The Improvisation Skills I Used In My Last Gig


A couple of weekends ago I did several gigs with a Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons Tribute band from Florida.  We played a 90 minute show consisting of 60s and 70s hits such as  “Walk Like a Man” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry”.  On stage with me were four singers, a guitarist, a drummer, and a bass player.  Over three days at three different venues (in Lincoln, Lodi, and Antioch, respectively) we performed for probably 3000 people.

Here’s the crazy part: they gave me the sheet music for the show AT THE GIG.  Yep, I arrived on stage for sound check at 3:30pm on Friday and that’s when I first saw the music… four hours before the show started!

And believe it or not, I was fine with this.

How could this be?

What were the skills that allowed me to be confident performing for thousands of people with no time to look at the music beforehand?

A Great Stage to Play On

Setting up in Antioch, CA before our third show of the weekend. September 2016

Certainly my performing experience helped.  But that by itself is not enough to prepare for a show like this with so little time to look at the music.

And of course, I am a good sight-reader.  That certainly helped.  But the thing is, this score was not the usual treble-bass piano staff.  Instead, it was mostly chords.

No, no, no, these skills were not by themselves enough.  Instead, the primary thing I used to play this gig was…

(drum roll please)


In other words, I used piano improvisation skills to spontaneously make up what I was playing.  The sheet music was only a basic guide.  Specifically, here are the improvisation skills I used:

  • knowledge of chords and scales in all keys
  •  knowing how to play all the songs (having played along to them by watching Youtube videos and playing by ear)
  • knowing how to create a steady beat at the piano (they call this “playing rhythm”)
  • finally, knowing how to do all the above WHILE PLAYING WITH OTHERS.

Incidentally, these are all skills that I teach in my Piano Improvisation Class.

Improvisation Piano Gig

The view from the stage. Lodi, CA. September 2016

Every single week, my Improv students get valuable lessons on these improvisation skills and on many others.  In fact, I intentionally designed this class to give many of the elements of a live band rehearsal or jam session, which gives a musician exactly the kind of skills needed not only to perform but also to collaborate well with others!

One of my students sums up the experience in the Improvisation Class quite well in this short video:

The improvisation class was more fun, or it was not like coming to a class. It was like coming to a weekly gig, where we all meet, we have four other keyboardists or pianists joining together, and playing together.  So he made it to be a whole lot of fun, more than a class environment.

–Gowri S.

And here are more words from other of my students:

“Working with Chris in the improvisational class… really got me to just start playing more often, not only the things we were practicing in class but also the things that I wanted to play personally at home… that was a huge thing for me… now finding myself at home excited to play.”
—Chris B.

“The collaborative sessions with Chris…playing with other people, rather than making me self conscious I think had the opposite effect. I enjoy the collaborative quality. It’s fun making music with other people.”
—Chuck A.

In summary, my philosophy as a teacher is, if I can do it, so can YOU.

Therefore, if what what I’ve described here compels you, contact me right away at 916-910-8686 or email me (chris [at] to reserve your space in an upcoming Improvisation Class so that I can show you the what I have learned and help YOU grow YOUR skills.

I look forward to helping you!

As a bonus, here is a short clip of me improvising at the piano before the Sunday gig in Antioch, CA:



The Improvisation Skills I Used In My Last Gig — 2 Comments

  1. This is a great post and a must read post for all piano students. As an improv student, I and my student friends in the class have so much fun playing in the class. It is like a performance every week in the improv class and also learn a lot in each class. And Chris’ performance experience is a great lesson, inspiration and motivation for all students. Thank you Chris for all that you do for us to keep improving our musical skills.