Dot Spots

Add improvised pizzazz to the easy rhythms found in beginner tunes by asking your students to identify “dot spots.” These are places where students can substitute dotted rhythms in place of quarter notes. Listen and Play It’s not necessary for students to know how to read dotted rhythms prior to exploring their use in improvisation. Part of the genius of Shinichi Suzuki’s innovative teaching was his realization that young musicians can play more complex music than they can read if they know how it is supposed to sound. Take advantage of this by teaching your students to play London Bridge by rote. Next, help your students figure out how to recreate the sound of the dot spots in measures 1 and 5 in another simple quarter note based-tune. For example, Yankee Doodle could be transformed from this… to this: With apologies to Beethoven (who in the name of creativity, probably … Read more…

Improvising Outros

Add one last touch to your lead sheet masterpiece with a stylish ending.  “Outros” (the opposite of intro) may be as creative or clichéd as the tunes they close. Here are some common approaches to keep in mind as you explore possibilities. Apply the Brakes Some arrangements stop suddenly for a surprise effect but it is more common to ease listeners into endings. Like a train slowing down as it approaches the station, playing ritardando near the end of a tune hints that you’re about to finish.  You can emphasize this effect by repeating the last few measures.  Then confirm arrival with a fermata on the final I chord. This is the end… really… I mean it… Playing the last chord over and over delays the inevitable. Range Change Add pizzazz by repeating the last chord concerto-style in a couple of ranges. Flying Hands Play the last chord hand-over-hand Liberace-style … Read more…

Improvising Easy Introductions

A good musical introduction creates anticipation for the listener by suggesting the key and style of a tune about to be played. Ready? Set, Go! The easiest way to set up a tune is to play a V7 intro chord. This works because it takes advantage of our expectations about functional harmony. Since most tunes begin with a I chord, a V7 chord played just before leads our ears right into the melody through its natural resolution. Listen to how the C7 in the Birthday Song seems to say, “Here we go.” Drum Roll Please… Stretch the V7 intro chord “Liberace” style with hand-over-hand arpeggios to pump up the audience. Corny and overstated? Yes. Effective? Absolutely. Students love it because it sounds impressive without being difficult. This example adds drama suggesting, “Ladies and gentleman, the show is about to begin.” The Following Preview… State the last few measures of a tune … Read more…

Stretching a Lead Sheet

Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong

By Bradley Sowash (Originally written for Clavier Companion Magazine.) So your students can play the melody and chords in a lead sheet (if not, see Steps to Learning a Lead Sheet)…now what? Played at a medium tempo, this classic tune lasts about 30 seconds. How could this be stretched it into a complete performance? For inspiration, we can turn to legendary trumpet man and singer, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. When asked about his ability to spin seemingly effortless variations on every tune he played, he explained, *The first chorus [refrain] I plays the melody. The second chorus I plays the melody round the melody [embellishes], and the third chorus I routines [improvises]. Although he doesn’t mention it here, Armstrong typically ended his renditions by returning to the melody in some enhanced fashion. Here then, is Satchmo’s “road map” through a tune adapted to the L-E-A-D acronym. L-E-A-D Form 1. Lay it … Read more…

How to Play Christmas Tunes by Ear

SantaPiano

The holiday season is a great time for learning tunes by ear because: Tunes that are this familiar are the easiest to pick out by ear. Knowing a few seasonal favorites are likely to come in handy for festivities wherever there’s a piano nearby. Learning tunes by ear tends to fix them in your long-term memory, so you’ll be able to easily recover them for future holiday seasons. Steps to Playing by Ear 1. Work Out the Melody Find the first note – Many tunes begin on the tonic note but you can’t count on it. For example, “Mary Had a Little Lamb” starts on the third note of a major scale. Sing the first note of the Christmas melody while playing up the scale until you find a match. For example, playing the C scale while singing the first note of Silent Night reveals that G is the first … Read more…

