Are You a Creative Piano Teacher?

If you teach improvisation alongside a traditional reading curriculum, I want to hear from you.  I’m compiling a list of instructors who balance a music-reading curriculum with playing by ear.  Here’s why…

Notes found on a chair after my lecture
Notes found on a chair after my lecture.

Last March, we had a standing-room-only capacity crowd for the pop/jazz track at the Music Teachers Nat’l Assoc. conference.  More recently, the Ohio Music Teachers Association generated a good turnout for my lecture on teaching improvisation at last month’s conference. Since I do teacher-training workshops all around the country, it was a treat to present in my own state for a change (and sleep in my own bed!). After my talk, I received some pretty sweet compliments about my speaking style and humor.  Of course, that always feels good, but sometimes I wonder if my lectures and workshops have any impact. Do teachers actually go back to their studios and give improvisation a try or are my presentations merely edutainment?

My colleagues sometimes tell me they like the idea of teaching creativity but it’s hard for them to actually get on board because it just feels so darn unfamiliar.  Having been trained to read written music exclusively, they just cannot imagine themselves playing off the written page.  For example, two teachers at OMTA privately apologized to me ahead of time for not coming to my “hands on” piano lab sessions because they were literally too scared. “Improvisation terrifies me,” said one. Meanwhile, I was thinking to myself, “These fine people don’t need an improv piano lab; they need a hug.”  When I pointed out that they were welcome to use headphones so no one would hear them trying out the concepts anyway, they said it didn’t matter. It makes me sad to think that someone or something in their past had planted the belief that self-expression is too frightening to even try.  I call this phenomenon “improvphobia” and it’s rampant among classically trained musicians.

Fortunately for the future of music education, others have already taken the leap into teaching creativity though they often feel unsupported.  It’s not uncommon for teachers to tell me after a presentation (under their breath, almost secretively as if it’s something to feel guilty about) that they enjoy teaching chords and popular styles but don’t feel confident about how they go about it.  Lacking a well-planned curriculum, they say, they resort to just making it up as they go along.

Note to self:  My creative teacher training colleagues and I still have a lot more work to do.

studio2At OMTA, twelve such teachers entered the piano lab bravely pioneering the improv wilderness to attempt such “radical” diversions from standard pedagogy as creating variations on “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” with simple melodic embellishment techniques and popular rhythmic styles.  Their busy note taking and alert eyes told me that at least some are beginning to light up their studios by infusing their lessons with creativity. When I sensed that my tips and remarks were somehow granting “permission” to these “rebels,” I felt good about being there and I envied their lucky students at next week’s lesson.

Here’s the thing: Not only do traditional reading students benefit from studying the tools of musical creativity but students with a “I want to do my own thing” mindset who are already quite creative still need good teachers.  Case in point: A university piano professor at OMTA asked me, “Why do my piano students with pop/jazz backgrounds have such terrible fingering in their scales?”  To me, the answer is obvious. When young musicians bypass a classical curriculum because they favor creativity, they circumvent 400 years of established piano technique. With no one around to show them the value of proper fingering, hand positions, and all the rest that goes into developing strong technique, they end up inventing their own inefficient ways of playing.  Then, when they arrive at the academy full of hopes and promises, they discover their chops are a mess.  I know, I was one of them. As a very passionate 18-year-old wanna-be musician, my training was mostly self-taught.  Having mostly ignored my stiff uncreative piano teacher, I could barely sight-read or spell note names well enough to squeak past music school auditions. (I’ve since recovered both skill sets.)  I wonder how it would have been if I had found the right teacher early on; one who could have shown me the wonders of chord symbols, lead sheet, blues scales and the rest while simultaneously instilling good technique.

Pondering an improv challenge with my student.

So if you are an educator who is helping to break the cycle of read-only teachers teaching read-only students who grow up to become read-only teachers, I want to hear about your successes, challenges, and failures.  Write your comments below, post a video link, ask questions, suggest topics, guest write a post… Help me and others who follow this blog understand who else is out there embracing musical creativity in their studios.  Who knows? Maybe it will develop into a list for potential students, or a movement, or even an eye/ear revolution!

