Same and Different

One fun and important area of playing and teaching music that sometimes gets overlooked is creativity. While most of us would agree that improvising, composing, arranging, and playing by ear are necessary ingredients for developing comprehensive musicianship, somehow we don’t get around to teaching and learning these skills as much as we’d like. If you are a piano teacher or a piano student struggling to play “off page,” I want to help you. That’s why I write books on this topic, write a bi-monthly Clavier Companion column, present at music conferences, do webinars, podcasts, and log countless hours with co-founder Leila Viss into making 88 Creative Keys the best piano improv pedagogy workshop in the universe. Please take advantage of these resources, share, and comment so I don’t feel like I’m shouting into an abyss. Okay, enough preaching. Now onto the teaching. Here’s a an easy way to start beginners down the road toward personalizing the music they play with … Read more…

Say It and Play It

Think of a basic folk song, hymn, or nursery rhyme. Chances are, it’s mostly made up of quarter notes. That’s because tunes for casual singers are designed to be simple.  However, playing such unadorned tunes can be potentially kind of boring to play on the piano especially on repeats. To rhythmically enhance a plain melody, try using the natural rhythms of language.  For example, what did you have for lunch?  Pep-per-on-i piz-za?  Play that rhythm instead. Can’t think of any words to say right now? Then, say and play that:  I don’t know what to play. Here’s how this would play out on Twinkle. Next, experiment with changing up those rhythms perhaps by playing them backwards. Lastly, just wing it, using the pitches in the tune but varying the rhythms freely. Here’s a plan: Play a basic tune in with right-hand melody and left-hand chords. Repeat the tune with a … Read more…

Accompanying Students 102

Previously, we explored playing a basic (boom chick) stride pattern to accompany students when no duet part is provided.  Now, we’ll consider two ways to enhance and adapt this useful “stock” accompaniment. Passing Note Bass Add variety and momentum to the steady boom-chick of a basic stride by connecting the roots of chords with passing bass notes. Like a meandering traveler, it doesn’t matter which direction the notes move (or even whether they are all in the key) so long as they point toward and arrive at the destination chord on time. In other words, play each chord’s root squarely on the downbeat and don’t fuss too much about the notes between.   Waltz You can adapt a basic stride pattern to waltz time by playing two chords between the bass notes (boom-chick-chick).  Passing bass notes can add a greater sense of forward motion to waltzes as well. Tips: There’s no … Read more…

Accompanying Students 101

Improvising accompaniments to play along with your students has many benefits: For students: 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. For teachers: 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: Comping Steps Unless chord symbols are included, start … Read more…

Improvising Easy Introductions

A good musical introduction creates anticipation for the listener by suggesting the key and style of a tune about to be played. Ready? Set, Go! The easiest way to set up a tune is to play a V7 intro chord. This works because it takes advantage of our expectations about functional harmony. Since most tunes begin with a I chord, a V7 chord played just before leads our ears right into the melody through its natural resolution. Listen to how the C7 in the Birthday Song seems to say, “Here we go.” Drum Roll Please… Stretch the V7 intro chord “Liberace” style with hand-over-hand arpeggios to pump up the audience. Corny and overstated? Yes. Effective? Absolutely. Students love it because it sounds impressive without being difficult. This example adds drama suggesting, “Ladies and gentleman, the show is about to begin.” The Following Preview… State the last few measures of a tune … Read more…

Stretching a Lead Sheet

By Bradley Sowash (Originally written for Clavier Companion Magazine.) So your students can play the melody and chords in a lead sheet (if not, see Steps to Learning a Lead Sheet)…now what? Played at a medium tempo, this classic tune lasts about 30 seconds. How could this be stretched it into a complete performance? For inspiration, we can turn to legendary trumpet man and singer, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. When asked about his ability to spin seemingly effortless variations on every tune he played, he explained, *The first chorus [refrain] I plays the melody. The second chorus I plays the melody round the melody [embellishes], and the third chorus I routines [improvises]. Although he doesn’t mention it here, Armstrong typically ended his renditions by returning to the melody in some enhanced fashion. Here then, is Satchmo’s “road map” through a tune adapted to the L-E-A-D acronym. L-E-A-D Form 1. Lay it … Read more…

