Friday Film Find

I’m sure most of you have seen this video before, but it’s one of my all-time favorites! I especially love to show it to beginning students to inspire them to think more musically and creatively in their playing. Don’t you just love how much fun all these guys are having?!

Free Improvisation Handbook by Richard Grayson

One of my studio moms posted a link to this video on Facebook:

I thought it was really cool and started checking more into this amazing pianist/improviser, Richard Grayson. After digging a while, I unearthed a link to his Improvising at the Keyboard handbook, a work in progress that is already an incredibly helpful resource for anyone interested in learning to improvise. His explanations and examples are easy to understand and put into practice. I’m looking forward to using it myself and with my students!

Do We Have Time for an Improv?

This is a question I hear frequently at the end of lessons these days and I love it! Ever since I attended the workshop by Forrest and Akiko Kinney a couple of years ago and started using the Pattern Play series, my studio has been transformed. We focus so much more on making music together, and many of my students have grown to love and excel at improvising.

I found out that the Kinneys conduct Teacher Creativity Intensive courses during the summer to equip teachers to use the series more effectively with their students. I’ve been wanting to go for a while, and this year it looks like it’s really going to happen, so I wanted to let you all know about it in case you’re interested in being a part of this fabulous opportunity!

The course I’m planning to attend is on August 2-3 in the Seattle, Washington area (the store where they are held is in Tukwila), and there are six openings left! If you’re interested, be sure to visit the website and register. I’m super excited about learning and growing in my own improvisation skills and then coming back and equipping my students so that they will gain more confidence in their ability to sight-read and improvise “on the fly” at the piano!

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!

A Wonderful Piano Improvisation Project

Anyone who’s been reading here very long knows that I’m practically in love with the Pattern Play series by Forest and Akiko Kinney. So I was thrilled to recently come across this fabulous improvisation project that Anne Crosby Gaudet used with her students! Read the post for a complete description of how she set the project up with her students and then watch this wonderful photo montage with improvised music by one of her students:

I can hardly wait to try this in my studio!

A Student Success with Scales Patterns and Improv Book!

How do you know if a particular book or approach is helping a student? Well, when the student tells you that they think the book has really helped them, that’s a pretty good indication. :-) If only all students would just come right out and say so!

One of my older beginners has been using Scales, Patterns and Improvs Book 1 by Barbara Kreader this year and commented several weeks ago that she could see that it had really helped her in a number of different areas. It’s not her favorite thing in the world, but seeing the benefits for herself has motivated her to keep working through it. I used the book with a piano camp group one summer, but this was my first time to use it for an individual lesson. Here are some of the specific areas she mentioned:

  • Listening – since she tends naturally to be more visual than aural, playing along with the CD helped her hear the different parts and how they fit together.
  • Theory – each unit focuses on one key and has an improv exercise, a scale, chord progression, arpeggio, and a short piece in that key. She said this helped her understand the different keys much better.
  • Rhythm – this is an area that has been more challenging since Day One, so using this book helped her come a long way in being able to keep the beat going and in working toward accurate rhythms.

This was so helpful for me to know! I can use her input when I start using this book with other students – which of course I’m going to now! :-) And perhaps this will be one way that I can start addressing my technique troubles that I mentioned yesterday. We’ll see!

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!

The Any Song Assignment

Do you have students who love to doodle around on the piano (or, as one student once declared to me, he liked to “type around on the keys sometimes” :-)) and do all sorts of things at the keyboard besides practice their assignments? Or perhaps you’ve encountered the student who can play up and down the keyboard with ease, but struggles to read the most simple hands together pieces? I’m sure I’m not the only one with students like this!

The solution I’ve come up with over the past several years is what I call the “Any Song” assignment. That’s about all there is to it! I write Any Song… :-) in the student’s assignment book and tell them that they can prepare anything at all that they want and surprise me with it the following week. For someone like me who loves to sight-read and stick to the printed page, an assignment like this would be nerve-wracking, but for students like I mentioned above, this is like giving them a bucket of candy to munch on. They love it!

I was actually inspired to do this by the older brother of a student that I started in lessons a couple of years ago. He made a point to tell me one day that his younger brother was capable of playing much better than he had demonstrated up to this point at his lessons. A desire to encourage his natural musical gifts while still developing other important skills is what prompted the implementation of the Any Song assignment. He’s been surprising me with new songs almost every week for a couple of years now, and I’m convinced that he’s never going to run out! I’ve since used it with several other students, also with great success.

In fact, a few weeks ago, I introduced the concept to a high school student who has been studying with me for about a year and a half. I knew he enjoyed doing creative arranging and such, but for some reason it just occurred to me recently to try the Any Song assignment. Once he clarified exactly what it was, he got this huge smile on his face and exclaimed, “You’re going to let me play any song that I want to? I love you!” Oh what fun it is to discover the things that excite our students!

The Best Thing We’ve Done This Spring…

Even though I didn’t really feel like I knew what I was doing yet, I decided to launch into something new as soon as I returned from the MTNA conference. We’ve been doing it for several weeks now and it has been close to revolutionary in my studio! I’ve picked up a variety of improvising how-tos over the years because it’s something I’ve always wanted to learn, but none of them have been as helpful as I hoped they would be. In contrast, the Pattern Play series by Akiko and Forrest Kinney that I was introduced to at the MTNA conference has been everything I hoped it would be and more!

The very first week I was back, I decided to incorporate improvising into every lesson. I started with a brief discussion of what it means to improvise – comparing it to improv in the drama world. In essence, I wanted students to know that when you improvise, you are drawing from a repertoire of things that you have already learned and arranging it in a new and spontaneous way. Similarly, in dramatic improv, you are using words and phrases and even scenarios that you already have experience with; you’re just arranging them in a fresh way on-the-spot to achieve the desired end.

We started with the first improvisation in the book – World Piece – and just started right into playing, the student in the treble and me in the bass. I told them that we would try to listen to each other and match our sound and style so that it would be as musical as possible. Then, we would try to anticipate the approach to the end and finish together. You should have seen the looks on so many of their faces as we created beautiful sounds spontaneously. They LOVED it! I love it! We’ve continued this improvisation activity at each lesson since, and I echo the description of this series that states, “students will not only learn to play, they’ll play to learn.” This is a great way to introduce and reinforce various musical concepts. Plus, regardless of age, musical ability, or level of playing, every student can be successful at improvising and creating beautiful music if they are given the right tools.