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 improvise on the black keys.

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.   Continue reading “Improvisation Yields Creativity and Musical Understanding”

Games, Group Classes, Motivation, Music Camps, Music Theory, Resources, Rhythm, Teaching Piano

Group Piano Class Ideas

I recently came across this great video/podcast on Mario Ajero’s YouTube channel: an interview with pianist and piano pedagogue Dr. Julie Knerr.  Both Maria Ajero and Julie Knerr are graduates from University of Oklahoma’s widely recognized piano pedagogy program.  In this video, Dr. Knerr shares some of her game ideas for her group piano classes — which she holds weekly in addition to her student’s weekly private lessons — to build a variety of musicianship skills.  Check it out!

httpvh://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_EbQDrLwkxo&feature=PlayList&p=F4AF6DA098C0399F&index=0&playnext=1

Most of these activities could be easily modified for use during a private lesson, music camp, studio party, and other settings.  You can visit Dr. Knerr’s website at julieknerrpiano.com.  She has recently been co-writing a new piano method series called Piano Safari (as mentioned back in this post) available by order via PayPal at pianosafari.com.

Be sure to also check out more great podcasts at Mario Ajero’s website, The Piano Podcast.

improving as a teacher, Memorization, Motivation

3 Benefits of Incorporating Improvisation | Part 6 of the series

We’ve arrived at the end of the series on incorporating improvisation!  We’ve already discussed the obstacles, history, and value of improvisation.  And in the last few posts, we discussed at length a practical, 4-part method for incorporating improvisation into the piano lesson.  Today’s consideration is the last of the series: what are the major benefits of incorporating improvisation into the piano lesson?  Here are the big three:

  1. Students are more likely to remember and understand concepts when learned creatively through improvisation.  This is largely related to the strengthening of the connections between theory and practice.
  2. Students are more likely to be motivated to take lessons when they are doing creative tasks.  There is so much more to music than learning to follow directions on the page!
  3. Students are more likely to memorize securely, and more likely to easily recover from memory slips.  Students who understand what is going on in the music (i.e., can identify the key, the form of the piece, and even some of the harmonic progressions) they are more likely to have their pieces memorized securely.  And in the event of a memory slip, students accustomed to improvising can simply improvise until they get back on track!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series on improvisation!

What benefits have you found in conducting improvisational activities with your students?

Be sure to check out the rest of the posts in the series:

Series: Incorporating Improvisation into the Piano Lesson

  1. Creativity in the Piano Lesson – Introductory musings.
  2. Top 3 Obstacles when Teaching Improvisation
  3. A Brief History of Improvisation
  4. The Value of Improvisation
  5. Incorporating Improvisation:
    1. part a
    2. part b
    3. part c
    4. part d
  6. 3 Benefits of Incorporating Improvisation (now viewing)
improving as a teacher, Teaching Piano

Incorporating Improvisation | Part 5d in the series

This is a continuation of the series on the topic: incorporating improvisation into private piano teaching.  I had originally planned to post all 4 steps into one post, but the post would be too lengthy.  So the topic “Incorporating Improvisation” is being divided into 4 separate posts:

  1. Develop Related Skills
  2. Create an atmosphere conducive to improvisation
  3. Use improvisation as a way to introduce new concepts
  4. Improvise using a combination of learned concepts

Today, we are discussing step 4: Improvise using a combination of learned concepts.

4. Improvise using a combination of learned concepts

As the student progresses in their piano study, the teacher can make the improvisational sessions more complex by encouraging the student to use a combination of previously-learned concepts.  The focus can then turn from simply utilizing something like dynamics and certain intervals to creating something more complex.  For example, an improvisation session goal might be:

  • Tell a story: climbing a mountain, going to school, riding a pony, etc.
  • Describe a thing or place: a thunderstorm, a clown, a desert, a detective
  • Communicate an emotion: anger, happiness, fear, curiosity

Once the goal has been set, the teacher and the student can discuss ways to create the sound they want.  For example, for an improvisation to sound like a thunderstorm, the student might suggest using staccato notes in the upper register of the piano to represent rain, and thick, loud chords in the lower register to represent thunder.