Here’s my partial list of open-minded teachers I know personally who actively lead their students on journeys of musical self-expression.

Barbara Kreader – IL
Bradley Sowash – OH
Doug Rhodes – MN
Elena Cobb – United Kingdom
Forrest Kinney – OR
Kristin Yost -TX
Leila Viss – CO
Linda King – CO
Scott Houston – IN
Tim Topham – Australia
Wendy Stevens – KS

This list is too short.  Please weigh in.

Until next time, enjoy your creative music-making journey,






Bradley Sowash

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. – Attributed to M. Mead


Fall Special Offer:
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Leila is the the co-founder with me of 88 Creative Keys Camp.






46 thoughts on “Are You a Creative Piano Teacher?

  1. I try to at least spend the last 5 minutes of every lesson on improvisation. Most of my students are young children, so I have them choose from a list of musical styles, and then I play chords while they improvise on only black keys. So obviously, we usually play in F# major or Eb minor.

    I wish there was time to do more, but 30 minutes goes by realy quickly with technique, theory, pieces, etc.

    • I agree. 30 minutes fly by which is why I teach 60 minute lessons. What if you taught reading one week and improvisation the next for a whole lesson? I believe they are equally important.

  2. In my studio, I teach both traditional classical piano and chords/improv. I have always enjoyed playing by ear myself, and played from chord sheets on a church worship band from the time I was very young. This is where I got my first improv students- I started teaching pianists who only read traditional music to play chords/improvise with patterns and variations, and teaching purely improv pianists theory, technique, and note reading. It is amazing to me how much a classical background can help the playing of improv-only pianists. I love it when they are advanced enough to take melodic figures, ornaments, and patterns that they admire in a classical piece and translate that into their improvisation, blending different genres and melodies into something cohesive and lovely. I have always required basic chord theory and the ability to play from a leadsheet from even my traditional students, and I have seen only positive results. I have recently expanded my studio website to make available theory, note reading, technique, and improv exercises for my students to download. I have basically done my own curriculum, as I have not found anything available that I could use without too much modification. (incidentally, I also see a demand for self-study theory courses for those with little background in it.) I love your post here! I’m marking your blog on my reading list. 🙂

    • Mary, I’m delighted to hear what you are doing. You sound like the poster child for a well-balanced teacher! Would you be willing to share the resources you created for your students with me? As one who has created 100s of handouts, I’d like to see how go about things. No problem if you’d rather not however. I’ll add your name to the list of piano teachers who embrace creativity.

        • I like to see how you teach any elements of chords and improvisation. I guess I’m specifically interested if you teach styles such as a boogie bass, etc. Really, just sharing whatever you think is innovative or that students find particularly helpful.

          • Since I teach musicians (not just pianists) who are by-ear-only some basic theory, teach young pianists both reading and improv, and teach more advanced pianists who are written music dependent how to improvise, my approach varies. I mostly do it off the top of my head, though I do have written worksheets for theory, chord sheets/charts, lead sheets, and written rhythm patterns, of course. The four essentials for improv, to me, are chords, scales, intervals, and rhythm. With young students we start doing pentatonic improv immediately, so that they are accustomed to the idea of making something up and that being ok. When they are able to play a scale, instead of doing “5 finger patterns” I go straight to a full scale. I teach chords as “groups of skips,” as if the scale is a staircase and if you jump up the stairs two at a time a chord is born. 🙂 I teach chords as scale steps. We start with the diatonic chords in C. I also have them improvise in the major scale. Later, once they can read well, I teach whole and half steps and building a basic major and minor scale and chord that way. We do regular improv and “composing” (making up their own melody) from the beginning, but it takes a while before the children are ready to do chord sheets, etc. Once they are playing hands together comfortably, we do the “play a melody in the RH and chords (from symbols) in the LH”, and we talk about which chords “go” with certain notes and why. We also learn chromatic intervals. They must identify major, minor, and suspended chords both by sound and at sight. They also learn to identify be sound (Strong/weak beats) the meter of a song.

