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

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…

Interactive Improv at MTNA 2014 Conference

MTNA conferences are HUGE. There’s no way to see and do everything even if you go non-stop from the first 8:00 a.m. session to impromptu midnight gatherings with friends in the lobby.  The buzz is such that you ride along on an energy wave from learning sessions to exhibit booths to interesting hallway conversations, often forgetting to eat or even sit down. Here’s what I love about MTNA conferences in no particular order: Checking out new resources, instruments, and teaching tools in the exhibit halls. Hanging out with colleagues and old friends. Eating fabulous evening meals with interesting new people. Dreaming up collaborations with music entrepreneurs and go-getters. Giving and getting hugs in our uniquely friendly profession. Great people-watching from fuddy-duddies to fashionistas. Seeing people in person that you met online. Picking up teaching tips from peers in their sessions. Pedagogy Saturday My responsibilities for this year were to co-chair the … Read more…

The Four Arts of Music – Forrest Kinney

The Four Arts of Music is a model of music education centered on creativity rather than on performance. The need for this approach is seen by asking one question: Where’s the creativity in music lessons? Music is an art form—there can be no doubt of that. Yet, someone can play a piano skillfully without a trace of creativity. What, then, is the difference between a skill and an art? The answer is: creativity. Art requires creativity, skill does not. We assume that piano lessons involve creativity. But do they? In order to make them truly creative—in order to raise them to an art rather than merely an impressive skill—we must dare to ask a question that challenges our common assumptions: What is creative about piano lessons? Learning to read notes is valuable, but is this highly cognitive activity creative? Practicing technical exercises can be valuable, but creative? Or learning music theory? … Read more…

Music for Advancing Piano Students

Ever notice how the wide range of music books available for lower level piano students suddenly drops off in the upper levels?  The reason, as any music publisher can tell you, is that entry level books sell better because beginners outnumber advanced students.  With a smaller market for challenging music by living composers, it’s logical for publishers to put most of their efforts into the “bottom of the pyramid.” That’s just capitalism 101. However, the unintended result is that advancing students have fewer repertory choices. Having been reared on the latest multi-style piano methods, supplemented by cool “kid” arrangements of movie themes and pop tunes,  students reach Book 5 and Wham! – the availability of contemporary music for their ability level becomes very limited.  That’s a problem for piano teachers because it’s part of our job to “move the carrot forward” by selecting just the right pieces that are achievable but still require … Read more…

Give Piano Another Try

Yesterday, I received this email from a prospective student’s mother filling me in on her son’s background prior to his interview today: …He had piano lessons since the age of around 6 until last Spring and did 5 years of National Piano League. He is now 13 years old (soon to be 14). We stopped the lessons as he was not interested to follow a classical repertoire. Since then he did a bit of guitar and more recently drums. He is a bit rusty as you can imagine but he would really like to give piano another try. Whew! At least this guy is willing to “give piano another try.” I’ll rescue him by showing him the likes of back beats, seventh chords and blues scales but unfortunately, his educational experience is still the norm. We all know the pattern,  10 – 14 year olds, often boys, who quit music lessons because they cannot … Read more…

Advice for Student Musicians

For the past several years, I’ve had the honor of performing in “Christine’s Christmas,” an annual benefit concert that has raised more than $300,000 for children’s charities. I love this mega-gig because it stretches my musicality to the max. In addition to a big choir, guest vocalists, and string orchestra, the lineup includes a number of principle soloists: founder Mark King on piano, a cellist, two drummers, a trumpet player and yours truly on bass, synthesizers, and piano. (I also coach the arranging and play a bit of violin in the orchestra.) Read and Improvise All of the above mentioned principle musicians for this event are expected to both read music and improvise. Did you get that?  Read and improvise.  One moment we are playing written parts as precisely as possible and the next, we are improvising our own paths through the chord changes. Why does the director insist on … Read more…

