In the past two months I’ve spent time with almost every one of my students on improvisation. This includes my youngest beginning students, advanced classical musicians, as well as all four piano classes I teach with students ranging from child to senior adult.
Why spend time on improvisation? Music is communication. Improvisation is most free and simple form of musical communication. It is such an important part of our music education. It is a simple concept that enables a student to grow by leaps and bounds. Unfortunately, it is also a neglected teaching concept--perhaps because many teachers don’t feel equipped to teach it. But, it is something any teacher and any student can do!
Last March, I enjoyed a workshop led by Brian Chung at the Music Teacher’s National Convention in Spokane, Washington. Brian Chung is an expert teacher on classical improvisation. He has a wonderful book titled, Improvisation at the Piano.
I’m going to share this short video as an introduction to Brian’s teaching on improvisation and in upcoming posts, I’m going to break this down into a few ideas to try--the same ideas we did in my classes and private lessons so you can try them on your own or in your teaching.
Martha Argerich is among the most inspiring pianists of our era and has given us decades of great performances. Her expressive and lyrical playing sets a high bar for all others playing this instrument. In a New York Philharmonic Orchestra program notes, Ravel was quoted, "The G-major Concerto took two years of work, you know. The opening theme came to me on a train between Oxford and London. But the initial idea is nothing. The work of chiseling then began. We've gone past the days when the composer was thought of as being struck by inspiration, feverishly scribbling down his thoughts on a scrap of paper. Writing music is seventy-five percent an intellectual activity." Perhaps that can be an inspiration to a composer or arranger who hasn't yet found the "muse" for a piece that allows them to quickly expel it to paper, but is slowly working through ideas and crafting their own masterpiece. American jazz was the inspiration behind this piece for Ravel and it is filled with both great excitement and beautiful lyrical themes that Argerich performs masterfully!
Think about a person who can sit down at the piano and just begin to play. They probably don't need music. Maybe, they are even improvising and simply playing from their heart. Isn't that a great image and goal for any pianist? I certainly think so! But, what I think is strange is the fact that most piano teachers do not make that their goal at all in their teaching. Rather than helping the student understand what makes music work, we focus on repertoire lists--checklists of pieces that we've been told they should learn to play. The student may learn some scales and chord patterns, but more times than not, they don't learn to read chord charts let alone improvise and create music.
Piano methods have their place, and the study of great repertoire is very important, but too often, we get lazy as piano teachers and go through our routines, processes and curricula without helping the student understand "why" and help them apply what they are learning as they grow as musicians.
My group piano classes are built on the goal of teaching students to be able to play and enjoy music. It is a practical type of instruction. Doing this in a group with peers allows students to interact and learn from each other perhaps getting new ideas to try for themselves.
A new class has just begun called Piano Fun - Pop Hits. While we will focus on specific popular melodies as a class, the skills the students will be developing can be applied and will be useful for playing any music the student is interested in playing--classical, pop, rock, gospel, blues--and students will be encouraged to discover new things and share them with others in the class.
Sound interesting? A Pop Hits class is starting up this week on Thursday afternoon at 1pm, and there will be other similar classes being launched in the very near future at other times if that time does not work for you. Let me know if you're interested and I'd love to have you in class. Contact me!