How a classically trained pianist learned to improvise

How-I-learned-to-improvise-730x730

My friend, colleague, and co-founder of 88 Creative Keys improvisation workshops, Leila Viss has been writing weekly blogs full of fun ideas about teaching piano for quite some time. In addition to being a skilled musician and innovative piano teacher, Leila is a lifelong learner and interested in all things musical. This is my favorite post she’s ever written because it reminds us that classically-trained musicians with a growth mindset can learn to improvise. If she can do it, you can too! – Bradley Sowash How a classically trained pianist learned to improvise Author: Leila Viss Perhaps you are one of those classical pianists who was lucky enough to have a teacher that encouraged creativity beyond the grand staff? Lucky you. The rest of us have one thing in common that keeps us from pushing beyond our creative boundaries. We are burdened with baggage called “excuses.” These excuses may include: I’m a visual learner. I … Read more…

“Sound before symbol”: lessons from history

healing-sounds

Andrew Eales is a pianist, teacher and writer based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs his independent music education business and creative outlet Keyquest Music. Among his many activities, he writes interesting blog posts at pianodao.com. This one particularly impressed me not only because I agree with a “sound before symbol” teaching philosophy, but also because Mr. Eales did his homework to provide a historical context for this stream of thought. Bravo. – Bradley Sowash. “Sound before symbol”: lessons from history Author: Andrew Eales Musicians and teachers often debate the relative merits of aural-based learning versus a notation-driven approach. Seeing the topic wheeled out for discussion again this week, I was reminded of this brilliant quote by the legendary concert pianist Andor Földes, taken from his book “Keys to the Keyboard” written back in 1950 : “There is no such thing as a proper age for a child to start playing the piano. I avoid saying … Read more…

Pentatonic Power Part by Laura Lowe

PentatonicScales

I’m happy to repost this excellent article from a blog by Laura Lowe.  Since attending our 88 Creative Keys piano improvisation workshop, Laura has become an advocate for fostering creativity alongside traditional music reading skills in the piano studio and that makes me happy. – Bradley Sowash Author: Laura Lowe In my last post, I explained the pentatonic scale and why it’s such a useful tool for for helping students learn to make their own music. I’m discovering that lots of folks aren’t familiar with this scale and its versatility! Carl Orff and Zoltan Kodaly both incorporated pentatony (isn’t that a fun word?) in their widely-used methods for childhood music education, noting that it was a native tongue for the folk songs children already knew and also that the absence of half-steps made it easier for children to sing in tune. In elementary classrooms today, children often play onOrff instruments which their teachers … Read more…

Student Composers

Spencer composing

Improvisation is the main focus of what I teach and write about mostly because it is the quickest, most enjoyable way to access creative music making. However, teaching composition is also near and “ear” to my heart. As part of a larger goal of helping music teachers integrate more creativity in their curriculums, I anticipate speaking and writing in more detail about the pedagogy of teaching composition in the future. In the meantime, I’ll just dip my toe in the water by sharing a couple of pieces written by two of my most exemplary students in this area of music making. Julian Dittmer Julian, now a freshman music major at Capital University (on a full tuition scholarship), honored me with a heartwarming gift at our last lesson. He wrote, performed an recorded an original piece based on the letters of my name.  Using a process detailed in an another blog post (Composing with Names), Julian translated the letters … Read more…

What Will My Teaching Philosophy Be In Regard To Improvisation? – Laura Lowe

stuff

I’m happy to repost this thoughtful post from The Piano Studio blog by Laura Lowe. Laura cares deeply about her piano teaching philosophy. Here, she shares her thinking process about the role of creativity in music education. Her attendance at the recent annual 88 Creative Keys “camp” inspired fellow teacher attendees as well as the instructors. – Bradley Sowash ——– What Will My Teaching Philosophy Be In Regard To Improvisation? The 88 Creative Keys Educator’s conference only lasted 3 days, but my head is still there. Yesterday, I went to the grocery store. I just needed a couple of items, but I also came home with a beach ball, dry erase crayons, some cute little rubbery animals, and a magnetic fishing pole. This is what happens when you spend 3 days with a creative teacher like Leila Viss. Suddenly, everything looks like something you could use while teaching piano! Stay tuned in the days to … Read more…

