Conferences, Group Classes, Music Camps, Teaching Piano

2010 MMTA Conference (2): Theory & Improv as the PB&J of Music, Part 2

A continuation of the previous post……see Part 1 here.


Activities Continued…..

5. Progression Based Improvisation

1) Show the student a progression such as:

A  |  D  |  A  | Bmin |  E  |  A  |  E  |  A  ||

2) Be sure the students thinks about the relationship between the chords.  Spell each chord together before playing.  Check how many chord tones are in common between each chord, and play the best inversion of the triads accordingly for good voice leading.

Side note: this activity is great to do with groups of students, away from the piano.  Try “playing” this progression moving to the closet inversions on your invisible lap piano.  =)

3) Ask the student to choose a meter.  Accompany the student with some “boom-chickas.”

4) Extension: Make the piece an ABA piece by playing it three times, with the middle section transposed to another key or to the relative minor.

5) Extension: Make mp3 accompaniments using a digital piano (in various meters) to give to your students to play and practice at home with.  Many digital pianos have accompaniment making software installed on them that will make up an accompaniment based on the chord you play.  Record and save it as an mp3, and then email/send it home with your student on a USB flash drive.  Playing with a background percussion/instrumental accompaniment not only helps them stay in time (and keep going no matter what), but it can also be a lot of fun!

6. Improvising Within a Style

When you have a student working on their first Classical sonatina, get them to improvise in the style after they learn the piece.  This is a great way to check whether they understand the elements of classical style and harmony.

Classical style: LH has Alberti bass; RH has a melody made up of mostly chord tones, with a few passing tones.  Improvise in a sonatina-like ABA form.

7. Improvisation Based on Existing Repertoire

There are a number of classical pieces in the elementary/intermediate level repertoire that are essentially built simply out of arpeggiated chord progressions (Ludvig Schytte’s Etude is one).  A piece such as this is the perfect opportunity for some teacher-student improvisation.

1) The teacher improvises an obligato (melody line) in the upper register while the student plays the broken chords as notated in the piece.  Then switch parts.  Note: using sequence usually works very well in the obligato part.

2) Ask the student to improvise a new piece in the same style, based on a new chord progression (one they make or one you have prepared in advance).

That concludes the “PB&J” session by Martha Hilley!  Just like peanut butter tastes better with jelly, theory tastes better with improvisation.  =)  I can’t wait to try out some of these activities with my students!

For more information:

  • Martha Hilley and Lynn Freeman Olson has written a text for college class piano settings called Piano for the Developing Musician (click to view on Amazon, or click here to view the corresponding website,
  • Matha Hilley and Lynn Freeman Olson have also written an adult group piano text called Piano for Pleasure
    (click to view it on Amazon, or click here to view the corresponding website,

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