How to Play Christmas Tunes by Ear

The holiday season is a great time for learning tunes by ear because: Tunes that are this familiar are the easiest to pick out by ear. Knowing a few seasonal favorites are likely to come in handy for festivities wherever there’s a piano nearby. Learning tunes by ear tends to fix them in your long-term memory, so you’ll be able to easily recover them for future holiday seasons. Steps to Playing by Ear 1. Work Out the Melody Find the first note – Many tunes begin on the tonic note but you can’t count on it. For example, “Mary Had a Little Lamb” starts on the third note of a major scale. Sing the first note of the Christmas melody while playing up the scale until you find a match. For example, playing the C scale while singing the first note of Silent Night reveals that G is the first … 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…

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…

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…

Steps to Learning a Lead Sheet

Lead sheets are a simplified form of music notation designed to present the essentials of a tune while still leaving room for creative interpretation. Lead sheets consist of two main parts: Written melody Chord symbols Interpreting lead sheets works best if you know the tune. Hopefully, this one is familiar. Steps to Learning a Lead Sheet Get the basic right hand melody and left hand chords down pat. Use common inversions for good voice leading and playing ease. Add a left hand style appropriate to your student’s ability level. It could be a simple rhythmic pattern or something more elaborate such as an Alberti bass. Embellish the melody by adding a few notes here and there… …or get all fancy with the likes of these Baroque flourishes. To stretch a lead sheet into a complete performance, follow the same steps you used to learn it. First, play the basic tune … Read more…

Jingle Bells Variations

One of the most enjoyable aspects of teaching creative music making is to witness the variety of approaches students take to rethinking a tune according to their own tastes and preferences. Every year around this time, I ask select students to come up with new versions of Christmas tunes. I might throw out a few suggestions to get them started but I specifically avoid guiding them very much at all. The idea is to get them to get them to apply what they’ve internalized from their studies as independent creative musicians. Mashup Here are three different versions of this classic holiday tune as interpreted by my students. 1. Fourteen year old Michael Wade creates new music easily. At some point in almost every lesson, (usually while my back is turned) he’ll launch into his latest composition. Here is his twisted version of Jingle Bells in a minor key with a “jump bass” or “basic stride” … Read more…

Unleash Creativity with “The Pretty Pop Piano Thingy”

Guest Writer: James Dering I’m delighted to share with you an adaptation of an article I wrote on my website, BetterPiano.com. It was originally written for a “self-taught” audience, as you’ll be able to tell from my wording. However, I have also had lots of success with this technique in a private lesson environment, and I believe you can, too. Feel free to use my “delivery” here as an example of how you could present this material, but know that you can also make your own adjustments, to suit the needs of your students. The pop pianist often thinks in terms of patterns and musical “data.” Sounds dull, doesn’t it? And it’s very different from more traditional ways of playing. But still, you’ll want to pay attention to this lesson- some amazing things are about to happen. I want to show you a small “trick” that will give you a surprisingly … 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…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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…

Learn to Teach Improvisation

Dear Fellow Piano Teachers, I’m writing today to ask you to consider attending the teacher-training track of the 88 Creative Keys Camp. Co-founded by piano teacher/blogger Leila Viss and myself, the camp is an offshoot of the Pop/Jazz track we planned for the MTNA conference in Anaheim last March. We were convinced by the standing-room-only reaction we had there that a considerable demand exists for training in “off page” ear skills. So we decided to offer the first keyboard camp of its kind to focus solely on improvisation.  After months of preparation, we are now ready to offer students and teachers in-depth training in a unique hands-on-the-keyboard-in-front-of-you learning environment. As the principal instructor, my role has been to develop a hands-on curriculum designed to answer the numerous questions teachers ask after my presentations at music conferences. (I do this a lot. If I haven’t been to your area yet, I … Read more…

Talk to the Hand

One of the most consistent challenges beginning improvisers face is keeping track of the form while playing creatively.  If you’ve ever watched a middle school jazz ensemble, it is common for a young soloist improvising over, say a 12 bar blues, to stop playing in measure 10 or 14.  The solo may be compelling but then it fizzles out without a satisfying ending usually because the soloist is completely unaware of where they are in the chord progression. For solo piano players learning to improvise, playing with both hands further compounds this problem.  Often, the role of the right hand is to be free and easy, spinning out creative melodies and acting on impulse (right brain).  Meanwhile, the left hand’s job is to adhere to a given chord progression or accompaniment pattern (left brain).  It’s a little like writing one’s name with one hand while drawing a picture with the … Read more…

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