Same and Different

One fun and important area of playing and teaching music that sometimes gets overlooked is creativity. While most of us would agree that improvising, composing, arranging, and playing by ear are necessary ingredients for developing comprehensive musicianship, somehow we don’t get around to teaching and learning these skills as much as we’d like. If you are a piano teacher or a piano student struggling to play “off page,” I want to help you. That’s why I write books on this topic (including my new Creative Chords beginning keyboard improvisation method), write a bi-monthly Clavier Companion column, present at music conferences, do webinars, podcasts, and log countless hours with co-founder Leila Viss into making 88 Creative Keys the best piano improv camp in the universe. Please take advantage of these resources, share, and comment so I don’t feel like I’m shouting into an abyss. Okay, enough preaching. Now onto the teaching. Here’s a an easy way to start beginners down the road … Read more…

Teach Your Students to Improvise Using … Silence – Doug Hanvey

shh

Guest Writer: Doug Hanvey Teach Your Students to Improvise Using … Silence Perhaps more than any other musical activity, improvisation brings music alive for a piano student. Occasionally closing the music books and allowing your students to improvise is not only fun but helps them to better appreciate the creative space from which the greatest composed music and, of course, the greatest improvisations, come. I’ve always believed in the “less is more” philosophy. One of the hallmarks of a trained yet still artistically undeveloped improviser is someone who plays – all the time. There are no spaces, no rests. But as we know, music is a combination of sound and silence. John Cage took this fact to the other extreme in his famous composition 4’33” (which he called his most important work!). Here’s a simple exercise and variation to try with improvisers of any skill level. It will help you teach … Read more…

Steps to Learning a Lead Sheet

lead sheet 66

Lead sheets are a simplified form of music notation designed to present the essentials of a tune while still leaving room for creative interpretation. Lead sheets consist of two main parts: Written melody Chord symbols Interpreting lead sheets works best if you know the tune. Hopefully, this one is familiar. Steps to Learning a Lead Sheet Get the basic right hand melody and left hand chords down pat. Use common inversions for good voice leading and playing ease. Add a left hand style appropriate to your student’s ability level. It could be a simple rhythmic pattern or something more elaborate such as an Alberti bass. Embellish the melody by adding a few notes here and there… …or get all fancy with the likes of these Baroque flourishes. To stretch a lead sheet into a complete performance, follow the same steps you used to learn it. First, play the basic tune … Read more…

Jingle Bells Variations

One of the most enjoyable aspects of teaching creative music making is to witness the variety of approaches students take to rethinking a tune according to their own tastes and preferences. Every year around this time, I ask select students to come up with new versions of Christmas tunes. I might throw out a few suggestions to get them started but I specifically avoid guiding them very much at all. The idea is to get them to get them to apply what they’ve internalized from their studies as independent creative musicians. Mashup Here are three different versions of this classic holiday tune as interpreted by my students. 1. Fourteen year old Michael Wade creates new music easily. At some point in almost every lesson, (usually while my back is turned) he’ll launch into his latest composition. Here is his twisted version of Jingle Bells in a minor key with a “jump bass” or “basic stride” … Read more…

The Story of the Toebourine™

Creative music-making usually means improvising, but today, I want to tell you the story of  how I became a creative music instrument maker. Get Your Groove On For years, I’ve accompanied my piano students with foot percussion instruments under my piano. It’s great for helping them subconsciously internalize a stronger sense of time. However, it’s inconvenient to lug these instruments around to teaching locations outside of my studio. For a while, I solved this problem by toting a rig consisting of a tambourine hinged to a board with a spring to reset it between stomps. It worked very well for gigs within driving distance but the limited size of my carry-on suitcase together with the raised eyebrows of TSA employees convinced me that it was too clunky for air travel. So when I spotted a small tambourine with two jingles in an import store, it gave me an idea about how to make a more portable “foot tambourine.” Research and Development Feeling I was on to something, … Read more…

