Celebrating Thanksgiving by Giving Back (and with a $5 off Coupon Code!)

Perhaps one of the sweetest students I’ve ever taught, Luke is the one who would remark in awe at how much time I must have spent planning various activities or thank me enthusiastically for helping him with something. In his early years of piano lessons, as a 7-year old boy, I remember him looking up at me and innocently asking one day what I thought I would do when I grew up. I told him I thought I would like to be a piano teacher. He nodded in affirmation, seemingly unaware that I was already carrying out my “grown up” plans.

Luke is also the one who would sit at the piano with me for an hour improvising on pattern after pattern, but then the minute I pulled out a book with music to read, he would start glancing at the clock and commenting on the time. 🙂 Suffice it to say that his learning struggles made reading music a chore, but when given the tools and opportunity, his true musicality shined brilliantly! Here’s one of our improvs:

It’s been a few years since our days in the studio together, but I’ve kept in touch with Luke and his family, especially as Luke faces a degenerative disease that has relegated him to a wheelchair for the time being. In spite of all this, Luke maintains a spirit of gratitude, expressing that even though he doesn’t like what he’s going through he knows that God has a purpose for him in it. In honor of him, I’ve decided to run a special Thanksgiving sale in the Music Matters Blog store. From now through Thanksgiving use the code GIVETHANKS to get $5 off any purchase, and 50% of every purchase made will be given to Luke and his family to help cover some of his medical costs.

You might even want to think ahead to possible Christmas gifts for your students, like a beautiful Music Manuscript Book, The Pianist’s Book of Musical Scales and Keys, or a Mini Music Manual:

Piano Student Gifts

These have been some of my students’ best-loved and most-used personal music resources over the years! Just purchase and download once and then you can print as many copies as you need for your students (and yourself!).

Or perhaps you want to jump start your New Year with a motivating studio practice incentive theme! Or maybe you even want to take some time off this holiday season to curl up with an inspirational [non-music-or-teaching-related-oh-my!] book to refresh your soul. If so, Born to Deliver might be just the thing:

Whatever the case may be, I am thankful for each of you and for the incredible opportunity to be an independent music teacher and a part of the thriving and supportive music education community. This list of 30 Thanksgiving Blessings that I wrote for the Clavier Companion blog several years ago is every bit as true today as it was then!

Creativity on Heart and Soul

Have you ever had a student come into their lesson thrilled to show you the new song that their friend just taught them? Only to discover that it’s at the top of every piano teacher’s list of Most Disliked Songs? You know which one I’m talking about, don’t you? Yup. Heart and Soul. But, as much as you might want to plug your ears and scream the next time you hear it, the reality is that students love playing it! Plus, it can serve as the perfect tool for learning to improvise freely using the chord progression in it. In this video Claire demonstrates the Heart and Soul remix she came up with just for fun:

Integrated Learning

One of the things that I love about teaching piano is the challenge of figuring out how to integrate every part of the student’s learning so that they understand concepts in a relevant way. One of the ways this can be done very effectively is through structured improvisation assignments.

If you’ve been a reader on Music Matters Blog for any length of time you know that I’m a huge fan of Pattern Play as the most effective approach I’ve found to truly teaching improvisation at the piano. But now that most of my students (and I!) have become more comfortable improvising, we create a variety of assignments from week to week that utilize improvising as a way to help students cement various musical concepts.

Right now Mercy is learning chord inversions as part of her Theory and Technique section in our C2 practice incentive theme, so this was the short piece she improv-ed using a c-minor chord and inversions:

It’s amazing how much more exciting and relevant theory concepts are when you see them become a creative expression like this!

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!