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…
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.
At 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.
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,
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
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Also check out this new book for piano teachers:
Leila is the the co-founder with me of 88 Creative Keys Camp.