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:

MaryGuessSince 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 written rhythm patterns, of course. The four essentials for improv, to me, are chords, scales, intervals, and rhythm. With young students we start doing pentatonic improv immediately, so that they are accustomed to the idea of making something up and that being ok. When they are able to play a scale, instead of doing “5 finger patterns” I go straight to a full scale. I teach chords as “groups of skips,” as if the scale is a staircase and if you jump up the stairs two at a time a chord is born. :) I teach chords as scale steps. We start with the diatonic chords in C. I also have them improvise in the major scale. Later, once they can read well, I teach whole and half steps and building a basic major and minor scale and chord that way. We do regular improv and “composing” (making up their own melody) from the beginning, but it takes a while before the children are ready to do chord sheets, etc. Once they are playing hands together comfortably, we do the “play a melody in the RH and chords (from symbols) in the LH”, and we talk about which chords “go” with certain notes and why. We also learn chromatic intervals. They must identify major, minor, and suspended chords both by sound and at sight. They also learn to identify be sound (Strong/weak beats) the meter of a song.

For older students, particularly those who read well and have good dexterity but have no improv skill as yet, we go through the scale (I do chords as scale steps here too) and root position chords, then I will give them a chord sheet. I play at the second piano, and they listen and try to identify 1. The meter of the song, and 2. How many beats I stayed on each chord. (I’m playing patterns of broken chords and melody lines, not just blocks) Then, they play blocked chords and try to change at the right time. Once they are secure in root position chords, we go on to bass lines and inversions. They will play written exercises with the inversions and have to play chord progressions featuring inversions. This is where I add whole and half steps as a method of finding notes for scales and chords. We practice 1. dexterously moving between chords and inversions, 2. Listening for rhythm and harmony, and 3. Seeing a symbol and quickly finding that chord on the piano. Then, I give them a lead sheet with melody in RH and blocked chords in LH. From there we go to broken chords in LH, then adding more harmony notes in RH. I give them a melody and tell them to find a chord that has the melody note in it and harmonize it. We start talking about voice leading here. :) We do intervals from the beginning, but along with inversions we get into modified chords like seventh chords, little by little. They practice common cadences and progressions. Then, they learn basic rhythm patterns for different meters/styles and we practice translating those patterns to different chords/tunes. (I give them one and two measure patterns, which get more complex as we go) They learn strong/weak beats, syncopations, etc in more detail. I want them to be able to hear a pop song and know what rhythms are being played and what pattern they could play that would fit. A lot of it is listening- for rhythm and meter, and for melody and harmony. We do a lot of multiple choice melodic dictation, too, we talk about dissonance and resolution. We also do a lot of basic theme/variations. I will play a simple progression and they have to come up with a melody on the spot that fits with it. Then, we get into non chord tones, passing tones, and ornaments. They show me recordings of pieces that they like from other genres, and we analyze them to see what melodic figures or chord progressions they like there and how we could take that template and use it on another chord or song. I haven’t really done a lot of specific jazz or boogie as improv with students, because I get almost exclusively requests for sacred music/learning to play for church, but I enjoy them both. We do get into other scales as the student advances, from basic modes to pentatonic, blues scale, etc.

(Read similar teacher responses here.)


Bradley Sowash

Creative Piano Teacher List
Back to Bradley: I’m in the process of compiling an informal list of teachers who include improvisation alongside a traditional curriculum.  I’ll post it here in a couple of weeks.

Want to be on it?

Simply leave a comment below that tells us:

  • How you teach improvisation
  • Your website link if you have one
  • The location where you teach
  •  The improvisation level you are most comfortable teaching:
  1. Beginners – Student improvises patterns or stories while teacher accompanies
  2. Intermediate – Understanding and playing chords with quick recall are included in lessons
  3. Advanced – Styles and voicings are taught to prepare student to play in high school jazz ensemble or church bands.

While you are at it, consider following this blog (see upper left sidebar).

Until next time, enjoy your creative music-making journey,






Bradley Sowash



 Understand Chord Symbols3Check out this helpful improvisation aid:

Provides a straightforward explanation of the principles, common practices, and variations in contemporary pop/jazz chord nomenclature.



9 thoughts on “Creative Piano Teachers Speak Up

  1. Hello
    I practise and teach contempory improvisation?
    And I created a collective session in plus for piano students in their early years
    I m french and teach un a conservatory
    Do I sensd you some testimony?
    I would be delighted to join the group

  2. I have been a Suzuki piano teacher since the method first came to the U.S. I teach transpositions while we are still on the Variations as well as the beginning scales and keys (5-finger exercises), then ]the whole octave, then four octaves, Surprisingly enough, most children understand all of this. Sometimes we as teachers are reluctant to teach it at a young age, but children find it fascinating. We transpose all of Bk One songs after they are learned in C major. I also use tone bells to reinforce and have fun doing it. I encourage composition along with a special and vital set of theory papers which helps the children understand chords, inversions, progressions and improv. It’s a fascinating world with all of this!

