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…

Dot Spots

Add improvised pizzazz to the easy rhythms found in beginner tunes by asking your students to identify “dot spots.” These are places where students can substitute dotted rhythms in place of quarter notes. Listen and Play It’s not necessary for students to know how to read dotted rhythms prior to exploring their use in improvisation. Part of the genius of Shinichi Suzuki’s innovative teaching was his realization that young musicians can play more complex music than they can read if they know how it is supposed to sound. Take advantage of this by teaching your students to play London Bridge by rote. Next, help your students figure out how to recreate the sound of the dot spots in measures 1 and 5 in another simple quarter note based-tune. For example, Yankee Doodle could be transformed from this… to this: With apologies to Beethoven (who in the name of creativity, probably … Read more…

The Story of the Toebourine™

Creative music-making usually means improvising, but today, I want to tell you the story of  how I became a creative music instrument maker. Get Your Groove On For years, I’ve accompanied my piano students with foot percussion instruments under my piano. It’s great for helping them subconsciously internalize a stronger sense of time. However, it’s inconvenient to lug these instruments around to teaching locations outside of my studio. For a while, I solved this problem by toting a rig consisting of a tambourine hinged to a board with a spring to reset it between stomps. It worked very well for gigs within driving distance but the limited size of my carry-on suitcase together with the raised eyebrows of TSA employees convinced me that it was too clunky for air travel. So when I spotted a small tambourine with two jingles in an import store, it gave me an idea about how to make a more portable “foot tambourine.” Research and Development Feeling I was on to something, … Read more…

Keeping Track of Time

Using Tracks To Teach Timing Unlike band or orchestra musicians who learn to play with others from the get-go, piano students usually only ever practice alone.  A not-so-great consequence of this kind of solitary learning is that many pianists fail to develop a strong sense of time.  The usual remedy that is prescribed for this problem is to practice with a metronome, which, let’s face it, can be pretty boring.  This is where automated accompaniment (aka backing tracks) come to the rescue.  If you are not familiar with backing tracks, imagine a pre-recorded or computer-generated band laying down a steady groove as an underpinning for practice.  The value of this kind of work is that the beat is experienced as a kind of steady conveyor belt that keeps moving forward.  There’s no time for pauses to fix mistakes nor can the practicing musician zoom ahead without consequences. As the technology … Read more…

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