Pentatonic Power Part by Laura Lowe

new profileI’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 have prepared ahead of time by removing the 4th and 7th scale degrees to create an instrument that only plays the pentatonic notes. Since the notes of the pentatonic scale will blend with just about any chord progression within the key, children can instantly make music together. Pentatonic improvisation gives students a quick and easy way to exercise their creative muscles with immediate success both at the lesson and at home.

So, how can you put the power of the pentatonic scale to work in your studio? Here are a bunch of ideas, but first, here’s a quick explanation of the major and minor pentatonic scales.

For reference:  
The major pentatonic scale corresponds to the major scale degrees 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6.
The minor scale uses the same notes as its relative major. For instance the a minor pentatonic scale is a, c, d, e, g – the same notes as C Major pentatonic, just starting on “la.”

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The Boring to Beautiful Improv
Play a boring ostinato consisting of a fifth on do and sol (blocked or broken) and have your student help your boring part sound more beautiful by improvising with the notes of a pentatonic scale. The easiest way to do this at first is to play in Gb. The student can use just the black keys, and your ostinato is on Gb and Db. To add some interest, you can shift to an open fifth on la and mi – in Gb this is Eb and Bb.

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As students learn their major and minor scales, have them find the pentatonic scale in each key. Repeat the “boring music” exercise in each key to help students become comfortable in each one. This simple improvisation has proven to be one of the best tools for giving reluctant students a fail-proof way to improvise, and also for helping students explore and develop their creative melodic ideas.

Observations from doing this with my own students on a regular basis:

1.  Giving students opportunities at the lesson to improvise validates their creativity, and this means that they are also more likely to improvise at home.

2. Students are becoming more aware of tonality – what key they are playing in and where to find “home base.”

3.  Students’ improvisations start out sounding very random, but after repeated experiences, they come to realize that using short rhythmic or melodic motives can give their tunes some structure and make them sound more “normal.” (As we progress, I’ll help them think in terms of melodic motives and structure, but to start, I just want to get them playing!)

4.  Students eventually ask to learn my part and begin to play both hands together, even when I didn’t think they’d be ready for the two-handed coordination.

5.  Almost all of my students love doing this. It’s especially beneficial when working with a student who is struggling with note-reading. For a few minutes at every lesson, everything he plays is correct.

Graduate to Chord Progressions
Instead of playing an open fifth ostinato underneath the improvised part, use a chord progression. The easiest one is the I-IV-I-V-I primary chord progression we all learn to play in conjunction with scales for exams.

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As your students learn these cadence patterns for their exams, they can begin to accompany their pentatonic improvisations themselves. This is a great way for students to make the connection between their scales/cadences and the literature that they play, both of their own invention and that of others.

You could also play those primary chords in the standard 12-bar blues pattern. Again, as students are able, they can learn to accompany their pentatonic melodies themselves and many will eventually ask to do this. In another post, I’ll talk about teaching some melodic “licks” that students can use as “vocabulary words” when improvising, but as a starting place, I’d suggest letting students play whatever they want until they grow comfortable.

12-Bar Blues Progression

I    /  /  / IV  /  /  / I  /  /  / I  /  /  /
IV /  /  / IV  /  /  / I  /  /  / I  /  /  /
V  /  /  / IV  /  /  / I  /  /  / I or V

Don’t feel limited to primary chords in your accompaniment! You might try this progression which has been used in umpty-gajillion pop songs:

I – V – vi – IV
or the progression from Pachelbel’s Canon in D:

I – V – vi – iii – IV – I – IV – V

Wouldn’t it be fun for your students to create their own variations for the Canon in D? Since the pentatonic scale tones will fit with all of the chords, there’s no way to mess up! Creating their own set of variations is a great way for them to really understand this well-known piece.
You could also play them a recording of Mozart’s 12 Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je maman,” and then have them learn to play the Twinkle Twinkle tune over a primary chord progression. There’s the theme. Then use the pentatonic scale to create variations in the RH over the LH progression. (There’s a handy lead sheet for Twinkle, Twinkle here.)

Here are some other accompaniment possibilities for pentatonic improvisation.

Use Method Book Pieces

As an accompaniment:
I’ve been experimenting with having students improvise using the pentatonic scale while I play their method book piece as an accompaniment. Because pentatonic nearly always blends, it often works pretty well.

As a source for a ritornello:
Another option is to take a 4-measure phrase from a method book piece and treat it as a ritornello. Give the student 4 measures to improvise using the pentatonic scale in the key of the piece, then you play the method book phrase in between, and repeat as many times as you like. This is a good, hands-on way to teach ritornello form.

Use Piano Maestro

I sat down with Piano Maestro and went through nearly all of the Alfred Premiere Level 1B lesson book, playing the background orchestration on Piano Maestro while I improvised on the pentatonic scale in the key of the piece. Most of the time, it works pretty well! Since you’re not playing the written melody, you won’t earn any stars, but you will be earning improvisation skill! You can do this in the lesson, and if your students have this app at home, they can practice improvising with a background track at home.

Use Tin Pan Rhythm or Loopy
These ipad apps allow you to either set up a chord progression or record a loop. Your loop might be an ostinato such as the open fifths I described above. With Loopy, you can layer up to 4 parts, I think. This means, you could take an Orff orchestration and record the parts and then improvise over it. With Tin Pan Rhythm, you can set up a chord progression of 4 to 8 chords and then improvise above it. So, you could set it to play the progression for Canon in D and practice your variations!

Use iRealPro
There’s a band that lives in this app and plays chord progressions! The app has several charts meant to be used as practice exercises, and you can also go into the forum and find charts for other songs. The blues exercises work well as an accompaniment to pentatonic improvisation. You can also create your own charts.

Use recorded music or music from a streaming service.
This can double as an ear-training and theory activity if you have students who are up to this. Try putting on Adele’s Rollin’ In The Deep and letting the student explore the piano to figure out that the tonic note is C and the piece is in c minor. The pentatonic scale for c minor will be C – Eb – F – G – Bb – the same notes as the relative Eb major’s pentatonic scale:  Eb – F – G – Bb – C. For lower level students, of course, you can just tell them which pentatonic scale to use! Once the student knows which five notes to use, they can improvise their own part along with the song.

For a really fun Christmas activity, use Winter Wonderland / Don’t Worry Be Happy by Pentatonix and have students improvise on black keys along with the track. Pentatonix generously recorded this one in Gb just for us! Now, you can explain to students what the name “Pentatonix” refers to! In a future post, I’ll list some other songs that work well as a background to pentatonic improvisation and their keys. This is a great way for students to start improvising at home, and it will also serve as a great diagnostic tool for discovering that the student’s piano is out of tune. Keep those business cards from your tuner handy to give out!

I hope you’ll get creative and start exploring what you can do with the pentatonic scale! You’re going to notice it now all the time – the tune for Amazing Grace is completely pentatonic, for instance. My daughter came in humming a song from her middle school’s musical and we realized it was a pentatonic tune – which led her to the piano to play around with it and explore variations on the melody! You’re going to find yourself taking your recorded music to the piano and trying to improvise along with it all the time! And, if you get excited about it, your students will catch this beneficial virus and do the same!

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