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:
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 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.
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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:
- Beginners – Student improvises patterns or stories while teacher accompanies
- Intermediate – Understanding and playing chords with quick recall are included in lessons
- 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,
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Provides a straightforward explanation of the principles, common practices, and variations in contemporary pop/jazz chord nomenclature.