Learn One New Tune Per Week
Firstly, I want to take a moment to stress the importance of practicing piano improvisation within the context of learning standard tunes.
I recommend that beginning and intermediate students focus on one and only one tune per week.
Focusing on one tune per week will allow you to gradually build a strong repertoire of standards to work from. Work with your teacher to help guide you in the selection of your tunes, to ensure they’re appropriate to your current skill level.
Focusing on only one new standard per week helps keep you focused, and ensure that you learn the tune really well. If you’re a beginner, you may even want to focus on one tune for several weeks, without changing constantly.
It’s better to learn fewer tunes well, than to rush through a lot of material without mastering anything.
First Practice The Chords
When you first sit down with a new chart, I always recommend that you start your practice by focusing on the chord progression.
This is counterintuitive for many students, who are accustomed to thinking about songs in terms of their melody. For improvisational purposes, however, it’s important to focus more on the chord progression, since it is the motion of the chords that will provide the color and context for your solos.
Arpeggios, Scales, and Key Notes
As you play through the chord progression, start your practice slowly, and attempt to play only scales and arpeggios for each chord, broken down to the appropriate duration of each chord.
For example, a 2-beat chord might receive an ascending 8th note arpeggio, while a 4 beat chord might get an ascending and descending arpeggio. A 2 measure chord might get 2 variations on the same arpeggio.
This will help you begin to internalize the sounds of the chords. As you do so, you can take your practice to the next level by landing on the 3rd or 7th of each chord. This will not only help place your practice within the primary tonalities, but will also allow you to vary the order and starting notes of the arpeggios and scales used.