Online Lessons Make a Merry Little Christmas – Leila Viss

Guest Writer: Leila Viss Originally posted at 88pianokeys A while back I announced the onset of my online lessons with master improv teacher Bradley Sowash. I had my doubts but they were vaporized when our first lesson worked like a charm thanks to Facetime. My initial progress was measurable as reflected in this video. Although I did not record it, my left hand walking bass was top-notch thanks to Bradley’s tips and tricks. I was even able to improvise freely in my RH while my LH strutted with style between chord tones. Due to a flakey Wi-Fi, the next couple of lessons were not so rosy and what promised to be an hour of enlightenment turned into an hour of trouble shooting. Coupled with the flailing internet was the fact that my available practice time was sparse. Yes, I suffered through the typical plateau and even a valley as all piano … Read more…

Free Christmas Music

With Thanksgiving under our belts (literally for me at the time of this writing), the Christmas season officially begins.  Some folks look forward to it while others sort of brace themselves including one of my adult students who admitted last week, “I just wish we could skip this whole holiday thing.”I get what she means to a point. A lot has been written about the craziness of the Christmas Machine and I won’t expand on that discussion except to say that there are at least two things that I really like about “The Season.” 1. A lot of holiday songs are great jazz.  Tunes like The Christmas Song (“chestnuts roasting), Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and Santa Claus is Coming to Town among others were written when jazz WAS popular music.  So I’m glad when the seasonal soundtrack reconnects us to one of our greatest American musical traditions. 2. … Read more…

Bach Festival for Strings

It was an honor to teach with distinguished educators last weekend at the Bach Festival organized by Suzuki Music Columbus.  All afternoon, students circulated through four classes: Baroque dance, repertoire, history and harmony (mine) and then performed a culminating all Bach concert including the Brandenburg #3 (one of my favorites). Ask Questions 1. I began by asking students to name Bach’s many jobs: composer, organist, violinist, teacher…  We discussed how Bach was a real person — who like anyone, ate cheese, got headaches, had good days and bad days, etc. — and not some semi-God high up on a mountain throwing down immortal music on bronze plaques. The point being that Bach was a creative musician albeit a very good one, but that if he could make his own music, then so can we. 2. Next, I asked them to imagine what if one of them had been Bach’s student … Read more…

Teaching Tips for “That’s Jazz” Series

Just a short post to remind teachers who use my That’s Jazz piano method about the free teaching tips I’ve provided on these video playlists. That’s Jazz Book 1 – Getting Into It That’s Jazz Book 2 – Digging Deeper Questions?  Leave a comment below. Until next time, enjoy your creative music-making journey,         Learn more about That’s Jazz here.

Teachnology: The iPad Piano Studio

This is my first post under a new category I am calling “Teachnology.” I have just finished reading The iPad Piano Studio, a book by Leila Viss stuffed with useful tips for piano teachers interested in easy-to-use technology.  Whether you own an iPad or not, if you’ve every wondered how this handy tablet device could benefit your studio, this book is for you. If you are imagining a dry manual for geeks, think again. Her focus is not so much on specialized aspects of technology (though how-to basics are covered) as it is on how the iPad can be used as a practical tool to enhance teaching. More than a review of apps (though her favorites are included), Leila shows us how to update outmoded music teaching tools (think flash cards, note readers, workbooks…) with the hand-held technology to which today’s wired students are accustomed. The book is user-friendly in … Read more…

Indiana Music Teachers Assoc. Conference

I had a great turnout for my three presentations as a “featured clinician” at the Indiana Music Teachers Association conference yesterday at Butler University. Scaling the Chords My first session titled Scaling the Chords (shown here as teachers arrive) presented tips on making chords and scales more fun to practice and, more importantly, how to use these basics as a springboard to creativity.  A highlight of this session is when I ask for a teacher who can self-describe as “inexperienced with improvisation” to come up on stage so I can lead them into an improvisation at the piano in a safe and comfortable way in front of their colleagues.  Many thanks to the enthusiastic unnamed volunteer (I regret that lost the business card she gave me). This is really important because when I demonstrate improvisation concepts myself, some may think, “Well of course you can do it.  You are one … Read more…

