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 mistakenly conclude that music exploration is not worthwhile. Some adults even say that they got the distinct impression that their teacher felt it her duty to squash attempts to play even a little ditty that was not written on the page. No deviation. No wasting time. No… independent thinking.
What if we teachers could realize that often the most effective learning occurs when students are encouraged to experiment with rhythms and combinations of tones? What if we could allow for even a small amount of time to listen to our students’ musical discoveries?
I’ve found that it doesn’t take more than a few moments (often less than two minutes) to listen to a student’s creation. And the results of doing so have been phenomenal. I try to give my students 100% of my attention while they perform and then I praise them to high heaven and point out all the things I loved. The student has a mile-wide grin and you can actually see their confidence ballooning. It’s been amazing to watch student compositions become more complex with time. And the insights they gain while experimenting at the keyboard transform them into better musicians.
This doesn’t mean that we allow students to run wild. We still teach from our curriculum and help our students master their assigned pieces with accuracy. But it does mean that we value and nurture our students’ abilities to create.
Keep in mind that ALL of the beautiful music we now enjoy comes to us as a result of someone experimenting at the keys. Nannerl wrote of her younger brother, Mozart:
He often spent much time at the clavier, picking out thirds, which he was ever striking, and his pleasure showed that it sounded good…. At the age of five, he was already composing little pieces, which he played to his father who wrote them down. (1)
Can you imagine our tremendous loss if Mozart had been constantly berated with “Stop dinking around and get back to your lesson. Play some REAL music.”? Could any of your students have within them the potential for creating legendary music?
Key Takeaway: Encourage your students to create. Listen to their compositions.
Tip #2 Teach and Apply Theory, Scales and Chords
A student’s capacity for creating grows alongside her understanding of music fundamentals. Teach scales, chords and music theory. Then show your students how these fundamentals empower them to compose songs.
There is no need for kids to guess which notes could sound good in a composition when they know their scales and chords. Some kids think practicing scales is more boring and pointless than watching paint dry. When kids feel this way, they will whine or make up excuses (some of these excuses can be quite creative and entertaining) for why week after week they “forgot” or “didn’t have time” to practice their scales.
I’ve had the most success when I foster the idea that scales are not an end in themselves but rather a tool that helps us better understand how music is organized, makes it easier to analyze and learn their assigned pieces, and allow them to create their own fun songs.
Even young beginner children can start creating music once they’ve mastered their first scale. Pull out an easy song, like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star in the key of C. Point out that this song uses notes from the C Major scale that they just passed off. Tell your student that he can create his own song by placing his hand on the C scale and using any of those notes in any order. You will teach more advanced techniques later, but if you encourage simple creativity right from the start, your students will make more progress, and are less likely to experience the paralyzing fear that holds so many adults hostage when they attempt playing without sheet music.
Also be sure to thoroughly teach music theory and its application. Way too many students spend years and years completing theory assignments and remain totally clueless about the incredible capacity they are developing to compose their own music.
When you teach an element of music theory, go beyond the “what” to teach the “why” and the “how.” Music is a powerful force that can uplift and inspire or cause us to feel a thousand other emotions. Show your students how they can manipulate the concepts you teach to express their ideas and moods through music.
Here are some simple examples you can use right away with your students. Introduce half steps and ask your student to play some examples. Ask her to describe what she feels when she hears the tones. Are the sounds tense or spooky? Then give her the assignment to explore with these tones at home and return with a song. Talk about rests and the power of silence or tell your students that a fermata allows a musical moment to linger. When you introduce chords, again discuss the sound and emotional characteristics of each chord type. Then ask your student to go home and choose four chords and practice switching between them while experimenting with different rhythms. She just might discover on her own a common chord progression, which will give you even more to talk about and explore at the next lesson.
Your students will be creating stunning pieces in no time when you thoroughly teach music theory and its application. My website has loads of ideas for teaching music theory through engaging, kid-friendly activities. Click the link for my free theory printables and activities.
Key Takeaway: Treat the fundamentals as tools that empower musicians to create.
Tip #3 Use Favorite Pieces as Springboards for Composition and Improv
You know those moments when your student plays his piece and you can tell by his energy and the gleam in his eye that he LOVES this song? These are perfectly primed opportunities to get your students creating.
Spend some time with your student to analyze the piece. Break it down into its basic elements. Which of these features make the song so much fun to play? Point out that he can use those exact same features to create a similar song. And this song will be even more special and even more fun to play because it is HIS song.
For example, one student recently passed off a song in her method book that has a Middle Eastern flair. She loved the exotic sound, so we talked about the Persian scale and I encouraged her to go home and use the notes from this scale to compose her own song. She composed a stunning piece and had a blast! She had never imagined that she could develop the ability to create such intriguing music. Additionally, her understand and appreciation for music fundamentals exploded. Who knew that you could concoct an entirely different flavor by simply adjusting a few tones from your scale by a half step?
I have seen this happen over and over again. The pause in our sometimes drone-like progression through the method books is worth it. Your students will gain more skill and more passion for the piano when you follow this simple tip and use favorite pieces as springboards.
Key Takeaway: Take advantage of your student’s love for a favorite song. Your student will have a ball analyzing the piece and then creating her own similar song.
Your students, even your very young students, really can create their own music. You will be surprised and delighted by the impressive songs they compose when you encourage and listen to their creative endeavors; teach the application of theory, scales and chords; and use their favorite pieces as springboards. I wish you all the best as you help your young students develop the skills for a lifetime of enjoyment at the piano.
Author of Piano Scales Make Piano Magic
(1) Deutsch, Otto Erich (1965). Mozart: A Documentary Biography. Peter Branscombe, Eric Blom, Jeremy Noble. Stanford: Stanford University Press. ISBN 978-0-8047-0233-1. OCLC 8991008.