            For older students, particularly those who read well and have good dexterity but have no improv skill as yet, we go through the scale (I do chords as scale steps here too) and root position chords, then I will give them a chord sheet. I play at the second piano, and they listen and try to identify 1. The meter of the song, and 2. How many beats I stayed on each chord. (I’m playing patterns of broken chords and melody lines, not just blocks) Then, they play blocked chords and try to change at the right time. Once they are secure in root position chords, we go on to bass lines and inversions. They will play written exercises with the inversions and have to play chord progressions featuring inversions. This is where I add whole and half steps as a method of finding notes for scales and chords. We practice 1. dexterously moving between chords and inversions, 2. Listening for rhythm and harmony, and 3. Seeing a symbol and quickly finding that chord on the piano. Then, I give them a lead sheet with melody in RH and blocked chords in LH. From there we go to broken chords in LH, then adding more harmony notes in RH. I give them a melody and tell them to find a chord that has the melody note in it and harmonize it. We start talking about voice leading here. 🙂 We do intervals from the beginning, but along with inversions we get into modified chords like seventh chords, little by little. They practice common cadences and progressions. Then, they learn basic rhythm patterns for different meters/styles and we practice translating those patterns to different chords/tunes. (I give them one and two measure patterns, which get more complex as we go) They learn strong/weak beats, syncopations, etc in more detail. I want them to be able to hear a pop song and know what rhythms are being played and what pattern they could play that would fit. A lot of it is listening- for rhythm and meter, and for melody and harmony. We do a lot of multiple choice melodic dictation, too, we talk about dissonance and resolution. We also do a lot of basic theme/variations. I will play a simple progression and they have to come up with a melody on the spot that fits with it. Then, we get into non chord tones, passing tones, and ornaments. They show me recordings of pieces that they like from other genres, and we analyze them to see what melodic figures or chord progressions they like there and how we could take that template and use it on another chord or song. I haven’t really done a lot of specific jazz or boogie as improv with students, because I get almost exclusively requests for sacred music/learning to play for church, but I enjoy them both. We do get into other scales as the student advances, from basic modes to pentatonic, blues scale, etc.

          • Thanks for sharing this. It’s remarkably similar to how I go about things especially in the early stages. I think other teachers would be interested. Would it be okay if I posted it more prominently as a blog entry rather than as a comment buried in older posts?

  3. I am a 78 year old retired pianist and music teacher. Always regretted not learning theory and improvisation, so I started a year ago with Arabic music. That’s because they honor the tradition. Little did I realize how deficient my ear training is! Although Arabic music has a long history that included notation, it is traditionally taught by ear…even when the musicians can read.
    I have one of the finest Arabic composer-conductor-oud, net, flute, and violin virtuoso performers on the scene. Thank goodness he is patient and supportive. I am doing remedial ear training, but using maqamat-mode-scale, rhythms, free rhythm, and a theory far more complicated than Western Classical does.
    I find myself becoming annoyed with reading music. It keeps me from a real relationship with the sounds in my ears, and the instrument I use. How much different my life would have been had I done this earlier.

    • Fascinating. I know nothing about the Arabic improvisation tradition. Your comment that reading music keeps you from a real relationship with the sound in your ear is particularly interesting. I know when I improvise, it feels very different from reading. It must come from a different part of the brain. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  4. I have evolved from a student who was never encouraged to play by ear to a teacher who makes ear work, improvisation, and reading from a lead sheet a part of every student’s curriculum. If I did not do so, I would not be giving my students a well-rounded music education. Whenever I attend an MTNA national conference, I go to every improv lecture offered. I appreciate so much the work done by Bradley and others to share their improv expertise to those of us who were “classically trained.” (In other eras, a well-trained musician always created and improvised. “Being faithful to the score” can limit our thinking.) We must always allow time in our teaching to help a student find his/her creative side!!

    • I knew you had experienced this evolution and should have thought to include you on my preliminary list. I even talked about your “Happy Birthday” song project in my remarks at OMTA. One more think to admire about your excellent teaching reputation. I will add you to the growing list which I will publish here after a time. Is there a website for your studio?