Unleash Creativity with “The Pretty Pop Piano Thingy”

Guest Writer: James Dering I’m delighted to share with you an adaptation of an article I wrote on my website, BetterPiano.com. It was originally written for a “self-taught” audience, as you’ll be able to tell from my wording. However, I have also had lots of success with this technique in a private lesson environment, and I believe you can, too. Feel free to use my “delivery” here as an example of how you could present this material, but know that you can also make your own adjustments, to suit the needs of your students. The pop pianist often thinks in terms of patterns and musical “data.” Sounds dull, doesn’t it? And it’s very different from more traditional ways of playing. But still, you’ll want to pay attention to this lesson- some amazing things are about to happen. I want to show you a small “trick” that will give you a surprisingly … Read more…

A Personal Journey With Students Into The World Of Improvisation – Jodie Jensen

Guest Writer: Jodie Jensen At the end of the academic year last May, I was in sore need of a different approach in my studio teaching life. After attending the MTNA conference in Chicago, I learned just enough about improvisation, teaching improvisation and the eye/ear revolution to push for a change to my current mode of operation. My biggest question/frustration was how to I revamp my teaching to make these principles a solid part of my teaching life. I am an old dog and new tricks are not really a part of my aging process. I also thought I had been doing a rather good job of covering all the bases as a music teacher. Hadn’t all my ABRSM practical exam entries passed with high marks? What could possibly be wrong!???? What was causing me to feel frustrated? Why did I feel students needed more than to just reproduce music instead of recreate music, embellish music and then … Read more…

A Piano Camp that Grooves and Glows? – Leila Viss

The definition of a master teacher is one who takes someones else’s ideas (in this case, mine) and customizes them to the style, pacing, and ability level of their students. Teachers take note: This is what great creative teaching looks like in action. – Bradley Sowash A Piano Camp that Grooves and Glows? By Leila Viss (reposted from 88 Piano Keys) A good friend of mine has called me a synthesizer. Not a keyboard with buttons, bells and whistles but a person who gathers information and ideas and blends them into a new concoction that suits the flavor or need of the day. That happened last week while holding my annual Piano Olympics camp as I was in search of some activities to create three 2-hour days that coupled fun with learning. My biggest concern was my level of motivation this late in the summer as the past two months were jam-packed. I was part … Read more…

The Creative Piano Teacher

II III II III II III II III II  Something amazing happened last week at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Thanks to the visionary planning of Dr. Samuel Holland, director of the division of music and Leila Viss (author of The iPad Piano Studio), forty-eight private piano teachers signed up for a multi-day workshop to learn to teach creativity both on and off the printed page at the Institute for Piano Teachers . II III II III II III II III II  What exactly did we do? In a variety of settings including lectures, hands-on piano labs and simulated private lessons, my esteemed colleague, Forrest Kinney (author of the Pattern Play series) and I explained and demonstrated topics such as Understanding Chord Symbols, The Four Arts of Music, Going Further with Lead Sheets, Creative Group Teaching and many more. In addition, Leila Viss presented several tech-savvy sessions such as Apps to Spark Creativity and Kristin Yost demonstrated how playing and arranging pop tunes … Read more…

Even Young Kids Can Create at the Piano: 3 Easy Tips for Getting Started – Kristin Jensen

I’m happy to welcome Kristin Jensen as a guest writer.  Kristin is a piano teacher who specializes in teaching younger children how to create their own music.  Her philosophy of mixing creativity with traditional skills is exactly what the Eye Ear Revolution is all about. – Bradley Even Young Kids Can Create at the Piano: 3 Easy Tips for Getting Started Tip #1 Encourage Exploration You wouldn’t believe how many adults tell me that when they took piano lessons as a kid, they felt like their teacher discouraged them from exploring and creating. It was probably unintentional. There’s never enough time during a lesson to accomplish all that we need to. Because we feel rushed we try to get through all the critical elements and expect the student to stay on task—and that can mean no time for playing anything other than the assigned material. If we’re not careful, students can … Read more…

