Improvisation for Classical Pianists – Practising the Piano

Have you ever been to a party – or pub – or even a train station – where there has been a piano in the corner of the room? Has anyone shouted out “Play us a tune!”?

Or has anyone ever said “You’re great at piano; you must be able to play some ABBA.”? …and all you can do is bow your head in shame and say “I can’t play anything without the music.”

I’ve been in that position!

Learning to improvise

These days, I am much more comfortable with the idea of improvisation, but I had to learn the hard way. I pieced together my improvisation skills from a variety of sources. In my teens, I wanted to learn jazz so I worked through the book A Classical Approach to Jazz Piano by Dominic Alldis. At university, I had classes on keyboard skills and I studied harmony and counterpoint. But, despite this studying, it wasn’t until I was in my mid-thirties – midway through a successful career in music – that I had enough skills and enough confidence to sit down and play with no preparation.

A step-by-step guide

I teach improvisation and harmony to my youngest pupils at Twyford School. Children latch on to the idea quickly and they love to learn chords. Some children can’t wait to explore repertoire, but most prefer improvising and writing songs. I also teach improvisation to my adult guests at Finchcocks. Most of these players have reached the higher grades on piano but have never improvised. For these adult pupils, improvisation is a way to understand the minds of the great composers and to consolidate long-lost theory knowledge. Improvisation can also be a way to reignite a love of piano-playing that has faded over the years.

Based on my experience of learning and teaching improvisation, I’ve created a series of videos. These provide a step-by-step guide to improvising for classical pianists activities for ear training, fundamental theory and most importantly, ideas to spark the imagination!

An initial exercise

My first few videos focus on single-line melodies as the first tentative step towards successful improvisation should be well-thought-out single-line melodies. You can start by singing a tune (out loud or in your head) using just the first few notes of the major scale, then playing it on the piano. My constant refrain in these videos is Sing before you Play.

In this example video from my series, I encourage you to start improvising with a single-line melody, always “hearing” the melody first in your head. Once you’ve watched this video, try the exercises below!

A simple improvisation exercise


  • Exercise 1 – Play melodies using 1 2 3 4 5
  • Exercise 2 – Play melodies using 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
  • Exercise 3 – Play melodies using chromatic notes as well
  • Exercise 4 – Try in different keys

There are no quick tricks to learning to improvise. In fact, to fully master the ear-training activities that I present in the first few videos could take a lifetime! Don’t let that put you off or hold you back. Give it a go – you might even enjoy it!

– David Hall


The first module of David Hall’s series How to Improvise explores the subject of melody as a starting point, showing you how to create your own melodies and add basic accompaniments and non-chord tones. Click here to view the videos on the Online Academy. David is also the author of There’s More to Playing the Piano, a crash course in musical theory for pianists (click here to find out more).


Pedalling Music from the Classical Period

In our guest post this week, Penelope Roskell discusses various aspects of pedalling in music from the Classical period. Penelope will also be presenting an online workshop on this subject on 9th July (please click here for further details).


Pedalling in the early Classical repertoire is quite complex: too little pedal can sound very dry, whereas too much pedal blurs the detail and over-romanticizes the texture. When the pedalling is just right, however, the resultant sound is clear, warm and resonant. In this post I will discuss some ways in which you can use subtle pedalling to enhance music of this period. 

The purpose of the sustaining pedal

The main purposes are:

  • To improve the legato – (‘legato pedalling’)
  • To enrich the sound by allowing the harmonics to vibrate (‘direct pedalling’)
  • To harmonise the sounds (for instance blending the notes of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata together harmonically)
  • To create special effects.

When to introduce the pedal

As pedalling in Classical music is quite complex, it is not advisable to try to introduce the pedal until you are confident with both legato and direct pedalling. I advise beginner pianists not to use pedal at all in early Classical music, even though this might make the music sound a little dry. Better too dry than too mushy! It’s better to focus on learning good legato fingering and pedalling in Romantic pieces at this stage. 


Early Classical composers such as Mozart and Haydn wrote very few pedal markings into their scores, but this does not mean that they want you to play without pedal. On the contrary, they just assumed the performer would be guided by their own instinct and experience. Haydn and Beethoven only wrote in specific pedal markings when they wanted a rather surprising effect, which wouldn’t otherwise be obvious to the performer. In the examples below, the pedal marking indicates a mysterious, other-worldly special effect:

Classical period pedalling notation example by Haydn
Haydn – Sonata in C Major, Hob.XVI:50 (1st mvt)
Classical period pedalling notation example by Beethoven
Beethoven – Sonata in D Minor, Op. 31 No. 2 “Tempest” (1st mvt)

Period instruments

The examples above sound very over-pedalled on a modern piano if we depress the pedal all the way down. Fortepianos and early pianofortes did of course have a sustaining pedal (some activated by the foot, others by the knee) but these pedals had considerably less sustaining power than our modern pedal. If ever you get a chance to play on an early instrument, you will hear this difference very clearly! The secret to good pedalling in Classical music is to replicate the sound of the early piano by depressing the modern pedal only part-way down (this is known as ‘partial pedalling’ or half-pedalling).

Classical period pedalling notation example by Mozart
WA Mozart – Sonata in F Major, K332 (1st mvt)

In this video from my online course, Teaching Healthy Expressive Piano Technique, I contrast the different effects produced by using no pedal, full pedal and partial pedalling in a Mozart sonata. The effect of partial pedalling is to create a warm glow around the sound, which I describe as ‘halo’ pedalling. My aim is always to make the pedalling so subtle that it enhances the sound without the audience noticing its presence at all!

Types of pedalling

Legato pedalling

Legato pedalling, as its name suggests, helps you join notes legato. It should not be used to compensate for poor fingering, however. We always need to work hard to find the best fingering first, and only then to add in the occasional light dab of pedal as and when required. In legato pedalling the pedal lifts as the note is played.

Direct pedalling

Direct pedalling enhances the quality of the notes being played, by allowed all the sympathetic harmonics/ overtones to resonate. It is used mainly to enrich detached chords: here the pedal is depressed as each chord is played. 

Little and often

We can use the pedal throughout much of the repertoire of this period, but it should be changed frequently. Not only should it be changed with a change of harmony, but also whenever we need to keep the texture clear. As a general rule, the pedal should only be depressed part-way down. To summarise – use the pedal little and often!

The Soul of the Piano

Join me on Saturday 9th July @ 14:00 BST (GMT + 1) for an online workshop in which I explain the various types of pedalling in more detail. The workshop will feature copious repertoire examples from different periods and will use an additional “damper cam” to enable you to observe the various techniques in action.

You will also have the opportunity to try out the techniques demonstrated at your own piano and to submit questions in advance on pedalling in specific repertoire. Included in the ticket price is the full video chapter on pedalling (duration 30 minutes) from my online course. Click here to find out more and to book your place!