    • Janice, I love your use of the word “evolved.” Teachers considering learning more about improvisation and creativity should understand that evolution mostly involves adding skills as you have and not replacing skills. I mentioned your fabulous, “Happy Birthday” project in my remarks at OMTA. If you’d like to write about that as a guest blogger, I’d by happy to post it here on

  5. I am an older teacher from Queensland in Australia. I am a reader of music and always felt inadequet because I couldnt play by ear. I have been teaching myself jazz improv for about 4 years with lots of books and u tube and have been including chords and improvisation in my students lessons for about 3 years. I was terrified in the beginning because none of the teachers in my area thought it was something that was important to teach. It was non serious music so I became known as someone who didn’t teach properly because I included improv with my students mainly classical lesson plans.
    Then I discovered Tim Topham and Elissa Milne on the web and realised I wasn’t alone in thinking that playing by ear enriched my piano students skills if it was tied in with the usual classical education. I still worry that I am experimenting on my students when I try out new things in their lessons but as there is not a lot of published lesson ideas out there I just try stuff and see if it works.
    I will follow your blog now that I have found you. Thanks for the encouragement.
    Lynda Irvine

    • Thanks for sharing how you evolved from being terrified to regularly including improvisation in your lessons. This will inspire other teachers. As to the experimentation concerns, much of my time is spent trying to bring a linear, logical approach to learning/teaching creativity. While I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, I can say that it will never feel as objective and straightforward as interpreting the written page. It’s just the nature of making art instead of recreating it. I think of teaching it as half conveying information and half just exploring as a partner rather than teacher with the student. You have to drop the idea that the traditional model of “teacher knows all” and think of yourself as an encourager/facilitator.

  6. I’m a piano teacher and entertainer.
    I got tired of the standard theory teaching the I, IV and V chords and nothing else – by golly, what can you do with just those chords beyond the Renaissance period? With elementary students I go right for the jugular by adding the ii, iii and vi chords, then go to the major and minor sevenths, ninths, sixths and so forth by the time they’ve hit intermediate. Voicing is thrown in also, in order to allow them to provide an interesting bass line plus harmony for their efforts. I have a sixteen-year old student performing regularly with keyboard and microphone.

    • You sound fabulous. I wish you had been my teacher when I was 16. Do you have a website and location I can share with potential students on the list I’m compiling?

  7. I was classically trained, but inspired early on by the keyboardist at my childhood church. I was not allowed to have him teach me because I already had a teacher, but I never stopped pestering him for information on “How do you do that?!” He responded by giving me some handouts which had listed out on just two pages: the circle of 4ths(not a typo), a list of all the chords ranging out from a major triad to all sorts of variations on seventh chords, plus a mention of the possibilities on ninth and beyond chords, a few standard descending bass lines and their chord progressions. Then later on I squeezed a transition trick from him (I-iidim-iiiaug-vi)With these tools, I began to play on my own and before I knew it I could improvise.. even though these tools were meant to be applied to songs, I had no teacher to make me do that. But I didn’t care, my music was just what I craved. So here I am with an improv style that is neither jazz, gospel, or anything really. and I always knew I had only scratched the surface of the possibilities.

    So here I am a fully trained classical piano teacher, with this enormous burden on my hands. I have this powerful gift, and no way to pass it on. I have yet to succeed, but not for lack of trying on my own. I have recently bought all the Bradley jazz method books and Pattern Play books. And I used your seminar handout as a bible once to make the teaching attempt. But the scale knowledge is always the holdup. Either they know all the scales but have already caught the fear of improv, or they don’t know any scales and it all overwhelms them. So I teach it selectively. Plus, I have zero training in jazz itself. So even where I do succeed it is in generic improv.. which I happen to love, but has very little practical application beyond mall playing where no one is allowed to request specific songs of you. So I’m a bit lost on this front. I have one student in the pattern play books right now making her way through the first one. And she is definitely enjoying it, I feel rudderless though, I don’t know where this is going.

    I am conducting a bit of an experiment. I am a huge scale pusher, and I’ve managed to even make some kids like their scales. So I have made a karate belt system of scales. one octave yellow belt, two octaves plus I chord for orange, four octaves plus I ii iii IV V vi viidim I chords in home position while naming them out loud for blue, 2 octave arpeggios plus basic cadences for green, 4 octave arpeggios plus inverted cadences for purple, and then contrary motion plus 7th & fully dim arpeggios for brown, and lots of other things for black. I’m 2 years to this area, so I just got two students to working on their blue, which is intended to really engrave the chords of a scale into their heads. From which I’m planning to branch into some a good understanding of harmonic foundation. For melodic improv, I just use the Bradley method of making classical pianists create melodies. I know this is kind of backwards. I’d rather get them excited about a scale first by showing them the possibilities and then have them ask me for the scale.. it does happen every once in a while. Some kids are always asking me to show them some improv, those are quite promising!

