88 Creative Keys Camp is a Hit!

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Leila Viss and Bradley Sowash

Just a little over one year ago, my friend and piano teaching colleague, Leila Viss casually mentioned by phone, “You ought to come out here to Denver and lead a camp on improvisation.”  My reply was, “It’s too big a project to do alone.  Do you want to work together on it?”  A few polite laughs, something about being so, so busy and we dropped it.  A few months later, having  discovered our mutually compatible working styles by both serving on the Pop/Jazz planning committee for Music Teachers National Association, the idea resurfaced and this time, we decided to go for it.

An Idea Takes Shape
Dubbing our endeavor 88 Creative Keys Camp, we began generating ideas about how to co-teach the first ever piano camp focused solely on improvisation with tracks for student aged pianists, adults and music teachers.  My contribution as a veteran jazz pianist/composer and author of the top-selling “That’s Jazz” series was to design a creative music making curriculum.  To this, Leila added her incredible organizational skills and keen sense about how to teach groups using visual aids, presentation slides, “manipulatives,” and other “off the bench” activities.  Since neither of us had much experience with event management such as logistics, lining up sponsors, registrations, medical/liability forms, logo/branding, and marketing, we just had to figure out the nitty gritty (with a few bumps) along the way.

The pianos prior to setup

The Perfect Room:
The day before Denver based camp began, I walked into the location (a huge, comfortable room in a local church) sort of astonished to see how our idea had become a reality. I knew it would happen but somehow seeing the 16 digital pianos stacked in the corner, a registration table, custom handout binders, dry erase board, drums, boom whackers, visual aids, snack bar, and signage still surprised me. To top it off, prominent Denver piano teacher and founder of the International Piano Duo Competition, Linda King, had decorated the space with the likes of saddles, pitchforks and lariats in keeping with our western theme AND provided goodie bags for each student filled with western fun such as bandanas, T-shirts, cowboy band-aids and more.

Student Camp

The next morning 22 youthful students began circling up for 30 minutes of ice breakers and large group rhythm improvisations. The next ninety minutes, they moved to a horseshoe shaped array of pianos to learn tunes by rote, improvise variations and chew on practical theory “nuggets” such as “safe notes” and “say it to play it” and “melody mixup” along the way.

88 Creative Keys Chuck Wagon

After a semi-healthy snack break, they broke into small groups by ability level for 90 minutes of coaching on how to make their own brand of music using lead sheets — a first for everyone.  Veteran piano teachers, Linda and Karen Bartlett  (who teaches 100 students in her studio!) pitched in to help coach our youngest campers for this segment. Our job as coaches, was to demonstrate possibilities, encourage interpretive decision making, and assure them that, “Yes, they really could play the tunes any way they wanted.”  Four days later, they showed off their artistry for parents and friends in a final “sharing” concert concluding the first track of 88 Creative Keys Camp.

Hands-on teacher training

Teacher Training
The next morning, we were very pleased to host 12 piano teachers who had made the trek from several states ready for hands-on continuing education about how to integrate improvisation alongside a traditional curriculum. For next six hours over two days, we deciphered chord symbols, practiced stock styles such as stride, swing, and bossa nova and delved into my “That’s Jazz” series for teaching tips.

CKC Leila and Bradley
Leila and Bradley co-teaching

Adult Students
After an on-site lunch, 12 more adult piano students arrived (again from several states) and 
some teachers stayed to learn the many different ways to “dude up” simple, well-known tunes like “On Top of Old Smoky” and “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain” into full sounding arrangements. [adult pics]  Two intensive days of learning chord symbols, embellishment techniques and stock accompaniment styles concluded with everyone working together to create one-of-a-kind improvised arrangements of “Oh, When the Saints Go Marching In.”  And then, as the final moments ticked away, the piano movers began carrying away some of the instruments even as we were literally still playing the others providing a real-life outro for our history-making event.

My Thoughts in Hindsight
Hoarse from so much teaching and talking, I felt proud and happy to be abled to share my teaching philosophy of balancing the eye and ear in such an intense but fun setting.  I was also very appreciative of the students and teachers who dared to sign up for this historical, first-of-its-kind camp to focus solely on keyboard improvisation. And I was particularly grateful to the volunteers and Leila, my very capable business partner for bringing a set of teaching and organizing skills to the table that is quite different from mine but also for her relentless energy and enthusiasm for the whole project.

The Future
Will it happen again? Definitely.  It’s no secret that I’m interested in changing the way music teaching happens for piano students in this country (and around the world) and I can’t think of a better way to influence that than to offer this type of hands-on learning experience. Will we make some changes?  Even though we are wildly pleased with our success, we kept notes throughout on things we will tweak. For example, participants told us that they want it to be longer which is under consideration.  They also said they will return with their friends and students. This is good because more registrations will enable us to divide learners by ability level.  Some said they don’t want to wait until next year so we have both instituted online lessons and we may offer a a winter webinar. Stay tuned by following this site and signing up for the newsletter at 88CreativeKeys.com.

To see Leila’s blog about our joint summer venture, click here.

Until next time, enjoy your creative music making journey,


2 thoughts on “88 Creative Keys Camp is a Hit!

  1. Denver looks good on you, Bradly! This looks like an awesome experience for all involved! Keep rockin’ the boat and marchin’ to that different drummer! Music education as we know it needs to be challenged and stretched.



    • Thanks Becky. My goal is to make creativity and improvisation an ordinary and expected part of how the piano is taught. They say it can’t be done. That’s not a good thing to tell a cowboy. 🙂

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