Conferences, Games, Group Classes, Music Camps, Rhythm, Teaching Piano

2010 MMTA Conference (1): Theory & Improv as the PB&J of Music, Part 1

What follows are the notes I took from a session with Martha Hilley at the 2010 Michigan Music Teachers Association conference.  She shared with us a number of activities that can be incorporated in a variety of settings, whether it be the private lesson, class piano, or monthly group lessons (my summary is posted here with permission).



Do you have your students improvise?  Do you improvise?  The biggest reason teachers don’t improvise during the lesson with their students is the giant time factor: we often don’t want to take the time out of the lesson.  However, improvisation can be very effective even with beginners.


1. Black Key Improvisation

Use improvisation even with young beginner students.  They often can play rhythms that they can’t yet read, so use improvisation as a way to teach rhythm and technique.  It frees them from the score.  Black key improvisation is especially great because there are no wrong notes!

1) Ask student to put 5 fingers on 5 black keys (any 5).

2) Teacher sets up an ostinato.  Student is instructed first to listen to the ostinato, and then play (immediately after, joining the teacher).

2. Question & Answer Improvisation

More duet improvisation (teacher with student, or student with student) for one or two pianos:

1) Choose a meter and key (major or minor).  Teacher and student both find the pentascale.  Teacher can provide an ostinato (optional).

2) To make a question: play a set number of measures (2, 4, or whatever) and end on anything but the tonic.  The question person must always count off two full measures aloud before beginning.

3) To answer: respond with the same number of measures, end on the tonic.  If you hear something you like from the question, steal it!

4) Repeat a few times.  Then, switch keys and switch parts: the teacher can ask the questions, and the student can answer.

3. Using a Written Rhythm: Body Percussion Ensemble and Piano Improvisation

This activity is a great way for a group of students to experience rhythm.

1) The teacher should notate a rhythm in advance (use an overhead with transparency, write it on the whiteboard, or pass out copies for everyone).  The rhythm should use three different kinds of note values and be about 8 measures long.

2) Divide the students into three groups, and assign body percussion (clap, tap, snap, etc….you can ask for suggestions) to each kind of note value.  For example: quarter notes = snaps, eighth notes = claps, and sixteenth notes = tapping (on your lap, alternating hands).

3) Lead the students through the rhythm together.  The quarter note/snapping students should ONLY snap quarter notes and should be resting during the other note values, etc with the other groups.  As you go through the rhythms, make sure the students are both counting aloud and counting musically!  Always be a musician, even when counting.

4) Once the students have the hang of that, ask them all to tap, clap, and snap all the parts.  The students will find this challenging but tons of fun!

5) Extension: ask for a volunteer to play the rhythm on the piano, but instruct him/her to improvise the pitches within a chosen pentascale.  If the rhythm has any sixteenth notes, suggest that they use ascending/descending steps rather than repeated pitches (which can be difficult to play at fast tempos).  Ask for a few more volunteers.

4. Rhythmic and Tonal Sequence in Improvisation

The extension mentioned in #5 can also be used in the private piano lesson.  When you encounter a student struggling with a particular rhythm in a repertoire piece, take them away from the piece and improvise on that rhythm.  The teacher can support with some accompanying “boom-chickas.”  =)

1) Let’s say the troublesome rhythm is a dotted-quarter-eighth rhythm.  Together, create a 4-measure phrase based on this rhythm.  Follow the template: “Repeat, repeat and extend!”

Measure 1 could be: dotted-quarter eighth half.  Measure 2 should be a repeat of measure 1.  Measures 3-4 should be another repeat of measure 1 and then an extension of the idea.  Altogether, you should have something like this:

(You do not have to actually notate this rhythm with the student.  Since you are improvising, it’s great if you can plan and play it all by ear.)

2) Now improvise on the rhythm.  Ask the student to choose a pentascale.  Whenever the dotted-quarter eighth rhythm occurs, the student should make it a tonal sequence by starting each one a pitch higher (or lower) than the previous.

3) Try putting the rhythm into another meter (3/4, 2/4, or 6/8).

Sequences produce great sounding improvisations!  Plus, it teaches a valuable compositional technique that often appears in repertoire.

To be continued…..stay tuned for Part 2!

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