    To sum up, I would love to join these ranks! I feel a little under trained in the area. I do share the 30 minute lesson problem, but have been able to fit it where the desire is there. But the whole situation feels a bit aimless. This is near and dear to my heart, hence the rambling lol! thanks for reading!

    • Hi Joe, I’ve added your name to the ranks. Your “rudderless” feeling in not uncommon and stems from an older model where the teacher know all. I encourage you to think of yourself as one who “opens the door” to creativity for your students rather than the font of knowledge. Teaching them their scales and chords are essential. Here’s an idea. Pick a well-known tune like “Summertime,” or “Autumn Leaves” and explore it WITH your students. Both look for You Tube videos and resources. Share what you discover. Learn together. You don’t have to be better than your students. Remember that even the greatest athletes in the world have coaches and those coaches are certainly not as skilled as their charges. Their job is to encourage and lead the way. There’s no one right way to do that.

  8. I teach 5 finger scales up and down with the 135 chord on the end. (For example CDEFGFEDC C chord) I do this for all white major keys, hands separately and then hands together.

    Students then learn how to lower the third note of the scale a semitone for the minor scale. Major and minor triads and inversions are also introduced. Next comes 7ths and m7ths and their inversions. I teach them to find the 7th by coming down two semitones from the upper keynote.

    During this time we look at some easy lead sheets like St James Infirmary in E minor.

    Students are encouraged to use their knowledge to work out other chords. For example if you know E major it is easy to convert it to E flat major. Slowly other types of chords are introduced.

    Some of the older adult students will have a separate hand written sheet as a memory aid, which they eventually don’t need. I don’t allow writing the chord letter names on their lead sheet.

    To start off, chords and their inversions are played with the RH while the LH plays single notes except for the 7th chords where they play the outside notes (C – Bflat) slowly other fill-in LH notes are added.

    I find this method I have devised has worked very well and I am happy to share my 5 finger scale sheet.

    Note: Regular scales are still taught to interested students and exam students. Other students prefer to learn studies to improve their playing and technique.

    • Hi Kerry, Your method sounds great for introducing chords. Can you talk about improvisation? For example, do the students make their own melodies or noodle around in the right hand while the left hands chords?

  9. I started experimenting with improvisation about 10 years ago, but gave up, because all of my improvs sounded classical (lots of arpeggios) and I didn’t know how to make them sound upbeat and jazzy. Started using the Pattern Play books recently with all of my kids and they just LOVE it! I have a 13-year-old student who is in exactly the same boat as you were — hates reading but can do it when pushed, uses crazy fingering, but is extremely talented, has his own rock group, and, for example, learned the entire Bohemian Rhapsody by ear, which he plays with his group. We spend some time in improvisation and theory — mostly learning chord progressions and especially about 7th chords and their resolutions, but he is (painfully) learning some classical pieces and scales for his technique. Love your blog and glad that you are spreading the word — because I think this kind of teaching is for the future and today’s kids.

    • Hi Carolyn, Thanks for sharing your thoughts. The Pattern Play books are a great introduction and I’m very supportive of my friend, Forrest Kinney who authored them. Long term, however, you want them to mature into being creative on their own. What if your student played non-classical written music for his technique and reading? I’m thinking of film score reductions and the like.

  10. Bradley,

    We improvise in lessons in my piano studio (Lexington, KY). During lessons I tend to stick with the Pattern Play books, because they are so very accessible, and in addition to improvisation help with ensemble. With my youngest students, I make an effort to improvise with them at each lesson, and write a pattern for them to improvise around as part of the assignment.

    As far as improvising in a group myself — I get cold feet. There is something about putting yourself out there “on the fly” that can be unnerving. Fun, but a little scary. Why is that? I never improvised as a child…just played from the book.