These improvisational activities may be especially helpful for a student who struggles to play expressively in their repertoire playing.  Always use descriptive language when describing the session’s goal to the student, so that it evokes imagery for the student and gets their creative juices flowing.

Coming up next, the conclustion of the series: The Benefits of Incorporating Improvisation into the piano lesson.

Be sure to check out the rest of the posts in the series:

Series: Incorporating Improvisation into the Piano Lesson

  1. Creativity in the Piano Lesson – Introductory musings.
  2. Top 3 Obstacles when Teaching Improvisation
  3. A Brief History of Improvisation
  4. The Value of Improvisation
  5. Incorporating Improvisation:
    1. part a
    2. part b
    3. part c
    4. part d (now viewing)
  6. NEXT: 3 Benefits of Incorporating Improvisation
improving as a teacher, Printables, Teaching Piano

Incorporating Improvisation | Part 5c in the series

This is a continuation of the series on the topic: incorporating improvisation into private piano teaching.  I had originally planned to post all 4 steps into one post, but the post would be too lengthy.  So the topic “Incorporating Improvisation” is being divided into 4 separate posts:

  1. Develop Related Skills
  2. Create an atmosphere conducive to improvisation
  3. Use improvisation as a way to introduce new concepts
  4. Improvise using a combination of learned concepts

Today, we are discussing step 3: Use improvisation as a way to introduce new concepts.

3. Use improvisation as a creative way to introduce new concepts.

The point is, improvisation is not a separate identify from repertoire learning, theory, ear training, or technique.   Connections should be made between what is being learned in the method books to what they are improvising.  Improvisation then becomes a useful tool in the lesson for learning and reinforcing concepts being taught, and thus building the connection between theory and practice.

For example, let’s say that I have a student in the Alfred method book, and we just finished learning about the difference between 2nds and 3rds.  We taught about the difference between the two, and even sight-read through a few pieces that utilize 2nds and 3rds.  Now it is time to improvise using 2nds and 3rds!  We could create two short improvisations based on only 2nds and only 3rds (this would be the goal of the session), and then we could try making an improvisation that uses both.  If the student is able to improvise using 2nds and 3rds as instructed, then I know that the student truly understands what 2nds and 3rds are and what the difference between them is.

With a more advanced student, we could improvise ABA form or even sonata-allegro form, if they are working on repertoire in those forms.  Other concepts for more advanced students could include ostinato, motive, sequence, sixteenth notes, etc.  For a listing of more ideas, see the Concepts to Introduce Using Improvisation pdf available on the Printables > Other Resources page.

  Concepts to Introduce Using Improvisation (53.5 KiB, 15,972 hits)

Coming up next: part 5d of Incorporating Improvisation into the piano lesson.

Be sure to check out the rest of the posts in the series:

Series: Incorporating Improvisation into the Piano Lesson

  1. Creativity in the Piano Lesson – Introductory musings.
  2. Top 3 Obstacles when Teaching Improvisation
  3. A Brief History of Improvisation
  4. The Value of Improvisation
  5. Incorporating Improvisation:
    1. part a
    2. part b
    3. part c (now viewing)
    4. NEXT: part d
  6. 3 Benefits of Incorporating Improvisation (coming soon)
improving as a teacher, Teaching Piano

Incorporating Improvisation | Part 5b in the series

This is a continuation of the series on the topic: incorporating improvisation into private piano teaching.  I had originally planned to post all 4 steps into one post, but the post would be too lengthy.  So the topic “Incorporating Improvisation” is being divided into 4 separate posts:

  1. Develop Related Skills
  2. Create an atmosphere conducive to improvisation
  3. Use improvisation as a way to introduce new concepts
  4. Improvise using a combination of learned concepts

Today, we are discussing step 2: Create an atmosphere conducive to improvisation.

2. Create an atmosphere conducive to improvisation.

For some students, improvisation will be easy and fun.  For others, it may seem intimidating.   Creating an atmosphere conducive to improvisation will help reassure students and encourage them to be creative, especially if they are only accustomed to reproducing what is on the page.