Playing Pop Tunes by Ear

It’s autumn and football season is in full gear in Ohio.  Ever since The Ohio State University Marching Band started playing the 1965 #1 hit, “Hang On Sloopy” by The McCoys (an Ohio based band), it’s been synonymous with OSU football.  No Buckeye game experience is complete without it and fans go berserk whenever the band pulls it out. This song has become such a regional phenomenon that in 1985, the General Assembly voted to adapt it as the official rock song of the state of Ohio.  Now that it is practically illegal NOT to play this tune around here, most of the local middle and high school bands also include it in their ritualized football repertory. So when I came across a clarinet part fluttering in the wind in the school parking lot, I naturally snatched it up, took it home and stuck it on my studio wall.  Since … Read more…

Guest Blog: What Are Piano Lessons For?

I am re-blogging this post by Elissa Milne for two reasons: If  you are not yet onto her, I want to introduce you to Elissa because I admire how she thinks and writes about the music teaching profession. I like this particular post because it reaches all the way down to the “why do we do this?” level of self-reflection for teachers and because I endorse her conclusions.  My favorite sentence in this post: “…It’s not about performance per se, but about the ability of the student to express themselves freely through the piano.” September 24, 2010 What Are Piano Lessons For? By elissamilne This is a very personal manifesto about the purpose of piano lessons. You may not agree. You may disagree vehemently. But what you (as a piano teacher or as a parent of a piano student or as a piano student) believe piano lessons are for will affect … Read more…

Creative Piano Teachers Speak Up

My last post titled Are You a Creative Piano Teacher? asked teachers who include improvisation in their lessons to weigh in.  Wow! Judging from the number of comments on that blog, there are a lot more teachers out there encouraging students to play “off page” than I might have guessed.  Many of the responses are full of passion and some explained how they go about it of which the following is exemplary: II III II III II III II III II Mary Guess on October 9, 2013 at 7:12 am said: 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 … Read more…

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… 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? … Read more…

Improvising is for Everyone

Bradley Sowash: Joy Morin is a piano teacher in Bowling Green, Ohio (United States) who blogs about her adventures in piano teaching at ColorInMyPiano.com.  Recently, she reported on my presentation at the Ohio Music Teachers Association to which she obviously paid a great deal attention because she highlighted my major points quite accurately.  Joy writes: For a number of years now, Mr. Sowash has been encouraging teachers to include creative skills (improvisation and composition) in their lessons.  For many years, teachers would respond to Mr. Sowash’s message saying they were certainly not interested in doing so.  However, things are changing: in recent years, teachers have begun agreeing with the premise that teaching off the page is just as important as teaching on the page.  Now, teachers are asking for information about HOW to do so.  Today’s presentation addresses this question about HOW to teach the skills for improvisation.  Continue reading…

Classical Pianist Tackles Jazz – Leila Viss

My friend and teaching colleague, Leila Viss blogs about topics related to teaching piano at 88 Piano Keys.  Since taking online lessons with me, she has begun a new series from her perspective as an adult student.  She plans to track her progress as she learn to add jazz chops to her already impressive skill set as a classically trained pianist.  She hopes it will inspire others to realize that anyone can learn to improvise and that despite  the poo-pooing of music purists, it really is acceptable (and fun even — gasp!) to dabble in improvisation and popular styles without compromising one’s training. Read her first installment here: Back on the Bench and Out of the Box

Composing with Names

Here’s a splendid variation on the “Bach Motif” you or your students can use as a composing prompt. Steps: 1. Encrypt someone’s name into musical pitches using alphabetical equivalents.  For example, the musical equivalent of the name “Jack” would be C, A, C, D. Letter  Pitch a     =     A b     =     B c     =     C d     =     D e     =     E f     =      F g     =     G h     =     A i     =      B j     =      C k     =     D etc. 2. Play the letters you encrypted on the keyboard with your right hand. 3. Find chords to fit the melody.  Alternatively, the pitches can be interpreted as the roots of chords. So “Jack” could also be thought of as the chord progression: C, Amin, C, … Read more…

88 Creative Keys Camp is a Hit!

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 … Read more…

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