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.

Black Key Improvisation

I guess I’m on an improvisation kick this week! As much as I am not a naturally gifted improviser, I have always admired those who were, and I see the value in helping students develop an openness to improvisation. Ever since I started doing student interviews years ago, one of the areas that I include in the interview is a brief improvisation activity. I tell the student that we will play a black key improvised duet. They can play any black keys they want and it should sound good!

I usually give them five style options: waltz, circus, cowboy, flowing, jazzy. Once they pick a style, I start improvising an accompaniment pattern in that style in the lower register on the piano. They are usually a little timid at first, but I gently encourage them to just try playing any black key in the upper register. If they can, I also encourage them to match my beat with whatever they are playing. As they warm up to the idea, they often play with both hands and even try imitating the rhythmic or melodic patterns that I am playing.

As we do this, I watch for three primary things:

  1. Did they maintain a steady beat?
  2. Were they relaxed and free in their technique?
  3. Did they incorporate the specified style of playing?

These are huge musical indicators to me and give me a good feel for the strengths and weaknesses that we will likely encounter in their musical studies. But at the same time, the student has a blast discovering that he can already play something that sounds so good even though he’s never taken lessons before! Of course I praise the student profusely for his musical abilities and both he and his parents leave even more excited than before to start lessons! 🙂

Quick and Easy Improvisation with Students!

If I have a student who struggles with note reading, but loves “doodling around” on the piano and/or if I have extra time at the end of a lesson, I often opt for my quick and easy improvisation activity. I sit at one piano and the student sits at the other (if you only have one piano, one can be in the higher register and the other in the lower). Between the student and myself, we determine the following three elements:

1. Chord (for more advanced students, we pick a key rather than just a chord)
2. Visual description (i.e. putting a baby to sleep, walking around at a carnival, watching a thunderstorm, etc.)
3. Time signature and tempo

One of us gives a count-in to set up the beat and then we begin playing. We can play any note of the chord/key anywhere on the whole piano, but we have to play with the beat and try to capture the mood of the visual description. We continue for an indeterminate amount of time and then try to coordinate a convincing ending by exchanging glances and listening to each others’ sound.

This is super easy (even for a non-improviser like me!) and almost always sounds surprisingly cool – which the students love!