New Year’s Eve Thoughts

Sometimes I think my job as an improvisation coach is more psychological — getting people over their fears — than musical — demonstrating tips, tools, and techniques. When I started teaching online group jazz piano lessons, my original idea was to charge participants a higher tuition to appear on camera because I thought it would reduce expected competition for the limited available slots. Boy, was I wrong. Only a few participants consistently and courageously dig in to learning new skills in front of others. Self-consciousness gets in the way of more active, more valuable, more inspirational-to-others participation by all of my students than it should. That’s okay. I don’t hold it against them but neither will I give up on encouraging them to come out of the shadows. The same thing happens when I ask for volunteers to explore a creative concept with me at music education conferences. I wait and wait … Read more…

How a classically trained pianist learned to improvise

My friend, colleague, and co-founder of 88 Creative Keys improvisation workshops, Leila Viss has been writing weekly blogs full of fun ideas about teaching piano for quite some time. In addition to being a skilled musician and innovative piano teacher, Leila is a lifelong learner and interested in all things musical. This is my favorite post she’s ever written because it reminds us that classically-trained musicians with a growth mindset can learn to improvise. If she can do it, you can too! – Bradley Sowash How a classically trained pianist learned to improvise Author: Leila Viss Perhaps you are one of those classical pianists who was lucky enough to have a teacher that encouraged creativity beyond the grand staff? Lucky you. The rest of us have one thing in common that keeps us from pushing beyond our creative boundaries. We are burdened with baggage called “excuses.” These excuses may include: I’m a visual learner. I … Read more…

“Sound before symbol”: lessons from history

Andrew Eales is a pianist, teacher and writer based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs his independent music education business and creative outlet Keyquest Music. Among his many activities, he writes interesting blog posts at pianodao.com. This one particularly impressed me not only because I agree with a “sound before symbol” teaching philosophy, but also because Mr. Eales did his homework to provide a historical context for this stream of thought. Bravo. – Bradley Sowash. “Sound before symbol”: lessons from history Author: Andrew Eales Musicians and teachers often debate the relative merits of aural-based learning versus a notation-driven approach. Seeing the topic wheeled out for discussion again this week, I was reminded of this brilliant quote by the legendary concert pianist Andor Földes, taken from his book “Keys to the Keyboard” written back in 1950 : “There is no such thing as a proper age for a child to start playing the piano. I avoid saying … Read more…

Pentatonic Power Part by Laura Lowe

I’m happy to repost this excellent article from a blog by Laura Lowe.  Since attending our 88 Creative Keys piano improvisation workshop, Laura has become an advocate for fostering creativity alongside traditional music reading skills in the piano studio and that makes me happy. – Bradley Sowash Author: Laura Lowe In my last post, I explained the pentatonic scale and why it’s such a useful tool for for helping students learn to make their own music. I’m discovering that lots of folks aren’t familiar with this scale and its versatility! Carl Orff and Zoltan Kodaly both incorporated pentatony (isn’t that a fun word?) in their widely-used methods for childhood music education, noting that it was a native tongue for the folk songs children already knew and also that the absence of half-steps made it easier for children to sing in tune. In elementary classrooms today, children often play onOrff instruments which their teachers … Read more…

What Will My Teaching Philosophy Be In Regard To Improvisation? – Laura Lowe

I’m happy to repost this thoughtful post from The Piano Studio blog by Laura Lowe. Laura cares deeply about her piano teaching philosophy. Here, she shares her thinking process about the role of creativity in music education. Her attendance at the recent annual 88 Creative Keys “camp” inspired fellow teacher attendees as well as the instructors. – Bradley Sowash ——– What Will My Teaching Philosophy Be In Regard To Improvisation? The 88 Creative Keys Educator’s conference only lasted 3 days, but my head is still there. Yesterday, I went to the grocery store. I just needed a couple of items, but I also came home with a beach ball, dry erase crayons, some cute little rubbery animals, and a magnetic fishing pole. This is what happens when you spend 3 days with a creative teacher like Leila Viss. Suddenly, everything looks like something you could use while teaching piano! Stay tuned in the days to … Read more…