  • No such thing as “wrong notes” — Be sure that the student understands that because they are the improviser,anything they play is correct!  Getting over the fear of playing wrong notes will allow them to more easily focus on expressing themselves through their music.
  • Share musical authority — The student should be encouraged to express themselves and create whatever sounds that are pleasing to his/her ears, instead of trying to figure out what they think the teacher might want to hear.  The teacher should praise whatever efforts they hear and never be critical of the student’s improvisation.  Even when improvisation is done together with the teacher or in group of students, musical authority should be shared.
  • Set goals — It is helpful for the teacher to give the student some specific goals to focus on during an improvisation session.  Some examples might be to utilize some new concepts introduced earlier in the lesson, or to tell a story with the music (to be discussed further in steps 3 and 4 below).  Example: “Let’s try using the new articulations of stacatto and legato that we learned about today,” or “Let’s tell a story about a hiker climbing up and down a mountain.”
  • Set parameters — Improvisation, no matter what kind, always has some parameters.  Example parameters include: key, mode (major or minor), meter, tempo, black keys only or all keys, one or both hands, or a time limit.  A teacher may give a number of parameters, for example: “Let’s improvise a slow piece together on the black keys.  Let’s use only quarter notes and half notes.  You can play in the upper register with just your RH, and I’ll play along with you in the lower register.”  Parameters serve as guidelines to give the student direction as to how to improvise for that session.

Creating a conducive atmosphere is essential to successful improvisation.

Coming up next: Part 5c of Incorporating Improvisation into the piano lesson.

Be sure to check out the rest of the posts in the series:

Series: Incorporating Improvisation into the Piano Lesson

  1. Creativity in the Piano Lesson – Introductory musings.
  2. Top 3 Obstacles when Teaching Improvisation
  3. A Brief History of Improvisation
  4. The Value of Improvisation
  5. Incorporating Improvisation:
    1. part a
    2. part b (now viewing)
    3. NEXT: part c
    4. part d (coming soon)
  6. 3 Benefits of Incorporating Improvisation (coming soon)
improving as a teacher, Printables, Teaching Piano

Incorporating Improvisation | Part 5a of the series

Now to the heart of the discussion!  We’ve already covered some common obstacles encountered when trying to incorporate improvisation, and we’ve briefly discussed the history and the value of improvisation.  Now let’s discuss a practical way to incorporate improvisation (non-jazz improvisation, in particular) into the piano lesson.

There are 4 steps in the method I am proposing for incorporating improvisation.  I had originally planned to post all 4 steps into one post, but the post would be too lengthy.

So the topic “Incorporating Improvisation” will be divided into 4 separate posts:

  1. Develop Related Skills
  2. Create an atmosphere conducive to improvisation
  3. Use improvisation as a way to introduce new concepts
  4. Improvise using a combination of learned concepts

Today, we are discussing step 1: Developing Related Skills.

1. Develop Related Skills

In order for incorporation of non-jazz improvisation to be successful, it is extremely helpful for the student to have developed (or be developing) the following skills:

  • Playing by ear — will help the student learn how to play what they hear in their mind’s ear, which is essential to improvisation.  For a list of melodies to assign students to practice playing by ear, see the Melodies to Play By Ear and Harmonize pdf, available on the Printables > Other Resources page (scroll down to the M’s).
  • Harmonization — will help  increase the student’s understanding and awareness of harmonic progressions.  Even young beginners can harmonize, using just a single-note bass line of the tonic and dominant pitches.  For a list of melodies to assign students to practice harmonizing, see the Melodies to Play By Ear and Harmonize pdf, as mentioned above.
  • Transposition — will help students understand how keys and key signatures work, so they can improvise within a particular key, and in a number of different keys.  Also helps them understand the difference between major and minor, which they can utilize to create different moods in their improvisations.
  • 5-finger patterns, scales, arpeggios, cadence patterns, chords in all inversions, etc. (in all major and minor key signatures) — These are exercises that teachers should already be assigning their students, but I think it’s important to bring them up here in connection with improvisation.  If the student still struggles with getting around the piano, improvisation will likely be difficult.  The more comfortable the student is with playing various configurations of notes on the piano, the easier it will be for the student to “get beyond the notes” and focus on things like expression, mood, and telling a story with their music.