88 Creative Keys Travels to Ohio – Leila Viss

You know you’ve got a good thing when the dog jumps in the back of the car. Marlow was gently coaxed out of the hatch to make room for the drums, guitar, notebooks, Toebourines,™ a couple of computers and of course some iPads all for the first day of our 88 Creative Keys Camp in Ohio. (FYI: 88 Creative Keys is a camp founded by Bradley Sowash and me to encourage creativity beyond the page. There are tracks for teachers and students.) For a number of years, Bradley Sowash has worked with Suzuki Music Columbus for Strings and it was suggested (somewhat at the last-minute) that this year we hold our camp in collaboration with theirs held every year at Otterbein University. As it’s hard to say “no” to such an offer and as we were both willing to improvise on short notice, we agreed and made plans to stake our claim … Read more…

How to Teach Your Piano Students to Improvise

Inspiration and How To Tips After hearing my presentations about improvisation at a couple of conferences, my friend and fellow piano teacher, Gilya, suggested I consider offering “less cheerleading and more content.”  Her wise comment helped me solidify advocacy into a two-pronged strategy for integrating improvisation into music lessons. As an advocate for musical creativity, half of my job is to encourage (okay, prod) the uninitiated to “dive in” by closing the music books now and then. The other half is offering teaching tips to those who have already taken the “off page” plunge. You’ll find plenty of both by digging deeper into this blog, my “That’s Jazz” books, and by attending my professional development events on this topic.  And now, thanks to Andrea and Trevor at Teach Piano Today, you have a new way to check out my ideas on this topic. Podcast Grab some headphones and listen in for “hands-free” professional … Read more…

Improvising with Friends

Since one of the purposes of this blog is to inspire musicians and music teachers to get around the idea that one must be innately gifted to play by ear, I thought it would be fun to share three very different improvisational encounters with the hope that it will inspire you to put away the written music now and then and do your own thing. Jamming with a fellow musician must be like Mr. Spock’s Vulcan mind meld. In some ways, you learn more about someone by improvising together then you would by sharing a long, soul-searching dinner conversation. How they lead and follow, perceive time, utilize their imagination, hold onto or abandon ego for the sake of music… all reveal what they think and feel, at least, at in that particular moment. II III II III II III II III II Leila Viss My business partner, Leila Viss helped me … Read more…

Why Teaching Creativity Matters

teetertotter3

Here’s a repost of a piece I recently wrote for the blog hosted by Clavier Companion–The Piano Magazine, found at http://www.claviercompanion.com I II III II III II III II III II III II III II III In 2006, I was asked by my publisher to attend a national music education conference to help market my new jazz piano method. Lacking sales experience, I somewhat nervously asked anyone who happened to pass by the exhibit booth, “Are you interested in teaching improvisation to your students?”  Since most piano teachers are inherently friendly, I was relieved when most of them agreed to take a polite first look at my books.  A few, however, surprised me by reacting indignantly with the likes of, “Why, certainly not!” before proceeding down the aisle (and inevitable extinction) to peruse the latest editions of Fur Elise. A Balanced Teaching Philosophy There’s nothing wrong with teaching what we’ve come to … Read more…

Opportunities to Learn About Improvisation

In a recent thread on a social network group for piano teachers, I asked this question: “True or False? Improvising enables your students to express themselves musically.” The supportive comments that followed remind me of the importance of my work as an educator specializing in improvisation. M.H. wrote: “I think limiting lessons to reading can be crippling to a potential creative thinker who can become a true musician. There is more to music than what’s on the page, and how else do people create new music? They experiment with sounds and use the useful knowledge of theory to explore and enjoy the art of creation. I felt like a trained monkey at the piano until I learned how to play off the book, without a guide, scales, chords, improvisation.” L.H. wrote: “Students develop the ability and confidence to create music on their own, by us showing them that it is … Read more…

Improve your keyboard creativity in live online courses with master teacher Bradley Sowash. Click to learn more.
Hello. Add your message here.