  3. Hi Bradley, I am a professional pianist and educator who has been playing by note and ear, and improvising, transposing….for a long long time and also teaching all of the above to a few students. I was so happy to find that there are others out there that will at least “try” to risk falling off of a black key, and giving improv a try. I do teach young kids all of the four octave scales….(have an unusual way to teach the correct fingering). Young students catch on quickly and totally “get it”….They find improvising, as well as the blues to be fascinating.Improv and composing has been a part of my life for over 60 years. It was so meaningful to find your web site and realize that I am not the only one teaching improv. How do I teach it? First by letting them play simple folk songs r.h. In every key I will add accompaniment and they love
    not having to always be tied to notes. I find that the kids who do the improv and transposition with me are good sight readers as well as very interested in playing for me what their orchestra is playing. I have one student who is an eighth grader and is also a violist and French horn player….She needs to hear a song once…and then she will play the orchestral part for me on the piano, or her horn part for me or her viola part in any key. It is a delight to have children say..”should I transpose my piece into D flat major now?” I find that most of these kids have such good ears that some are easily into identifying keys on the piano after learning how to do music off the page. These students work hard….love to make up melodies for me while I play with them or play part of a melody and they finish the phrase.I am enjoying teaching piano using a non traditional children’s book which has folk songs, sophisticated fingerings and also use more than just the key of C Major. It is a delight to even see my adult students wanting to learn how to play by ear, improvise and transpose. Thanks for the inspiration…They also love working with blues and jazz….and then Bach (by notes). My classical training makes me teach the classics like I learned them! I am so glad that I found this site. Thanks Again…..! Karen Atwood.

    • What a great comment. Your students are lucky to have you esp. since playing by ear is most easily learned at a younger age when the mind is so malleable. Have you thought about writing or lecturing on your approach? I’m sure other teachers would be interested for example in your approach to scales and how you demystify playing by ear.

      • Thanks, Bradley. Most of my colleagues have seen me improvise in front of large crowds at our yearly “Monster Concert”……I think that they might
        be intimidated. Most of them have very large studios and do not teach 45 min.lessons like I do…..also most need notes for “Happy Birthday” or even an amen or a threefold amen. I would love to offer some coaching seminars…..but it might have to be elsewhere.

  4. Transposition has been a blessing in my life since I learned it from my piano teacher in the fifth grade. I use it every time I play, for church services, funerals, other public events….or just improvising and having fun using the creative part of my brain.

    I like to incorporate transposition as the students are learning to play their four octave scales….which is a blog in itself.

    I find that the younger the student….my youngest is a second grader who came with a lot of natural talent….That is not normal, and we all know that “normal” is only a setting on a dryer. So, let’s say, that the student is playing songs by ear…”Mary had a little lamb”, “Twinkle twinkle”” you know the list!…..
    This is the time to start letting them play the melody first in C Major and then head up the chromatic “steps” of the scale. They find it intriguing and can keep climbing up half step by half step even if the scales are not totally mastered. They can tell just by listening which key is right or wrong. Cadences are also taught at this time…..after awhile they might ask you if they could transpose some of their lesson songs into other keys…This is when it really gets fun….let’s say they are playing in D Major…then they go automatically up to E Flat….this is when we also go over how many flats and what order they are written on the staff…..It becomes this fun piano game for them. Also, they are able to incorporate the left hand as well. It depends on the individual student….but when I add an accompaniment in the left hand, even “Mary had a little lamb” sounds pretty good. Then, of course…fingering comes into play…..and the list goes on, and the band plays on! Becoming an eye and ear musician takes work and is not a drive through McDonald’s!

    One thing I left out, was that I prefer the chromatic method of going through the keys to the circle of fifths, cause it just seems more natural for young students, and they do not get frustrated by the math game if they are transposing from a page….going up a fifth might require less sharps or flats, but,young children do not need to be rushed to the ER if they accidentally fall off of a black key,

    Transposition becomes a skill that is so important. All of this helps develop the ear…..and adds so much to the joy of music!

Leave a Comment

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.

WordPress spam blocked by CleanTalk.
Improve your keyboard creativity in live, interactive online group lessons. Click to learn more.
Hello. Add your message here.