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3 minutes reading time (615 words)

Steps to teaching improvisation


If you are a regular reader of this column, you probably already teach creativity alongside traditional reading skills. However, if you are wondering how to structure this aspect of your lessons, you are not alone. After speaking on this topic, it's not uncommon for teachers to tell me—under their breath, almost secretively as if it's something to feel guilty about—that they enjoy teaching improvisation but they don't feel confident about how they go about it. Lacking a well-planned curriculum, they resort to just making it up as they go along. My first response is that coaching creativity is a subjective, individualized, and often messy process, so there's nothing wrong with "making it up as you go along" (which is actually quite a nice definition of improvisation). But I also understand that, given the time constraints of our lessons, teaching creativity within a flexible framework is helpful. 


When introducing a new creative concept, remember the acronym SCAT, the jazz vocal style often associated with Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. Use these steps to nurture your students' first unsure creative sparks into glowing embers that eventually ignite artistic fires.  


Begin by offering specific instructions. For example, you can ask beginners to play a few pre-determined "safe" notes over your accompaniment. Late-elementary students might embellish a melody with a particular technique such as repeating or mixing up notes in the melody (see past columns for specific ideas). Intermediate students could explore a particular scale or progression that you suggest. The goal is to pare down the wide world of musical possibilities to one or two achievable bite-sized concepts with which to experiment right in the lesson.


Cultivate your students' creative efforts with honest praise. Whatever they play, you can always find something to compliment. If McKenna only plays a few quiet, timid notes, you can say, "I like how expressively you touch the keys." If Michael pounds out loads of loud notes non-rhythmically, you can comment, "Wow, your enthusiasm for improvising is exciting." If a nervous student refuses to play even a single note on the first try, support her with a smile while saying, "I love how you incorporate silence into your improvisation." The goal is to build their confidence and encourage exploration, not mastery. Make them feel that making up music with you is fun and safe.


Help your students discover more possibilities by asking questions. Let their playing lead you. For example, McKenna might consider playing more notes next time by considering, "How would it sound if you started in the middle of the keyboard and then moved to a higher range?" Michael could be encouraged to explore rhythmic stability and dynamic variety by suggesting, "What would the soundtrack for a movie scene of a train moving steadily further and further away sound like?" If you come up short on creative ideas, invite students to think for themselves with, "What could you change or add to this improvisation?" Notice the shift here from a traditional "teacher knows all" perspective so necessary to teaching written music to one of mutual exploration when creating together. 

Turn them loose

After experimenting with a number of possibilities around a particular improvisational challenge, turn them loose to do their own thing by asking them to play around with more creative possibilities at home. Remind them that, in your view, there is no right or wrong way to make original music. However, there are always other options to consider when making artistic choices. You may be surprised at what comes back in the next lesson. Unexpected outcomes are part of what makes teaching creativity so much fun. Until next time, enjoy your creative music-making journey.

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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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