    I would love to be able to do *more* improvisation in lessons. Even with 45-minute lessons we sometimes run out of time if I am not watching the clock carefully. Looking forward to reading others’ responses! 🙂 I have a video of my 9-year-old daughter improvising on an E-flat Minor blues scale along with a MIDI accompaniment, but it isn’t where I can access it to link. Is that the sort of improv video you are looking for? I’ll have to ask if she minds.

    • Adrienne, Would you, then, consider yourself an improv teacher at least for beginners that I should put on the list I’m compiling? Regarding the cold feet: On the continuum from art to science, improv is closer to the art side and reading is a bit closer to the science side so improv never feels as secure as reading if one’s been reared on an objective way to make music. I’m just saying your cold feet are in good company and that hopefully this blog helps toast those tootsies by the fire!

  11. I teach sight-reading by improvisation, ideally with two students (not necessarily “matched”) at once. Instructions to the sight-reading student: Pick a piece (I do not peek!); play so that I/we know whether it is a song, a dance, or a puzzle piece, i.e., something else. Either we get it or we don’t, in which case we may suggest how to make it clearer. After a 2nd go-round the student closes the book and improvises the composition, not attempting to do it correctly, just to impart its essence. Then I play it, not to correct the reading but for purposes of discussion which by that time is lively. Usually the student’s improv is more interesting than the piece in the book, no matter who wrote it.
    Note: It took me years before I was able to listen to students without looking at the music. The teacher’s ability to listen is the key.

    • Most innovative. The first sentence, “I teach sight-reading by improvisation” appeared to make no sense until you explained it. I’ve never heard of this and like it very much. Do you also teach chords, playing from lead sheets, etc.?

  12. Hi Bradley –

    Add me to the TX list of teachers! Since I also started my musical journey playing by ear (at the age of 3), I find it important to teach all styles. I enjoy reading charts/playing by ear/teaching my students to do the same. Currently we’re exploring the 12-bar blues pattern in the studio; I give them the ‘formula’, some possible ideas for various rhythms, and have my students ‘go to town’. I’m also teaching ‘chart reading’ to some of my High School students – what a concept to teach ‘usable’ theory. FUN!! My students hear from me weekly, “We PLAY the piano”. Bradley rocks!

    • Hi Marti, I don’t know why I didn’t put you on the list in the first place knowing what you do as a creative teacher and all the different gig hats you wear. I will definitely add you to the updated one. Do you have a website for your studio I can list?

  13. Bradley, first off – THANK YOU so much for your tireless work and passion for bringing improvisation to the piano teaching studio. I’m working (albeit slowly) towards bringing improvisation into my playing vocabulary and then pass it onto my students. I was raised on a strictly traditional piano curriculum (technique and repertoire-wise) which gave me excellent chops in learning to play the music of the master composers but as I’ve grown musically over the years (16 years post undergrad now)I grew increasingly dissatisfied with the very limited scope that playing ONLY in the classical style gave me. I’m a fairly creative person elsewhere (fine art photographer, jewelry designer, and novice sewer) and I started seeking to bust out of the “musical box” I felt I was out growing. I’ve been on your website here and elsewhere and have found encouragement and challenges to add to my “things to try” as I sit down at the piano to create something new and in the moment. Keep sharing and one of these days I’d love to take lessons with you or attend a workshop you give. Blessings!

    • Wow, thanks for the positive feedback on my work. I’m starting to get it that my colleagues like you are paying attention and that means a lot. It’s interesting about how you are more easily creative in extra-musical areas. I’ve run into that a lot. Some musicians are only creative on their non-primary instruments. Regarding lessons, did you know I teach a couple of teachers via online lessons? It’s not that different from being there.

  14. I’m a classically trained teacher that has managed to move on from the written page – sort of. I have musician friends that are “untrained” i.e. they can’t read music and they are some of the best musicians around! I envied their freedom and I set my course to “becoming a musician”. I played with them, making them – through trial and error – communicate with me as far as, well, the key? The chords? I was finally able to play more efficiently by ear and the end result has been much more freedom and comfort at just sitting down and playing, noodling if you will. This was one of the most important things I’ve done in my music career!

