Making things up seems like the polar opposite to learning how to do something. And most very first piano lessons given throughout the history of, well, piano lessons, would have been more like an information dump than an improvisation festival.
A whole lot more.
This is a Middle C, this is a treble clef, your thumb is number one and your index finger is number two (etc.), this is a crotchet/quarter note and it’s worth one beat, this is a staff, these are barlines…
If a student is learning in a reading-first paradigm (as compared to body-first approaches, as characterised by teaching coming from, for example, the Russian tradition; ear-first approaches, as most purely expressed in the Suzuki method; or musicianship-first approaches, coming out of Orff-Kodaly, Dalcroze, or Gordon, for example) then there is actually quite a lot to know before the student can start to play.
Fifty or sixty years ago that first-lesson information dump would cover semibreves (whole notes) through to semiquavers (sixteenth notes), dotted notes, a range of simple time signatures, both clefs, names of all notes on both clefs, the basic accidentals, the concept of leger lines, and a scale or two. At the very least.
These days reading-based approaches take a far more scaffolded approach, but it’s still fundamentally about information and applying that information when you play.
But many piano teachers who were taught in a reading-first way in their own piano lessons are wanting to take a different approach with their students.
There’s a sense (quite rightly!) that musicians need skills beyond just following instructions in a score. There’s a desire to see students engaging in music-making with an emphasis on the making, and a recognition that parents are thrilled with the idea that their children will be composing their own music. And older beginners often do turn up talking about how they want to write their own songs…
Which means that piano teachers DO want to incorporate improvisation right from the first lessons! But when they start looking for resources to support this creative engagement they find many, or even most, materials presuppose basic pianism is in place before improvising can happen. Teaching improvisation looks even more information-intense than the reading-first first piano lesson!
So, what can you do, in the piano lessons you teach, to have your beginner students improvising, right from the start?
Here are my top 5 suggestions, each getting progressively a little bit more difficult.
1. Ask the student to play along with you – but only on the black keys.
You’re going to be playing an accompaniment in the lower half of the piano, alternating G flat Major chord with E flat minor, one chord per bar, the perfect foil for the beginner playing (in G flat) Do Re Mi So La of the black key groups.
Maybe what you play will be a march! Maybe a jazz waltz? Maybe a 70s rock feel?! Or a minimalistic film score sound!
Whatever groove you choose, you will keep repeating the two chord turnaround until the beginner joins in with you. This moment reveals a lot about the learning attitudes of the student, as well as giving you a sense of the physicality of the student in relation to the instrument. So you need to be paying attention, as a teacher. But you also need to respond to the musical cues of your beginner student-pianist – if this is a true improvisation it must be a two-way street!
Don’t be in a rush to wrap it up. If the student is over it already you’ll know, but otherwise allow yourself to stay in the moment and create a performance together with your student. It’s magical. For them. For their parents. For you. If it’s clearly not over yet, but you’re not sure what to do next, just change the groove of your accompaniment – this opens a whole new improvising chapter for your beginner.
The best part of this is that your student is already making music, not just playing it. You’ve just opened a door to the whole rest of their lives!
2. Using just two notes, model melodic fragments with your voice, building a small vocabulary of gestures your student can then draw on to improvise.
At the instrument this improvising activity will be seamless, musical, creative and collaborative! But there are a few steps you need to be on top of, as the teacher, so you can set up your student for improvising greatness.Firstly, show your beginner student the two black key group. Make sure they can definitely locate this group – as compared to the three black key group. Very important.
Show them how to position their 3rd and 2nd fingers on these two notes. This might take a little bit of working on how to sit at the instrument and how to press into the keys (these are beginner students!), so take your time at the preparation – it will pay off in myriad ways…
Now you start to play a simple swing Eb7 comp. Sing a one bar melodic fragment using just Eb and Db, and ask the student to echo play what you just sang. Start simple: repeated E flats on the beat, with the fourth beat a rest. If the student responds easily to this then begin to alternate Eb and Db; make the rhythm more complicated, more sparse, start on Db – but all the time restricting yourself (and your student) to just these two pitches.
Then switch roles. You keep playing the accompaniment, of course, but now the student plays melodic fragments for you to copy. Can they catch you out?!
Finally, take this into a call and response improvisation – either of you can be the first to call. Instead of copying, or initiating a fragment to be copied, now both of you are responding with different fragments – true improvising.
Be guided by the focus and the fluency of your student. This might turn out to be an improvising activity that fills half the lesson. Maybe it’s an activity that will unfold in scaffolded parts over a three week period. No right or wrong way to do this, just keep making music!
3. Choose just one pitch category – F, say, or C# – and have the student compose a piece using this note in any register.
This one is an old favourite of university composition 101 courses – reset the imagination of the musician who is entrenched in the idea that composing is all about the melody/harmony nexus by taking both those possibilities (effectively) off the agenda. It drives Composition 101 students just a little bit nuts.
So it’s always a delight to me to see how beginner students embrace this composition/improvisation opportunity, innovating in all kinds of ways that reveal how they are connecting their bodies to sound through their instrument.
Potentially, you could play an accompaniment. But to make it work you really do need a second keyboard on hand – your students will be roaming across the full range of the instrument.
Remember to help students think about ways to create drama – getting softer, getting louder, playing faster or slower, big leaps or small, repetition, silence, long held notes, surprising short ones.
4. Have the student improvise two-bar responses to two-bar phrases in pieces they are learning.
Give the student very clear pitch limits (for example, only play A notes, or only play keys from the three black key group – the more pitches permitted the harder this improvisation turns out to be). There are three ways you can do this.
- Use a piece that is already composed in this format (two bars pre-written, two bars left free for the student to create a response).
The wonderful 70 Keyboard Adventures with the Little Monster (published by Breitkopf Härtel) has exactly such pieces!
- Replace the phrase in the third and fourth bars with an improvised phrase.
This can be done for the rest of the student-pianist’s career of course! I often use my own piece, Chase (from Very Easy Little Peppers), in this way, as a framework for improvisation.
- Make the piece twice as long by simply inserting the two-bar improvised phrases between each of the composed ones.
This just takes courage. Trust me, the piece will not fall apart. Unless it was already really, really boring. So choose interesting music – this totally works.
5. Time to solo!
Have the student learn a self-contained 8-bar piece/tune with a reasonably limited pitch set (total of five notes is excellent). You need to be able to comp while the student plays the tune (the ‘head’, in jazz speak). Bill Boyd and Phillip Keveren are two American composers who have written pieces in this format for the HLSPL piano method – a number of good options!
Using the same melodic resources (that five note pitch set), have the student create a solo while you continue the accompanying groove. Your comping will provide the structure for the return to the head once the solo has run its course.
Again, take your time! If the student is on a roll, just let the time in the lesson be devoted to discovery. The happiness dividend will be immense, as will the focus bonus!
A quick disclaimer: these are, of course, not the ONLY ways to improvise in the very first piano lessons. But these five will take your student (without the need for an information download) from first lesson to very first jazz solo with an awful lot of joy tumbling into, around, and out of every lesson.