Julia Hülsmann: Modern Piano Improvisation

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Here’s an interesting concept!

“Is it possible to learn to improvise? The acclaimed jazz pianist Julia Hülsmann answers this question with a resounding ‘yes’. In volume 1 of her Modern Piano Improvisation series she presents an easy and inviting introduction to this skill.
Songs are the main focus of her approach: easy arrangements of 15 jazz classics and original compositions by the internationally-renowned composer Hülsmann. Ideas and themes are given for each piece to help you to create attractive piano solos.
Demo recordings and play-along backings are available as MP3 files to download.”

So reads the blurb on the rear cover of an attractive new publication from advance music, brought to us by Schott Music.

Adding excitement to the mix, author Julia Hülsmann is indeed one of the most distinguished pianists of the contemporary European jazz scene, with a string of albums on the ECM and ACT labels, including the award-winning Scattering Poems.

So let’s take a look…

The Publication

Modern Piano Improvisation volume 1 is a 48-page book printed on white paper and with this striking cover image:

The presentation throughout is spacious, which isn’t to say there is a lack of content, as there’s plenty here to keep aspiring jazzers busy for a long while!

The book starts with a short Introduction by the author, a page in English translation facing the German original. Hülsmann explains:

“Improvisation is a bit like learning a new language: it may take a while to write a poem but the first sentences are easy to learn. The more you study vocabulary, grammar, phrases and wording, the better you learn to express yourself and communicate.”

In the first volume of her series, Hülsmann sets out to show the first steps required. She does this essentially through the 15 pieces included in the book, each of which comprises:

  • the main theme (or head), fully scored for piano solo
  • an additional section of the piece including just LH notes and suggested notes for RH improvisation
  • tips for improvising
  • motifs which can be incorporated or used as the basis for improvising
  • sample written out solos using those motifs, showing ideas of how they can be adapted
  • jazz chord symbols are included above the main notation

This is all supported by the 30 audio files, available as MP3 downloads from the publisher’s website, two tracks for each of the 15 pieces. These offer:

  1. a simple recording of each piece, including the sample solo
  2. a playback track of each piece for practising the improvisation; in these tracks Hülsmann provides an accompaniment vamp, with soft bass and drums (I would have liked these more prominent) and out-loud counting of the beats.

Preceding all of this, there’s a six page introductory section explaining the nuts and bolts of how to create and use your own motifs when improvising. These suggestions are offered with supreme clarity.

First, Hülsmann answers the question, How to create a motif? by providing six motifs of varying rhythmic complexity based on a pentatonic pattern. So far, so very clear…

Moving on, she tackles the issue, How to turn a motif into an improvisation? employing eight musical examples to reveal a set of simple direct strategies that any intermediate player could instantly understand and apply.

And as we reach the pieces themselves, that’s exactly what the player must do. Opener Blue Corner, for example, provides just three guide notes for improvisation, along with four motifs that show the player how they might vary the rhythm. The “sample solo” goes further, but not too far.

In short, the approach to introducing improvisation step-by-simple-step is outstanding here, and will come as a breath of fresh air to those who have long-waited for this tangled topic to be properly and clearly unravelled for the uninitiated.

It’s important to note that while the book provides the basic tools required to start improvising in a jazz context, it does not offer a complete introduction to jazz piano as such. It is assumed, for example, that the player can read music fluently, understands Swing rhythms, and can cope with a wide and rich panoply of jazz harmonies from early on in the book.

The 15 Pieces

So much for the pedagogic goals of the book: what of the music?

The 15 pieces are mostly originals, with a couple of well-known standards included:

  1. Blue Corner (Hülsmann)
  2. Down that Road (Hülsmann)
  3. Waltz for Two (Hülsmann)
  4. On the Fly (Hülsmann)
  5. On a Sunny Day (Hülsmann)
  6. Meditating (Hülsmann)
  7. Night & Day (Cole Porter arr. Hülsmann)
  8. Thinking of you (Hülsmann)
  9. Autumn Thoughts (Hülsmann)
  10. Sometimes I feel like a motherless child (spiritual, arr. Hülsmann)
  11. Song for … (Hülsmann)
  12. What Now? (Hulsmann)
  13. Doxy (Sonny Rollins, arr. Hülsmann)
  14. Today’s the Day (Hülsmann)
  15. Dreams (Hülsmann)

There’s some pleasant variety included here, with several pieces using Swing quavers/8ths, waltzes, ballads, and even the enjoyable 5/8 excursion of On the Fly.

Some of the pieces are homages; Autumn Thoughts is not far removed from Autumn Leaves, while What Now? seems to channel Miles Davis’ So What? Suggestions for further listening would have been welcome here.

Level-wise, it’s more difficult to peg the collection; I would say that it would suit a player in the Intermediate phase (UK Grades 3-5), although a player at around Grade 5 would most likely be more able to relax with the basic requirements of the pieces and focus on developing the improvisational elements.

In terms of the book’s general aims of introducing improvisation, it has set itself an ambitious goal, and is fairly full-throttle in its execution.

While the earliest pieces are certainly very accessible, and will open the doorway for many players to embellish and extemporise, the expectations of progress by the middle of the book are quite high, Night & Day including chromaticisms that may be more difficult for some players to inwardly audiate.


Anyone who has used the gracefully ageing ABRSM Jazz Piano books will quickly feel at home with the concept and presentation of this book, and its key emphasis on providing a range of jazz pieces accompanied by suggestions for improvisation.

This new book would indeed make a great supplementary book alongside that series, providing extra support for those (many) who find the improvisation element the greatest challenge. Indeed, I think that Hülsmann’s approach, with its inclusion of helpful motifs and sample solos, provides superior support.

On the other hand I think it’s fair to point out that, with music by a single writer, Modern Piano Improvisation doesn’t offer quite so diverse and distinctive a selection of pieces as the ABRSM books. A big plus point here is the advantage that players can fully enjoy the music in its own right, without any need to disassociate it from an exam. And best of all, these pieces seem so fresh.

Overall then, a most enjoyable and useful publication, which I certainly anticipate using as a core text with aspiring jazzers!

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, published author and composer based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs a successful private teaching studio.

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