An easy way to learn to have fun learning to improvise
It sometimes seems everyone I talk with is learning to teach online. Our local university has restarted after spring break with online classes. Professors have been busy setting up their teaching and work spaces at home. Studio teachers are also setting up virtual studios and figuring out ways to connect with their students and keep them progressing.
As I write this preparing for an afternoon and evening of lessons, I am reminded of things that I enjoy about virtual lessons. Don't get me wrong, I miss meeting with my students in my studio, but there are several things that I really feel benefit both me and the student as I teach them in this new way, even if it is only temporary.
Seeing the student in their space tops the list for me. I get to see the instrument they are practicing on. It is fun to see its capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses. I see how it is set up. I might have suggestions for the student they never even thought of. I can help a student who thought he had a keyboard without a damper pedal discover that it really is capable of having this pedal and purchasing a usable pedal would be a very small investment. I see what my students use for a bench and how it fits them. We talk about position a lot as we learn technique. Habits are formed at home. Sometimes it is the littlest discovery and suggestion that can make the biggest impact.
Another student has an electric keyboard with a lot of fun sounds. They explain how their child can only practice with the piano sound and use the fun sounds after practice. While I respect this discipline, I incorporate the fun sounds within the lesson and encourage their use in purposeful ways. There's no reason learning can't be fun, and if it will motivate the student to play their pieces with a fun sound as they practice, I'm all for it!
Another benefit is the fact that physical walls have been removed as we create a virtual space. I used to have contact with my students only at their lessons and in that physical studio space. With virtual lessons, I'm sending emails between lessons and they send messages to me. I have an advanced student who has texted me twice in the past week with great questions regarding her music. My students are learning more when it doesn't always have to happen in the scheduled slot.
I'm trying to be more creative as I want to keep students engaged. I'm creating videos and online theory practice. I'll utilize these tools long after the quarantine is lifted and I'm motivated to make more and keep growing in creativity.
Sometimes it takes something that really shakes up our routine to make us better teachers and to think about the things we do. Virtual lessons seem to have done that for me and I think I'll come out at the end of this a better teacher.
Every year, I set aside at least one lesson to explain to students how a piano works. We take apart the piano! Okay, we really don’t take apart the piano, but we open them up and see the inner workings.
The piano is one of the few instruments in which the musician is often not taught how it works and is actually discouraged from most types of maintenance. Don't get me wrong, it is always best to hire an experienced technician to work on your piano for tuning and repairs, but it is also good for us to know a little about the inner-workings of the piano.
For beginning or younger students, I focus this discussion on the concept of the hammer striking the strings, the differences in notes and number of strings per note, as well as the una corda and damper pedals. Seeing how the hammer strikes the strings helps a student understand why we focus on specific hand position and technique for striking the keys. Seeing what the pedals do on a grand piano helps them understand pedals and I’ll rarely have a student continue to call the left pedal the “soft pedal” as they gain a great understanding of why it is called the “una corda.” Even seeing the number of strings is a good jumping point for discussion as to how multiple strings complement each other and create tone. My math or science-loving students usually enjoy a little physics discussion and the harmonic series which can be easily demonstrated with the the sostenuto pedal.
For more advanced students, it is still good to talk about how the hammers and dampers work. I use a working model of the piano action to discuss this. For an advanced student, understanding the action can make a big difference in our technical command of the piano.
For an advanced student, it is helpful to actually see pedal techniques such as half-damper or flutter-pedal. We talk about the una-corda sound being much more than a tool to make the sound softer, but might be compared to a violinist playing with a mute.
In my studio, I have a Yamaha Grand Piano and a Yamaha U1 Studio Upright. Students can compare how the action varies from the two pianos and seeing the actions at work enhances this understanding. As pianists, we typically perform on the piano offered us. We usually don’t get a choice. It may be a hard or light action. It may be bright or dull. Repeated notes may speak easily or sluggish. Understanding the piano, helps us be better pianists. The old adage is that "a great pianist makes even a horrible piano sound wonderful."
A final benefit for students is understanding types of pianos to purchase and ones to avoid. We might discuss why the full-size or console-sized upright better than the spinet. We may discuss why a high-quality upright could be a better purchase than even some brand new grand pianos.
Piano teachers: Teach your students to perform, but also help them to know their instrument. If you are uncomfortable with this, invite a piano technician to lead a class of your students on this topic. Or, do what I do. Take some time to get to know the piano. Read some books on piano tuning and repair. Watch some videos. Talk with piano technicians. Perhaps, you might even develop some skills in tuning and repair. Share that knowledge to help develop musicians that really know the instrument.
