Improvising accompaniments to play along with your students has many benefits:
- Tightens up their sense of time.
- Helps them listen while playing.
- Enables them to feel more like “real musicians.”
- Prepares them to play in ensembles.
- Reduces anxiety since (in their minds) their teacher is too busy playing to notice their unintended notes.
- Transfers musicality without so much “teacher talk.”
- Enables “feeling” subtle student timing errors (despite what they may think).
- Makes for more engaging lessons than just sitting and listening.
- Keeps your own fingers well oiled by squeezing a little playing time into the teaching day.
- Reinforces the teacher/student bond through a fun shared activity.
For these reasons, many instructional books include teacher parts. But even in the absence of written duets, you can still improvise accompaniments or “comp” in the parlance of jazz musicians. Here’s how:
- Unless chord symbols are included, start by analyzing the written or implied harmony in your students’ pieces. Look for chord tones on the 1st and 3rd strong beats. For most beginning level tunes, the I, IV, and V (or V7) primary chords will usually suffice.
- Keep in mind that there can be more than one way to harmonize a tune. If you are unsure of the harmony, as when a melody note fits more than one chord, play and listen to both to decide which you prefer. [See measures 3 and 6 below.]
- Pick an accompaniment pattern appropriate to the character of the tune. Here are three generic accompaniments that will fit a variety of musical styles.
- Just Roots – The easiest way to create a bass line is to simply play roots on each chord change.
- Roots/5ths – Add a bit more zip by playing a root and 5th pattern on the strong beats.
- Roots/5ths and Chords – For a very full accompaniment, play a “stride” pattern with right-hand chords between the left-hand roots and 5ths.
- Analyze the harmony with your students to reinforce music theory concepts.
- Shift parts up or down an octave when necessary to avoid collisions.
- Play your accompaniment at a softer dynamic than your students.
- Insist on a steady beat with no pauses to fix notes.
- Try switching parts with your students so they can also experience comping.
We’ll explore more “stock” accompaniments in the future. Until next time, enjoy your creative music-making journey.
(This article originally appeared in Clavier Companion magazine Nov/Dec 2014.)
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