    From there I started exploring jazz chords and having had no previous jazz training it was a little intimidating at first. What gave me some incentive is my desire to teach something other than the written page and also because I had found being able to play the jazz chords and chord progressions very liberating and satisfying in their sounds. I try to experiment with different combinations of chords to see where it leads me. I’ve created some compositions that I rather like to the point of recording them or notating them.

    I taught group piano courses for 20 years. In the groups, one of the most important concepts that I did was to start the classes out with improv. I found that this energized the students & put smiles on their faces. They were already learning the I,IV, V7 cadence in the technique keys assigned, so I would play the L.H. in some kind of comp and they would improvise over it. We went around the room, with each one having 2 bars of 4/4 to play to. The chord choices changed if there was an uneven amount of kids but we kept it going. ( I would add a vi chord in every once in a while to change it up) I emphasized to them that there is NO SUCH THING AS A MISTAKE – only sounds that you may prefer to other sounds. I’ve even gone to the extreme of telling them that they can play any keys – black or white and anywhere on the piano. Very chaotic and fun. Occasionally you’d get something that sounded good. lol. The point of this exercise was to get away from a standard 5 finger position. That being said, in private lessons, when starting them out with improv, I allow them to stay in place if they’re nervous and we branch out from the chord tones to all the notes inbetween, eventually leading to the scale notes and so on.

    (Today, the Styles Program that I created with a couple of colleagues covering different styles of music is still successfully taught at this music academy)

    Another improv that I used then and today is the 12 Bar Blues. A wonderful way to get them to improvise and we have so much fun doing it, the kids and the adults love the blues!
    I teach privately now – although I miss the group dynamics and am in the process of trying to start a beginners group again – and use the Blues extensively. I start them with the C Blues scale showing them that they can improvise with any notes of the Blues scale. If that’s too intimidating, I show them the 2 main groups of the scale – G, Bb, C and C, Eb, F. After that I teach them a couple of the standard tags/ turns.

    With the older students and the adults I give them a chord chart and the formulas for making major, minor, dom7th, min7, Maj7th chords. I use lead sheets and have them learn them H.T. with solid chords before getting them to play the chords in patterns – I have found the 1,5,8,5 is a good starting pattern for the adults to use. I’ve used the broken, waltz, Bass/chord patterns – Shuffle Bass and Walking Bass lines if doing the Blues and have had success with all of them. Unfortunately I haven’t done as much improv with the adults, but they do learn how to do these L.H. patterns. I try to encourage them to change the melody as they may hear it in their heads, and for some it works.

    Here in Canada there is an Exam Program called Contemporary Idioms that emphasizes improvisation and is based on Jazz. It is graded (levels) and is a high school accredited program. It’s put out by Conservatory Canada (if you wanted to check their syllabus out go to under Contemporary Idioms).
    I have put a couple of students so far into the exams and what I’ve found is that I’VE learned a lot trying to keep one step ahead of the student. Nothing like improvising with teaching, right? It’s an exam, so there is certain criteria to know for each level like Classical exams and the students have to practice of course.
    If there is a down side in improvising for myself, it’s that my own sightreading has degraded! Hahaha! have to bring out the music I guess. sigh.

    on a side note: and adult student of mine brought in one of your books – level 1- and he was so excited!! he and I loved the way it was laid out with the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic variations suggested in easy step by step exercises. He’s a reader, so not that comfortable with improv…….yet.

    I’d love to be added to your list of creative teachers that can teach “outside of the box” as well as traditionally. Thanks for reading!

    • Hi Sande,
      I’d say your efforts to move on from the written page have gone a lot further than “sort of. You are learning the same way the rest of us do which is to just dare to enter into it, fake it til you make it, etc. I checked your website and like that you point the importance of improvisation for parents. Thanks for sharing your growth and some of your teaching tips with us. I’ve added your name to the list which I’ll publish here in time.