You will definitely raise up student pianists that understand their instrument better as they play. Perhaps you’ll even inspire some of your students to train to be skilled piano technicians and we all know there is a need for that in many of our communities.
Over the years I've taught piano, the lesson I've personally learned over and over is that "one size doesn't fit all." Students are different. Interests change. Students of today have a different learning style from the students I taught when I first left college. While the piano method I taught from at that time is still a good option for teachers, I no longer teach that method. In fact, I don't even teach from the method I used after that!
I'm particular as I choose resources for my students. I have learned that the resources I choose play a very significant role in the success of my teaching.
When I started to teach Recreational Music Making group piano classes, I quickly identified a set of resources that work wonderfully for adults. The adults love them and I will continue to use them. But, I was disappointed in the options for children. There were some standouts. I tried one which did not work for the classes I taught. I reviewed several other options including adapting private-lesson curriculum and even adapting adult curriculum, but I did not find a resource that would engage children at their level, keep their interest, be fun, and allow a student to learn and progress, yet creating a learning environment that was built on the purposes of Recreational Music Making.
I wanted a resource that provided a strong foundation for reading music notation, yet would take a young student to that point in an enjoyable way. I wanted a resource that would challenge the student to improvise and create. I wanted a resource that would challenge the student to listen to the music around them. I wanted a resource that would build a strong rhythmic foundation and challenge the student to read and play from chord notation. I wanted a resource that would give a student a vision for all the possibilities playing music on the piano gives them including musical opportunities in school, building a strong foundation to transfer to other instruments, and creating a music lover. On top of all that, I wanted a resource that would allow a student to have a productive mini-semester or two of piano lessons even if they didn't have an instrument at home. One that acknowledged that as a possibility and provided assignment options that could be done without an instrument in addition to assignment options that required a piano or keyboard. Think of the mistakes that could be avoided by parents who rush purchase an inferior instrument so their child can simply start lessons rather than being able to advise them in making a great instrument choice as their child is already learning and developing a love for making music.
Piano Fun for Kids is specifically designed for group lessons. As a distinction from private lessons where most of the student's progress takes place through regular practice at home, in Piano Fun for Kids, most of the student's progress and development takes place within the class. Lessons are short and engaging. Songs are performed together as a class with great accompaniment tracks and these tracks are available for the student to use at home if they wish. The curriculum can be used in private lessons, but it is designed for Recreational Music Making group lessons. There are a total of 8 mini-levels, each takes six-weeks to complete. In most cases, this would be a two-year progression of study. At any time, a student would be able to easily transition into private lessons and after completing the two-year progression, the student would be at a level of expertise where private lessons would be more beneficial than further class study.
The pilot program for Piano Fun for Kids will be offered beginning in the fall semester of 2019 at Wausau Conservatory of Music. A 3-week introductory program called Piano Fun for Kids-Explorers is being offered multiple times during the summer of 2019 as a way to test portions of the curriculum in a class setting and to allow students to try a piano class at no obligation. Families in the Wausau area can sign up for the free classes by clicking here. To sign up for the first level beginning this September, contact the Wausau Conservatory of Music.
We spent six lessons on classical improvisation taking us from a simple one-note improvisation to a beautiful classical improvisation over the chords of Satie’s Gymnopedie 1.
Often, a student has told me that their problem with jazz improvisation is that they don’t know all the scales yet.
It is as if they are looking for a shortcut. “If I only can memorize the major and minor scales and a few modal scales, I’m set to go!” Then, they get discouraged because that is a big task.
You can improvise even if you don’t know all the scales! The more scales you learn, the more material you have for improvisation, but, the reality is that for every scale you learn and explore, you will soon discover there are many more yet to learn and explore. You will never know all the scales, but that is okay. Use what you have.
If you are feeling comfortable with the more classical sounding major and minor scales, start with some modes.
I love ii-V-I progression improvisation and it is so useful in jazz and a great place to start using three scales: Dorian, Mixolydian, and Major (Ionian). It is a great place to begin to expand your improvisational vocabulary.
Of course, other places to explore would be the major and minor blues scales.
Our ability to communicate verbally is a lifelong process and the same can be said about our musical communication through improvisation. Just keep exploring and learning. In the meantime, improvise using what you know even if it is only one-note!
In past posts, we've been working with a list of what makes up music:
We’ve spent the last few times improvising mostly with the first four elements and gradually adding more note tones. Now, let’s expand on that and using what we already know from studying the piano. Understanding and being able to play scales is a great thing to learn and you will make tremendous strides in improvisation. Skips and jumps add interesting elements.
