Dedicated to helping everyone play the music they love and long to play, Lucinda Mackworth-Young has developed a step-by-step system for learning to play by ear and improvise, so that even classically trained pianists can play spontaneously, anywhere, anytime – and say “Yes!” when asked to play Happy Birthday!

Hello Lucinda, I am delighted to be welcoming you as a contributor to the Online Academy. At present, we are happy to present the first installment of your series on playing by ear and improvising.

You are one of the most passionate, inspiring and committed teachers I know – can you give us some background on your own pianistic journey?

Hello Graham, it’s a real pleasure and privilege to be invited to contribute. Thank you, and for your kind words!

My earliest piano memory is hearing my oldest sister play when she was 10 and I was 4. To me it sounded fast – and glittery, and I knew then that that was what I wanted to do – play-the-piano-very-fast!

Lessons began when I was 8, and I was well (if conventionally) taught. The fun was with my three sisters at home playing Chopsticks and Heart and Soul etc. We played them over and over, and rhythmic and melodic variations evolved naturally. It never occurred to us that we were improvising – but we were!

So have you always been able to play by ear and improvise?

Far from it! Aside from Chopsticks and so on, I could hardly play without books at all unless I’d made a conscious effort to memorise. And, since I was supposed to be quite good, it was annoying and embarrassing that I couldn’t even play Happy Birthday spontaneously at social events, let alone anything else.

It wasn’t until years later that I realised many conventionally-trained pianists were in the same boat, and that this was a direct result of the eye-finger – rather than ear-finger – training that the grade exams require.

So when did you learn? At music college?

Again, no! Coming directly from an eye-finger training, I felt unmercifully thrown in the deep end: “Play those four bars and continue improvising in the style of Bach” ?!?  Grasping at my theoretical knowledge, I was just about able to work out the key, play an answering phrase and finish with a perfect cadence. Phew – saved by my brain! But my ears were a mile behind.

Then I realised that someone who really could play by ear and improvise ought to write a book for the rest of us who couldn’t – in a simple, step-by-step way.

That’s hilarious because it turned out to be YOU who wrote that book! Piano by Ear: Learn to play by ear, improvise and accompany songs in simple steps is excellent. It’s been really enthusiastically received. So what happened?   

I began to teach – which I loved and still love. Have you heard the saying: “You teach what you need to learn”? Or, to put it another way, you’re passionate about teaching what you always wanted to learn, but were never taught?

I was, and still am, passionate about helping all my pupils play now! Anytime, anywhere they see a piano, with and without notation. So I learned how to play by ear and improvise alongside my own pupils as I began to teach them how to do it.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not knocking note reading for one minute. It is an incredibly valuable skill which opens the door to a whole world of music, and needs to be properly taught. But the ideal, surely, for any musician is to be able to play by ear and improvise as well as read notes.

Absolutely! And what tips can you give teachers, students or pupils who are nervous about improvising, or who think they just won’t be able to do it?

Relax! It’s incredibly easy. A good way to begin is to set a steady pulse, pick two delicious left hand chords to play alternately, one every four beats (try CEG and CFA), and improvise with your right hand in a comfortable five-finger position (try GACDE). You can use the rhythm of a song you know well to give your improvisation a ready-made structure with a certain number of phrases, or you can just follow your musical instinct.

You can also watch the Online Academy video clips, download the supporting worksheets and buy Piano By Ear from Amazon or your local music shop. They’re all really easy to follow, and start at the very beginning!

Talking about books, your other book, Tuning InPractical Psychology for Musicians who are Teaching, Learning and Performing contains a wealth of useful information and, personally, I feel it should be on all piano teachers’ bookshelves. Can you say something about your background in psychology, and what drew you to the subject?

I realised early on as a pupil that there was something deeply important about the teacher–pupil relationship: inspiration, motivation, the realization of potential and feelings of success are all bound up within it. Aged 14 I knew I wanted to teach piano and draw on psychology to gain more insight and understanding. So, after my music degree, I did an MA in the Psychology of Education which involved action-research with my own pupils, and then I did several counselling and psychotherapy courses. Together these answered many questions, and enabled me to pioneer Practical Psychology for Musicians to help teachers understand a wide variety of pupils and deal with many problems, including how to handle parents and performance anxiety. I am truly delighted that the Online Academy’s publisher, Informance, is now publishing Tuning In as an eBook.

I also give international workshops on the subject and an annual five-day summer course. The coming summer course (31st July – 4th August, 2017) will be held in Central London overlooking the Thames within easy reach of Tower Bridge, the London Eye, South Bank and Proms (please visit my website for more information).

Talking of courses, it has been a pleasure and privilege working under your Directorships as a principal tutor on the Piano Teachers’ Course (EPTA) UK. It is an amazing course on so many levels. What would you say to any piano teacher who has been considering taking the course?   

Thank you, Graham, it’s a pleasure and privilege having you and your unique expertise on our course!

I would say to any interested piano teacher – definitely do it! You will be inspired and refreshed, make many piano teaching friends and feel fully supported by our wonderful team of tutors, whether you are new to the profession or an experienced teacher in need of new ideas.

You can visit the course website for more information or email our amazing administrator, Jennie, at info@pianoteacherscourse.co.uk if you have further questions or would like to be added to the mailing list.

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The first installment of Lucinda’s series Anyone Can Improvise is now available on the Online Academy website (click here to view or click here to register for free). The series contains video demonstrations, text notes, musical examples and downloadable worksheets to get you started with improvising! More installments will be added in future and will cover topics such as chords, modes, improvising on playing popular pieces and group improvisation.

Further information and links

  • Lucinda’s website (click here)
  • Anyone Can Improvise series on the Online Academy (click here)
  • Lucinda’s Author page on the Online Academy (click here)
  • The Online Academy website – Click here to find out more or click here to visit the site, view free content and to subscribe.
  • Piano Teacher’s course website (click here)