Teaching Improvisation, Experimentation and Composing

Improvisation, Experimentation and Composition

Improvising, Composing and Experimenting at the piano can be valuable tools in developing musicianship, exploring creativity and reinforcing conceptual understanding. It is also fun for both student and teacher.

Through years of teaching piano, I have heard from so many transfer students, “Gee, I wish I could improvise and compose little pieces!”   The root of this problem is that most traditional piano teachers are uncomfortable with this facet of playing our instrument. 

There are a number of reasons why this problem exists.  First of all, many piano teachers and classically trained pianists have never learned to improvise themselves.  My message to them is – it is never too late to begin!  Build on your strengths. If you are not comfortable with improvisation and harmony, familiarize yourself! Perhaps, take a few lessons to fill in the gaps in your own knowledge so that you can help your students do likewise.  In a future post, I will offer some specific suggestions for teachers to gain confidence in this area. 

Another problem in traditional piano study is the lack of lesson time allocated to improvisation and composition.   In a half-hour lesson, it is almost impossible even to get through the basics.  I will teach no less than ¾ hour or 1 hour for older students.  In that length of time, the student and I don’t feel the “crunch” and I have the freedom to improvise and experiment. 

I like to present creativity in conjunction with teaching new concepts. It is important to have parameters for improvising and composing.  Igor Stravinsky stated, “in limitations are your freedoms.”  This is so true!  Too much freedom can be overwhelming and produce a rambling, non-cohesive result. To stay within limitations, for example, a student might be instructed to improvise only using the black keys of the piano.

One effective technique is for the teacher to create a “question” phrase of 2 to 4 measures.  This phrase does not end on the key note.  The student is to spontaneously play an “answer” phrase of the same length and rhythm that includes some notes of the pattern played by the teacher but ends on the tonic.  The process can then be switched to the student creating the question and the teacher supplying the answer.  

Even the most beginning student can improvise in middle C position and compose a little piece with the notes she has learned.  The process of writing out in manuscript can help cement the note names and rhythmic symbols.  This can take place at all levels. For example, if a student has just learned 6/8, we will have some fun improvising in that meter during the lesson.   As homework, I may encourage the student to write a piece at using compound meter. If a student encounters Dorian mode in one of his pieces, this again is a golden opportunity for him to improvise in that mode and eventually write a piece in Dorian. The 12 bar blues also offers enjoyable improvisational possibilities.   

I include harmony and theory as a part of the curriculum.  This again provides tools for improvisation and composition.  Analysis of form, tonality, melody and harmony allows the student to see exactly how a composer structures a piece of music.  A more advanced student may want to compose the first movement of a sonatina or a theme and variations.  Fortunately, there are so many good examples of these that the student can learn beforehand and model afterwards.   

The computer can be a helpful aid in composing and this will be addressed in a later post. 

Improvising, experimenting and composing at home are key factors in developing musicianship and an extension of the work done at the lesson.  They should be included as a part of each practice session.  At times, the student will be inspired by something that happened at school or another aspect of his/her life.  One student of mine wrote a piece based on riding a skateboard from her house to school.  She incorporated lots of glissandos and jagged bumps in the texture of her piece.  Another student used an arm cluster to describe the magic of playing something seemingly impossible.  A student that enjoyed nature described skipping stones in a lake by building chords one staccato note at a time.  

Almost on a weekly basis, a student appears at his/her lesson thrilled at the new piece he/she has written.  Some of these are truly inspired; others are a bit predictable and pedestrian.  I treasure all of these compositions and give the student ample positive feedback for his/her creativity and effort!  We also take the time to discuss the piece – both the positive aspects and suggestions for improvement.  Sometimes, these pieces can become songs with words added to the melodies. 

It is delightful for students to keep a notebook of pieces written and great fun to look back at these in future years. 

Improvisation and composition are rewarding facets of playing piano.  Not only are they intrinsically valuable, but they also lead to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the pieces the student is playing and propel him/her to higher levels of musicianship.