Be sure to remember where home is. This is our tonality. Just because we have a lot of notes to use now, we must remember where our tonality is.
Also, there are eight things on the list of what makes up music. Don’t allow yourself to focus only on the bottom four, be sure you are using all eight always.
Communicate! Improvisation is expressing ourselves musically and communicating whether for our own enjoyment or for an audience, always communicate.
Last time, we were improvising with three notes: our home note, a lower neighbor and an upper neighbor. This time, we’ll explore our neighborhood going up the hill and use our lower neighbor, our home note, and four upper neighbors. This gives us a little 5-fingered scale with one extra note.
The 5-fingered scale has the home note, a passing note, the third of our tonality, another passing note, and the fifth of our tonality. We also have that extra lower neighbor.
We won’t spend a lot of time talking about the music theory of these notes here, but in summary, we have a tonic (our home or tone pitch), the super tonic (upper neighbor), the mediant which determines the mode of the scale (in this case major), the sub-dominant, and the dominant, an important scale note that leads back to the tonic and helps define it as the home and defines the tonality of our piece. We also have the lower neighbor which is our leading tone and “leads” us to our tonic also helping us define and communicate our tonality.
Things get a little trickier now, particularly with fingering, but we’re not caring about proper scale fingerings or anything at this point. Use what you know, but mostly, enjoy improvising with the notes.
Improvise in the same way we have been doing so, but now with six notes. Be sure that the first four elements: Dynamics, Duration, Silence, and Repetition are prioritized as these are just as important as the note tone.
Most students are surprised at this point how good the improvisations begin to sound.
Imagine with me a neighborhood. My home is in the center of the block and we live on a slight hill with the street going up to the right of our house and down to the left.
I have a neighbor on the right of my home and one of the left. We’ll call the neighbor to the right of my home going up the hill my upper neighbor and the neighbor to the left going down the hill my lower neighbor.
I really like my neighbors. They are great friends and I love to hang out with them, but I am always most comfortable at home. I could spend an entire afternoon at one of my neighbors, but I always have the desire to go home. I want to start out at home and end the day at home. I like to sleep in my own bed!
If we think of that C we used last time in one-note improvisation as home, we could say D is our upper neighbor and B is our lower neighbor. C is our Home, but I’m going to give it another name--it is our tonality.
One of the most important parts of a good improvisation is understanding tonality. No matter what the chords do, whether we’re improvising in classical or jazz, or the complexity of the chords, we have a tonality and that is our home.
We are now going to improvise in the exact same way as we did in one-note improvisation, using those first four elements: Dynamics, Note Duration, Silence, and Repetition
Pay attention to the tonality--are we helping the listener know where our home is? How can we creatively use our upper and lower neighbors yet allow as much creativity or even more with regards to dynamics, note duration, silence, and repetition?
Next time, we’ll add even more notes to our improvisation
I began this series with a short video by Brian Chung, and I want to highlight that video again as now, I’d like you to try what he is doing with a simple chord progression.
Chung uses a portion of the beautiful Gymnopedie 1 by Satie. If we were to reduce this to chords, it is a simple repetition of GMaj7 to DMaj7 and back and forth.
To improvise on any progression, use what you know including scales or even portions of scales as well as all of the important elements of music: Dynamics, Note Duration, Silence, Repetition, Note Tone, Scales and Scale Speed, Skipping, and Jumping.
Finding a scale that fits the passage is a great help. In this case, we can improvise using our D Major scale and create something beautiful.
View this video again and try this for yourself and see what creations you can make with improvisation.
One note improvisation removes the number one obstacle most students have and that is knowing which notes to play. With one note improvisation, we make it easy by only allowing them to play one note tone. Brian Chung calls this “Ode to Mr. Morse.” (Morse Code)
What makes up music?
Most of us forget all of these items and jump right to the big question, “What notes should I play?” So, number 5 becomes the priority and the rest are neglected.
One note improvisation eliminates this problem--we’ll only play one--and this allows us to give attention to four other elements that are just as important: Dynamics, Note Duration, Silence, and Repetition.
How to do one-note improvisation:
For a younger student and or even an adult trying this for the first time, the teacher can maintain the steady rhythmic pulse on the low C. Encourage the student to do both parts when and if able to do so. Our goal is to be as creative as possible and improvise even though we are only using one note
Next time, we’ll begin to expand our tonal color by adding a few notes.