Monday Mailbag – How to Equip Students to Improvise at the Piano with Pattern Play

“How have you found the Pattern Play books to be successful? I’ve had some great improvisations while I play a pattern and some where the students play the pattern and I’ll improvise, but getting them to that solo level just has seemed to be intimidating for them.”

One of the “complications” my students can choose as part of our An Italian Intrigue practice incentive theme this year is to “memorize 4 improvisation patterns.” I wanted to provide a systematic way for students to incorporate the skill of improvising into their regular practice routine. This has been just the thing we all needed to move from duet improvisation into solo improvisation. If they choose this option, here’s the process we follow:

1. Start by selecting one or two patterns for the first week, depending on the level and playing ability of the student (World Piece, the first pattern in book one is a great starter piece for even really young students!).

2. Teach the student the left hand pattern by rote and have them practice it several times. Use either chord names or just other guiding instructions to help them remember what to play.

3. Show the student the chords or scale to play in the right and how to use it to improvise a melodic idea.

4. Once they are comfortable with each of these separately, have them try something simple hands together. For those who still seem intimidated by this, I often just have them play one melody note in the right hand with each left hand chord/harmonic interval.

5. After the student gets the hang of playing a single melody note, they can try playing it twice in a row, or playing two melodic notes while the left hand plays each chord/harmonic interval. These small steps are much less scary than trying to jump right in with a full-fledged two-hand improv!

Many of my students have been successful approaching it this way, and giving them time to work on their own with the patterns during the week enables them to develop more confidence before they have to play it in front of someone.

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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