starts dancing around in the middle. When the first person ends his little improv, he beckons to the next, and the next does the same, over and over.

None of them are very good. Some are not fast enough or not smooth enough, some can’t catch the beat properly.

But they keep at it, showing their moves. There were some weird moves, like this one guy who started flopping around on the ground like a dying fish.

But really, who cares if they are good enough? Good enough for what? That they believe in potential and are confident enough to get there, is enough. It’s like how it doesn’t matter who gets into Harvard, it’s enough to just apply to Harvard—those people are who succeed.

I could feel an upward trajectory in those boys—I can imagine them on a bigger stage one day, because they have the spark, the drive, the confidence.

That is what you can bring to piano.

Most Classical pianists can’t improvise. Without the score, they will just play what they’ve memorized but never make new music on the spot. It’s like not talking unless you’ve memorized a script.

Getting the confidence to improvise (and know that whatever comes out is okay) is hard when you’ve been trained to perfect something before performing it publicly. But when you do get that confidence, your performance—onstage, and everywhere else—will move up a hundred notches.

So try piano circles, or jam sessions, with a small group of people.

There can be a piano in the centre, and everyone can stand around it. One person starts, plays whatever they want. The next person moves in—the goal is to never suffer silence. As you improvise more and more, you will get more comfortable with whatever comes out. And whatever comes out will get better too.

If everyone is just starting to improvise and they’re not comfortable with it, everyone can play just one chord. Then do one chord in the left hand, adding three notes in the right hand.

Start with baby steps, and everyone will be okay with it. And everyone will have fun and improve their improv skills.

Remember: it’s not how good you are right now—it’s how good you know you can be.

What do you spend the most time working on? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

Feel free to send this to a friend if they’ll find it useful, too.

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10 years ago

That is a very accurate description of classical piano players (what I used to be): “it’s like not talking unless you’ve memorized a script.”

That used to be me, and it was so frustrating. And so limiting! And made it hard to sight read, memorize, enjoy piano, play with others, etc. etc.

10 years ago
Reply to  Grace Lam

Well, I taught myself guitar and drums as an outlet for what I wasn’t able to do on piano. Then I learned about Music Theory in college, which is what really did the trick. Now I can simply look up chords to whatever song I want online, listen for the melody line and the rhythm, and try and copy it exactly or make it sound pretty in my own way. :) I have gone back to reading sheet music this past year, however, because my sight reading was getting rusty!!!