Teach Your Students to Improvise Using … Silence – Doug Hanvey

Guest Writer: Doug Hanvey Teach Your Students to Improvise Using … Silence Perhaps more than any other musical activity, improvisation brings music alive for a piano student. Occasionally closing the music books and allowing your students to improvise is not only fun but helps them to better appreciate the creative space from which the greatest composed music and, of course, the greatest improvisations, come. I’ve always believed in the “less is more” philosophy. One of the hallmarks of a trained yet still artistically undeveloped improviser is someone who plays – all the time. There are no spaces, no rests. But as we know, music is a combination of sound and silence. John Cage took this fact to the other extreme in his famous composition 4’33” (which he called his most important work!). Here’s a simple exercise and variation to try with improvisers of any skill level. It will help you teach … Read more…

A Personal Journey With Students Into The World Of Improvisation – Jodie Jensen

Guest Writer: Jodie Jensen At the end of the academic year last May, I was in sore need of a different approach in my studio teaching life. After attending the MTNA conference in Chicago, I learned just enough about improvisation, teaching improvisation and the eye/ear revolution to push for a change to my current mode of operation. My biggest question/frustration was how to I revamp my teaching to make these principles a solid part of my teaching life. I am an old dog and new tricks are not really a part of my aging process. I also thought I had been doing a rather good job of covering all the bases as a music teacher. Hadn’t all my ABRSM practical exam entries passed with high marks? What could possibly be wrong!???? What was causing me to feel frustrated? Why did I feel students needed more than to just reproduce music instead of recreate music, embellish music and then … Read more…

The Creative Piano Teacher

II III II III II III II III II  Something amazing happened last week at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Thanks to the visionary planning of Dr. Samuel Holland, director of the division of music and Leila Viss (author of The iPad Piano Studio), forty-eight private piano teachers signed up for a multi-day workshop to learn to teach creativity both on and off the printed page at the Institute for Piano Teachers . II III II III II III II III II  What exactly did we do? In a variety of settings including lectures, hands-on piano labs and simulated private lessons, my esteemed colleague, Forrest Kinney (author of the Pattern Play series) and I explained and demonstrated topics such as Understanding Chord Symbols, The Four Arts of Music, Going Further with Lead Sheets, Creative Group Teaching and many more. In addition, Leila Viss presented several tech-savvy sessions such as Apps to Spark Creativity and Kristin Yost demonstrated how playing and arranging pop tunes … Read more…

Even Young Kids Can Create at the Piano: 3 Easy Tips for Getting Started – Kristin Jensen

I’m happy to welcome Kristin Jensen as a guest writer.  Kristin is a piano teacher who specializes in teaching younger children how to create their own music.  Her philosophy of mixing creativity with traditional skills is exactly what the Eye Ear Revolution is all about. – Bradley Even Young Kids Can Create at the Piano: 3 Easy Tips for Getting Started Tip #1 Encourage Exploration You wouldn’t believe how many adults tell me that when they took piano lessons as a kid, they felt like their teacher discouraged them from exploring and creating. It was probably unintentional. There’s never enough time during a lesson to accomplish all that we need to. Because we feel rushed we try to get through all the critical elements and expect the student to stay on task—and that can mean no time for playing anything other than the assigned material. If we’re not careful, students can … 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…

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…

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…

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…

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…

Teach Them How To Fish

I’ve been thinking about the proverb that says, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” What is Fish in the Private Music Studio? A young lady I know has been “casting her net about” in a search of a new guitar teacher.  I asked her why she discontinued lessons with her previous two teachers and she said it was because, “All they did was show me how to play tunes [fish].  I want to learn about what all you can do with the guitar so I can write better songs [how to fish].” Can’t you just see it?  The teacher says, “Here, let me show you where to put your fingers so you can play Sweet Home Alabama. Students and parents like it at first because after a few lessons… “Hey, that sounds … Read more…

The Eye Ear Revolution Has Begun

I’ve just returned from the Music Teacher’s National Association conference in CA where I was fortunate to serve as chair of the jazz/pop track along with project manager Leila Viss.  I’ve been swimming upstream on the subject of teaching creativity as a necessary ingredient to comprehensive musicianship at music teacher meetings all over the country for several years.  So it was with particular delight to find that we could attract a packed room of teachers for nine hours of sessions with experts on the subject of teaching popular music styles, improvisation and creativity. It seems the old model of only teaching the “masters” using only the written page is finally giving way to a more balanced approach or as someone at the conference quipped, “the Queen Mary (of music education) is slowly turning.”  I can get even more dramatic by declaring, “The eye/ear revolution has begun!”   If you are a … Read more…

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