  15. Hi
    Thanks for starting this dialogue, I am including improvising in my program.The program by Julia Sykes is great for incorporating improvisation and creative skills, which I have adopted in my lesson for enrichment.
    The great musical educators here in Australia really do advocate for the benefits of these skills: Elissa Milne and Tim Topham have been mentioned and they have a voice to inspiring many teachers to include creative skills. I teach improvisation to help give students the bigger picture as to how scales/chord progressions are the platform for which creating original pieces can begin from and really it just gives the student ownership of his/her music. This way, I feel that the individuals exposed to a mix of classical training alongside modern techniques, will retain much of their musical skill sets for the long term. Ultimately, it promoting intrinsic aural awareness and great sight reading ability…. we may see the emerging of more talented educators/composers in the future; from whom a great variety of quality music will originate! This is my reason for teaching this way.
    Thanks and best wishes,
    Lisa Drag

    • Hi Lisa, I completely agree that “scales/chord progressions are the platform” for musical creativity. Thanks for sharing your philosophy.

  16. Hello Bradley,
    Yes, I teach improvisation as well as part of the Simply Music program. I use Pattern Play to help my students open up; it helps them with their composition projects as well.

  17. Hi Bradley,
    As a classically trained pianist, improvisation has come to me the hard way! I picked around at in jazz groups I have been involved with throughout school and then in my professional life. I consider myself a “closet” jazz pianist because it’s in there somewhere, I’ve just been unable to unlock “her!” Also, as a church musician, I was finally forced into improvising on the spot in whatever key was needed to lead into the song and to provide “incidental” music during scripture reading. This is what really propelled me into my own search for how to improvise. Also, embarrassment has been a good motivator for research!
    I tend to have a piecemeal approach to teaching improvisation (and arranging), but I’ve come across some very helpful resources that have helped such as your books, Forrest Kinney, Greg Howlett, and Keyboard Magazine.
    With my younger students, we start off with black key improv. I admit, I tend to have a gap in there, until the student has matured more in their reading, then I move to a basic 12-bar blues. Lead sheets have been most effective for me to teach improv. Gives us a place to start. I have students use a chord progression (even if I can’t stand it, like Pachebel’s Canon) and have them “noodle” around. Or we use the standard million dollar chord progression in different keys. I do have students play by ear with 2 or 3 chord melodies.
    I also help my older students and church pianists work on arranging hymns. That is how I come upon your work in the first place several years ago! This is also something I constantly work on myself.

  18. This post has answered some DEEP questions I’ve had within myself as a piano teacher. For whatever reason, my mom never allowed me to have piano lessons as a child and I “self-taught” through Barry Manilow and Billy Joel sheet music. But I really played by ear. I have a strong ear, just like my mom (she reads NO sheet music and can play any song you name by ear…all in 1 key). My first formal lesson was when I turned 40 years old. Then, my husband and I went back to school to study music and began teaching children piano and guitar in our area. Our studio is thriving…and this year we took the plunge and opened up a small music school in our area.

    I tried…I really tried to teach the way I thought I was “supposed to”. Lesson Books first, then teaching from pieces. Teaching from pieces was much better because I could teach the bones of the piece and help my students understand patterns and structure. Last year I began a composing project with the Teach Piano Today resource, and also follow the a site that has improvisation resources for little kids. I’m a much happier teacher, and my bag is FULL of tricks.

  19. Donna Finney

    Piano and Voice Teacher at Self Employed

    Hi Bradley:

    I teach from the Alfred Basic Method but I also teach my students various things I did not learn from my first 10 years of classical piano. At the age of 16, I was taught by a 80 year old lady who had trained with the NBC orchestra in New York. She taught me an improvisational style with chords and how to decide what I wanted to create in a song. I also sing and could not find anyone to teach me how to accompany myself, so I taught myself how to listen to music and play by ear. I now teach my students a blend of the three things. I find that it keeps their interest, and we have fun! I also encourages them to create their own songs. Thank you for bringing up something that music educators did not teach in my day. I don’t just “like” what you are promoting . . . I “love” it!

  20. Hi, Bradley! Add me to your second list…wanna be improv teachers! I have improvised in church since the age of 13, but other genres had me shaking with fear. I have simply begun a little improv with my 4-5 year olds by allowing them to experiment with sound, and want to expand. I am in the learning process, with not much to share. But I am very excited about the ideas here, and even more motivated to learn and teach improv! Thanks for your work!

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