Monday Mailbag – Teaching Hymn Improvisation

I’d like to know how you teach students about hymn improvisation! Do you have any teaching ideas? Thanks a lot!

This is one of those things that I heard other pianists do growing up and always wanted to learn, but never could figure out how to do it. Gradually, through the years as I asked lots of people for tips and read ideas and took classes here and there, I began to pick up some helpful suggestions. Obviously, it’s not something that comes naturally for me, and I don’t have a very good ear either, so it’s been pretty challenging, but I’ve definitely made progress. And hopefully I have a better grasp of how to teach students who want to learn, but don’t come by it naturally!

First off, there’s a great website now that I wish had been around when I was trying to learn hymn improvisation: The Church Pianist. The site is run by Jennifer Cook, and there are tons of great tips and resources for aspiring church musicians. I recommend starting with this post – The Church Pianist: How to Improvise Hymns?

Jennifer has lots of systematic approaches for those who are at the level where they are ready to start playing hymns. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that there are lots of things that you can do much earlier on with a student so that they are already developing the skills they will need for improvisation – whether it’s playing from a hymnal or reading a lead sheet. Here are some of the things I do:

* Require students to learn scales, arpeggios, primary triads and inversions, 7th chords, etc. Applied theory and fluid technique are essential for improvising. You have to not only know the key and chord structure, but be so used to playing it that it comes pretty naturally when you’re incorporating it into an improvisation.

* Have students pick out familiar tunes by ear, then add blocked chords, then broken chords, then make their own arrangements, etc. This is helping train the student’s ear for melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic aspects of playing music. I almost always begin with Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star because everyone knows it and it’s simple enough for anyone to learn.

* Encourage students to transpose early on. As soon as my students have learned their first several pentascales, I give them a challenge to transpose a particular assigned piece into another key. For the young students I describe this as moving a piece from the C-pentascale position and playing the same pattern of notes in, say, the G-pentascale pattern. For older students who have learned all their scales, I usually say, “Transpose to as many keys as possible” and then put little check boxes beside the name of each key. This is building muscle memory and good listening skills.

* Do a variety of improvisation activities with students to help them gain confidence in playing things that are printed on a page in front of them:
Quick and Easy Improvisation with Students
Black Key Improvisation
The Best Thing We’ve Done this Spring

* As far as actual hymn improv for younger students, I start them out with an early level hymn book. There are a number of different ones out there. Just keep in mind that you don’t want a book of arranged hymns for this; you want some pretty run-of-the-mill melody in the right hand, single note or chord in the left hand, for this purpose. Have them pick a favorite hymn and learn it as written. Then talk through the underlying theory with them – what key it’s in, what the primary triads are, etc. Help them come up with creative ideas to add in extras in the music that might sound good – full chords where there are single notes, fill-in notes when there is a skip in the melody, broken chords instead of blocked chords, etc.

* Have the student play hymn arrangements that are level-appropriate. This is a great way to learn as well! Try to help them be attuned to what they’re playing – point out chord patterns, scale passages, cool-sounding harmonies, etc. and then encourage them to transfer those same arrangement techniques to other hymns.

Hopefully these ideas are helpful! I’m sure there are tons of other ideas out there, so if you have a suggestion for helping students learn improvisation skills, please feel free to share!

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!

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