Monday, March 1, 2010

Easy Improvisation

Photo by blonde avenger.

Recently, I attended a wonderful pedagogy symposium at the University of Georgia and heard presentations by Martha Hilley and Robert Duke, both from the University of Texas at Austin. If you have opportunities to attend workshops by either, I think you'll find it to be well worth your while! I left the symposium not only excited about teaching, but excited about just being a musician. One of the most immediate results of my experience has been to incorporate more improvisation into my lessons.

Now, improvisation is a scary word to me. I've been required to do a certain amount of it in my organ study, but I don't consider myself at all accomplished in this area. Ms. Hilley took some of the fear away as she demonstrated some easy ways to incorporate improvisation that are very user-friendly, both for me and for the students. After a week of deliberately using improvisation in as many lessons as possible, I have seen more light in piano students' eyes than for many weeks prior. They love it. They are learning, too. They may not be able to verbalize what they're learning, but it's so evident to me. Students who otherwise play haltingly are improvising with rhythmic fluency and in some cases, beautiful melodic line. It's really inspiring to hear them making music so naturally. When we stop, they say, "That was COOL!"

Here's one technique that Ms. Hilley demonstrated that is very easy. She used a simple piece that had a very straightforward harmonic structure. Together she and the student (a guinea pig from the audience) analyzed the harmony and wrote down the triads. The harmony changed once per measure. Then, as Ms. Hilley played the original piece, the student was instructed to play a single note drawn from the triad on the first beat of each measure. After a couple of times through, she invited the student to incorporate some passing tones. So, having started with one piece, they created another. As you continued to repeat the exercise, you could add more and more elements.

With some of my younger students, I've been using one of the improvisation exercises found in the Hal Leonard lesson books. The student places the LH on a C Major pentascale and the RH on the adjacent a minor pentascale. While the teacher plays a progression of arpeggiated chords, first in C Major and then in a minor, the student plays whatever feels good, starting with the LH and then changing to the RH at the teacher's direction when the key changes to a minor. In doing this, I've found that my own reluctance to improvise may have a hidden benefit. Because I'm repeating my part verbatim each time, the student begins to internalize it and anticipate what's coming next. Over several repetitions, their improvised melodies get better and better. They begin to feel the harmonic pull of the upcoming chord and, as one of my teachers used to say, to "smell" which tone just has to come next. I think that keeping my part static is freeing to the student. It's non-intimidating, at least! As they grow more confident with their part, I might begin to change up the rhythm or add passing tones of my own, but always with the same harmony that provides a predictable foundation.

As Dr. Duke put it so well, these experiences are "the good stuff." We study music so that we can get to those good experiences, right? These are the moments when you both sit back and say, "Wow, that was fun!" I have lots more to write about what I'm still learning from Dr. Duke. (In the meantime, you might enjoy checking out some excerpts available online, complete with video, from a research project which he co-authored: The Nature of Expertise: 19 Principles of Effective Instruction Demonstrated by Three Distinguished Artist-Teachers in Music. Click on the categories in the right sidebar on that page. The videos work best in Firefox.)

Now that I've begun to use improvisation more consistently in my studio, I'm looking for more and more of those user-friendly techniques. I'd love to hear how other teachers do this with beginning through intermediate students.


mainstreetmusicking said...

I am trying to include more improvisation in my lessons as well! This week I tried using the teacher accompaniment parts in the lesson books as 'improv tracks' for my students. After learning the lesson song and then playing along with the duet, the students are somewhat familiar with the harmonies. They seemed to really enjoy creating their own versions of the songs and after a few tries, they became more willing to try different things!

atara said...

I have had much success with the HL exampled you cited, as well as those from the My First Piano Adventure books. They are few and far between, but very good. For intermediate students, I absolutely love Faber's Discovering Improvisation, Rhythm & Blues. It comes with a MIDI that that students just LOVE!

Laura said...

Thanks mainstreet and atara for two more good ideas!

jieyu said...

hello! i chanced upon your blog from a link on another blog and this post caught my attention. i've been playing the piano for years, mainly at church now. the last piano lesson i had was ages ago - i have since 'de-proved' and stagnated. in the recent years i've been trying to gather tips about improvisation and knowing my chords better but i haven't been very successful. have you any suggestions i may be able to work on? i suppose scales practice is part of the picture? i'm pretty out-of-practice with those
i really hope to be able to come up with my own hymn arrangements one day!