Roundup: Composition/Improvisation Resources for Piano Teachers

In today’s post, I’d like to round up a few of my favorite resources (both free and paid) on my blog relating to composition and improvisation.

Composition and improvisation are skills I love integrating into my teaching. When students show an interest in creating their own pieces, I always foster this and coach them through the process of formulating and notating their compositions. To help expose all of my students to composition, I offer a composition-themed summer camp at least every-other-year. I use improvisation, in simple but natural ways, in my teaching too — although I’d like to get better at doing more!

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In this blog post, there are three main sections: (1) First, I will first round up my free printables related to composition and improvisation. (2) Then, I’ll list some blog post links to some articles that discuss how to integrate improvisation and composition into your teaching. (3) Finally, I will tell you about two paid resources from my shop you might find useful for teaching composition and improvisation to your piano students.

I hope you’ll discover — or rediscover — some fun resources you can use in your teaching!

Continue reading “Roundup: Composition/Improvisation Resources for Piano Teachers”

App Review: Musiclock

Musiclock appI’m excited to write this app review, because it is one of the most well-designed and useful apps I’ve come across lately!

Musiclock is a $2.99 app for iPad and iPhone that provides a variety of backing tracks intended to be used while practicing scales or improvising.

The first step is to select a scale. The scale choices are: major, major pentatonic, minor pentatonic, natural minor, melodic minor, harmonic minor, blues, and dominant bebop.

IMG_5067 Continue reading “App Review: Musiclock”

Composition, Teaching Piano

Now Available: Composition & Improvisation Prompts for Piano eBook

Last week, I wrote a blog post here describing how I help my students compose their own pieces.  Today, I am officially announcing the release of a new e-book resource called: Composition & Improvisation Prompts for Piano!

Prompts for Piano - ebook cover 950x629

Continue reading “Now Available: Composition & Improvisation Prompts for Piano eBook”


2013 OhioMTA Conference (1) – Improvising Is For Everyone, by Bradley Sowash

Sowash21Improvising Is For Everyone, by Bradley Sowash

Last weekend, I attended the 2013 conference of the Ohio Music Teachers Association.  This year, it was held in Cincinnati at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.  I carpooled with three other teachers from my area.  We had a lot of fun!

The first session was held by Bradley Sowash, a jazz musician and piano teacher located in Columbus, OH.

For a number of years now, Mr. Sowash has been encouraging teachers to include creative skills (improvisation and composition) in their lessons.  For many years, teachers would respond to Mr. Sowash’s message saying they were certainly not interested in doing so.  However, things are changing: in recent years, teachers have begun agreeing with the premise that teaching off the page is just as important as teaching on the page.  Now, teachers are asking for information about HOW to do so.  Today’s presentation addresses this question about HOW to teach the skills for improvisation.

To begin, Mr. Sowash discussed 5 myths about improvising/playing by ear.  Many people believe that you must be born with a good ear in order to improvise or play by ear, but it simply isn’t true: it comes through practice and study just like traditional musical skills.

Next, Mr. Sowash described the process of teaching scales and chords to students in preparation for being able to improvise using them.  He called this section, “Scaling the Chords.”  The goal here is to teach scales more creatively, teach chord fluency, and understand pop/jazz chord symbols properly.  Continue reading “2013 OhioMTA Conference (1) – Improvising Is For Everyone, by Bradley Sowash”


Free Printable: 12-Bar Blues in C

3major0My blogging has been rather sporadic so far this month — this is a busy time of year for piano teachers, isn’t it!  I’m so glad my Spring Recital is over, but this month is still somehow very booked.  🙂

On Saturday, I had another Piano Party with my students.  It was a small group of students this time because it was the tail-end of Spring Break when many students were out-of-town.  However, I took advantage of the fact that I was working with just four students and planned to do something a little bit different this time!  Our theme-of-the-day was chords.  Students play duets with each other, one student playing a melody and the other accompanying with chords.  Two students played on my Kawai, and the other two played on my keyboard which I set up in the guest bedroom.

One of the things we did was a duet improvisation with the 12-bar blues.  Tim Topham has made a video that breaks down the 12-bar blues into manageable steps for teachers to use with
their students:

To help my students learn how to improvise the 12-bar blues, I created this printable:


On page 1, the notes of the C blues scale are shown both on the keyboard and on the staff.  I put the student sitting on the treble side of the keyboard in charge of playing a melody using these notes.  If you are not doing a duet, this is simply the RH part.  I helped the student work out a good fingering to use.

