Piano Improvisation Workshop

Improvisation in music is a lot like a good conversation. By definition, improvisation is making up melodic, rhythmic, or chordal structure on the spot that fits with what the other musicians are playing or with the structure of the song. A musician first has to listen to what his or her band mates are playing, recognizing the scale or chord progression he or she will be improvising over, then play a combination of notes that fit with the prior assessment. That’s a lot of complex steps but there is one key element that makes improvisation successful and enjoyable to both the musician and the audience. Listening, the essential foundation of improvisation and good conversation. Listening helps the improviser synthesize ideas from the foundation of the music and bring it out through a solo. A good conversationalist is able to pull ideas from what someone is saying and move deeper into the subject, adding his or her thoughts to the original idea.


Recently, members of the MTCCA team participated in an improvisation workshop with Jay Jay at the Greene Music School. During the workshop, we practiced blues riffs, scales and improvisation techniques. Jay Jay provided the group with some amazing examples that could help us facilitate improvisation with clients, colleagues, and friends. These ideas lay the foundation for further improvisational exploration we often work on with clients. Children and teens with autism often struggle with improvisational exercises due to its intangibility and conceptual nature. Modeling and motivating cues, however, increase the client’s likelihood to participate and succeed in improvisation activities. In fact, we were able to incorporate some of these riffs and groove patterns into our weekly Jam Sessions, encouraging participants to drum during the breaks in the grooves.


Many of the grooves were pulled from popular songs such as Billy Jean by Michael Jackson or Superstition by Stevie Wonder. They each provide a strong rhythmic foundation and breaks for solo fills. I have attached the grooves at the bottom of the page as well as a picture of Julie, Jay Jay, and Angela. Thank you to Jay Jay for creating an accessible and compelling format that allows our clients to more easily participate in improvisation activities. For more information on the Greene Music School, visit their website at greenemusiceducation.com.

Happy playing!

Shannon Flaherty

Music Therapy Intern at Music Therapy Center of California