Each of the skills mentioned above can be taught gradually to the student, in accordance with their level of playing.  For example, beginner students should be assigned simple tunes to play by ear that can be played entirely on the black keys, and gradually work up to tunes that can be played on the white keys.

Coming up next: part 5b of Incorporating Improvisation into the piano lesson.

Be sure to check out the rest of the posts in the series:

Series: Incorporating Improvisation into the Piano Lesson

  1. Creativity in the Piano Lesson – Introductory musings.
  2. Top 3 Obstacles when Teaching Improvisation
  3. A Brief History of Improvisation
  4. The Value of Improvisation
  5. Incorporating Improvisation:
    1. part a (now viewing)
    2. NEXT: part b
    3. part c (coming soon)
    4. part d (coming soon)
  6. 3 Benefits of Incorporating Improvisation (coming soon)
improving as a teacher

The Value of Improvisation | Part 4 of the series

As we saw in Part 3, improvisation has a rich history in Western classical music, but has virtually disappeared from modern piano pedagogy.  Today, we are going to discuss the value of improvisation:

  1. Improvisation fosters creativity and individuality.
  2. Improvisation appeals to both the performer and the audience.
  3. Strengthens the connection between theory and practice in the developing musician.

We will consider each of these aspects individually below. Continue reading “The Value of Improvisation | Part 4 of the series”

General

A Brief History of Improvisation | Part 3 of the series

Before we can discuss a practical way to incorporate improvisation, let’s first trace the history of improvisation in Western classical music:

  • Early and Renaissance Music: Improvisation has its roots in early music traditions, before the invention of musical notation — when music was shared and passed on to the next generation by rote.
  • Baroque Period: Notation was introduced and standardized, yet, improvisation was highly valued.  It was routinely taught as a part of learning how to play an instrument. Performers routinely improvised preludes, fugues, and other pieces during performances.  Other improvisatory-like activities: figured bass and the addition of ornaments. Continue reading “A Brief History of Improvisation | Part 3 of the series”
Announcements, improving as a teacher

Upcoming Poster Session @ Mich. Music Conference

Remember that improvisation paper for school that I’m been mentioning here and there?  Well, I’ve been accepted to present my research findings at the poster session on January 22 as part of the 2009 Michigan Music Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan!  I don’t know if any of you Michiganders out there are planning on attending the conference, but if you are, please drop by during the meet-the-author session at 10:30 and say hello!

What follows is my abstract, which gives you a sneak peak into what the upcoming series about improvisation will discuss (starting tomorrow!): Continue reading “Upcoming Poster Session @ Mich. Music Conference”

Announcements, improving as a teacher

Top 3 Obstacles when Teaching Improvisation | Part 2 of the series

Okay, so I’ve been promising to talk about the findings from my research paper about improvisation.  While I don’t plan to post the entire 20+ pages as is, I do plan to post the information over a few posts, bit by bit, so it’s easier to read.  The first bit here (below) establishes the problem (i.e., the reason for writing a paper about improvisation).

Teaching improvisation is challenging for many teachers.  As I was reading books and journal articles about improvisation for my research paper, 3 common obstacles surfaced.  These are obstacles that music educators (not just piano teachers) encounter when trying to incorporate improvisation into their curriculum: Continue reading “Top 3 Obstacles when Teaching Improvisation | Part 2 of the series”

Resources

Easy Improv Activity @ Music Matters Blog

I apologize for the lack of posts recently — this week is the last week of classes at college, and next week is final exams.  It’s a busy time of the semester!  I will try to get back on track soon. 

I wanted to send you over for a look at Natalie’s description of an improvisation activity she enjoys doing with her students.  (As you may recall, I am particularly interested in improvisation lately, because it is the topic of the paper I’ve been working on all semester. I hope to share more of my findings soon, perhaps over Christmas break.)   This improvisation activity sounds simple enough to adapt for all ages.  I look forward to trying it with my students soon.