Then, I showed page 2 of the printable to the other student.  I chose the “Blocked 5ths & 6ths” pattern and made sure the student understood how to play the pattern for each chord change.

Finally, I showed students the 12-bar blues progression on Page 1 and set them loose to work it out!  The most important part, of course, was helping them learn to listen to each other to stay on beat.  I went back-and-forth between the duet pairs and coached them throughout the process.

I plan to follow-up with these students during their next lesson, to further experiment with the 12-bar blues.  It was a fun part of our Piano Party this month!

You can download the “12-Bar Blues in C” printable (it’s free!) on the Downloads > Sheet Music page.

  12-Bar Blues in C (642.8 KiB, 52,380 hits)

Teaching Piano

Easy Black Key Improvisation

Today, I’m at the Ohio Music Teachers Association conference (affiliated with MTNA) all day!  Yes, in case you are wondering, I will be posting notes from the sessions I attend later this week.  🙂

But for now, I wanted to share a quick video of a black key improvisation from a recent piano lesson with one of my new students.  This is only the third time we’ve tried an improvisation together, and each time I’ve noticed that Andelus instinctively creates a motif or theme that she uses throughout the improvisation, which is great because it creates a natural sense of unity for the composition!  (Great job, Andelus!)

For this improvisation, the only discussion beforehand was “You may play any of the black keys,” and “Let’s make a happy, upbeat improvisation!”  Enjoy!!


Continue reading “Easy Black Key Improvisation”

Composition, Early Childhood Music, Games, Group Classes, Music Camps, Teaching Piano

Improvisation Activity: Rory’s Story Cubes

Before I begin, allow me to give credit where credit is due for this wonderful idea: I got this idea from Laura on her blog (click here).  I was so thrilled to see her idea of using these “story cubes” for improvisation with piano students!

Meet “Rory’s Story Cubes.”

Rory’s Story Cubes consist of a set of 9 dice with all kinds of pictures on their faces.  I think English teachers use these as a starting point for writing stories.

Piano teachers can use them too.  =)

Let me tell you about how I’ve been using this fun new prop.

During a piano lesson, I gave my student all of the dice and asked her to roll them.  Here’s what they look like:

Continue reading “Improvisation Activity: Rory’s Story Cubes”

Conferences, Group Classes, Music Camps, Reading Notation, Rhythm, Teaching Piano

2010 MMTA Conference (4): Functional Skills are Important by Martha Hilley

What follows are the notes I took from a session with Martha Hilley at the 2010 Michigan Music Teachers Association conference.


“Functional skills” include skills such as harmonization, improvisation, transposition, rhythm, and theory.  There are many fun ways to incorporate functional skills into group/private settings.  Today we are going to try out some examples:

Rhythm Activities

Activity #1. Make up a series of patterns such as:

Tap   Clap    Tap    Clap
Tap   Clap  |___|  Clap
Tap  |___|   Tap   Clap
Tap  |___| |___| Clap

Put them on a transparency or write them on a whiteboard.  (The box is the quarter rest.)  Most students don’t have time for rests!  They want to keep going.  So give them something to do during the rests (e.g., saying “rest” aloud; or making some kind of movement during the rest).  This is a great activity for class piano or monthly group lessons. Continue reading “2010 MMTA Conference (4): Functional Skills are Important by Martha Hilley”


2010 MMTA Conference (3): Classical Improvisation by Brian Chung

What follows are the notes I took from a session with Brian Chung at the 2010 Michigan Music Teachers Association conference.



Is improvisation really for jazz only?  Why can’t we classical pianists learn improvisation from our own tradition (as did Liszt, Clara Schumann, and others)?

Two goals for today: (1) You can be a capable improviser; (2) You can pass it on to your students. Continue reading “2010 MMTA Conference (3): Classical Improvisation by Brian Chung”

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.  =) Continue reading “2010 MMTA Conference (2): Theory & Improv as the PB&J of Music, Part 2”

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). Continue reading “2010 MMTA Conference (1): Theory & Improv as the PB&J of Music, Part 1”