Composition, improving as a teacher, Teaching Piano

Improvisation Yields Creativity and Musical Understanding

I haven’t talked about improvisation lately, and in the past I’ve only spoken of the value and benefits of improvisation in the piano lesson in a rather academic-y way — and so today I’d like to discuss some specific benefits I’ve seen develop in a particular student of mine as a direct result of our improvisation activities.

Some background on my student: she (let’s call her K.) is just a beginner, having started lessons in January of this year.  K. is seven years old, and is now nearing the end of the Primer level of the Faber Piano Adventures.

Here’s what I’ve seen in K. so far:

  • The freedom to explore and be creative. She is learning by exploration. She enjoys figuring out how to play tunes by ear, without any assignment or direction from me.  She’ll say, “Look! I figured out how to play Mary Had A Little Lamb!”
  • She is discovering musical concepts on her own. She has already figured out — all on her own — that when she plays tunes in certain keys, she needs to use the black keys for them to sound right.  It’s astonishing when you think about it — she has actually discovered the reason behind key signatures and how transposition works, all by herself!  I expect that when we actually start talking about these concepts together, she will find these ideas easy to absorb because she already “gets it.”
  • Her ear is developing in a way that is far more efficient and practical than me drilling her with intervals (for example) over and over.  She knows what the interval of a 3rd should sound like when she sees it on the page, and her fingers then know what to do.
  • We’re having fun! Improvisation is a great way to end a lesson.  She is always excited to “make Chinese music.

To sum it up, improvising regularly with my student has helped her realize the freedom that comes with the art of music, rather than placing a limit herself to play only “what’s on the page.”  And this is causing her to understand how music works all the better.

Creativity At Work

K. surprised me last week with a little composition she wrote.  And she created her own kind of shorthand for notating her composition onto a sheet of paper.  It looked something like this:  CDECCDEEFGGEDDDDEDC.  She informed me that the long notes were notated by having two of the same letter in a row.  

Here’s her composition, entitled, “The Britain Clock Goes Crazy”:

Those of you who are familiar with the Faber method might recognize the opening two bars.  That’s right, they are exactly like the opening measures of All My Friends on page 58.  This was done completely unintentionally by K.  In fact, she recognized the “musical quotation” during the lesson when she played her piece for me: “Hey! This sounds just like the beginning of All My Friends!”

The title of the piece is a reference to Bells of Great Britain on page 59 of the Faber Primer level Lesson book.  K. loved working on this piece.  I told her that this piece was about the famous Big Ben clock tower in London, and we talked about how to make the piano sound like the clock bells ringing.  I suspect K.’s composition was inspired by this piece (as the title suggests) because she enjoyed working on that piece so much.

K.’s piece is pretty simple.  It is only six measures long.  The hands are just playing in octaves together.  However, I see a few really good things about this piece:

  • It is singable. It is not disjoint or random; she was following her ear as she composed this piece.
  • It has phrases. Having a set of three phrases rather than four is a bit unusual, but actually I kind of enjoy this bit of quirkiness in her composition.
  • It makes use of what she knows. This tells me that she understands well the musical concepts she is being taught.  For example, I see that she is using the C major position, and the syncopation of beats 4 to 1.
  • In short, it makes musical sense.

So, what was my response when K. brought in her little composition to the lesson?  I was thrilled, as any piano teacher would be!  I told her how much I enjoyed her piece, and then took out some manuscript paper and asked her to play it again.  I transcribed the piece and told her that I would input her piece on the computer and print it out just like “real sheet music” for her (I use Finale 2009 software, but there are other options, including the free MuseScore).  And so the following lesson, we surprised her mother with her freshly printed composition.

K.’s inclinations to explore and try her hand at composition I believe are a direct result from our improvisation activities.  It may not seem like much to just improvise on the black keys for two or three minutes each lesson, but I think it sends a strong, valuable message to the student: It’s okay to explore; in fact, it’s fun to explore!

Do you think K. will compose more pieces I the future?  I hope so!  I think it’s important not to provide critique or even suggestions for student compositions until they have done it a few times and until they are older and ready to hear it.  And so I was careful that my response to K. was to simply let her know that her piece was very enjoyable to listen to, and then I “rewarded” her with a printed copy of her music to hang on the refrigerator, so to speak.  =)

2 thoughts on “Improvisation Yields Creativity and Musical Understanding”

  1. Wonderful! – have you tried Forrest Kelley’s Pattern Play? It provides a great framework for improvisation. My students love it!

    1. @Alice

      I do own a copy of Pattern Play; however, upon further investigation, I discovered that the copy I own is outdated. Now Pattern Play is being offered as a 4-part series! The version I own is the original all-in-one book. I am very interested in trying out the new 4-part version, which from the description seems to be better organized and more student-friendly.

      Thanks for your comment! I can’t wait for my new book to arrive!

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