Thursday, July 16, 2015

What Will My Teaching Philosophy Be In Regard To Improvisation?

The 88 Creative Keys Educator's conference only lasted 3 days, but my head is still there. Yesterday, I went to the grocery store. I just needed a couple of items, but I also came home with a beach ball, dry erase crayons, some cute little rubbery animals, and a magnetic fishing pole. This is what happens when you spend 3 days with a creative teacher like Leila Viss. Suddenly, everything looks like something you could use while teaching piano! Stay tuned in the days to come as I figure out how I'm going to use these things.

Since the conference, I've been doing a lot of thinking about the philosophy behind 88 Creative Keys. If your conception of Bradley and Leila's message is that it's all about jazz or ipad apps, you're missing the point. Bradley Sowash is one of the best at communicating how to play jazz, but his ultimate message isn't "teach your students jazz," or pop, or any other specific style. It's teach your students to make their own music, whatever style that might be, and the skills to make your own music are primary musicianship skills, not secondary. 

Leila wrote the book (literally) on using ipad apps in your studio, but she shared much more than ipad apps. We spent equal time exploring physical manipulatives and other ideas for creative teaching. In fact, most of the apps we used were more for utility than novelty - this is something I want to write more about as I have resisted some technology for the wrong reasons, and I think many other teachers do as well. Leila's message is keep your teaching fresh and creative, take advantage of helpful technology, and engage your students with elements from their own world, which is a vastly different world than the one most of us grew up in. (That link goes to Wendy Stevens' blog where she interviews Pete Jutras, editor of Clavier Companion, about how piano teaching is changing. It's worth reading if you haven't.)

So, I'm convinced that creativity and improvisation in particular should be an essential part of piano instruction. Now, how am I going to put that to work in my studio? Before I make concrete plans, I'm considering some questions I think will help me develop my teaching philosophy where improvisation is concerned. I'm not offering answers...yet. One of my favorite high school teachers taught me that you can't solve a problem until you define the problem. So, for now, I just have questions. While I'm not giving answers yet, I'm really interested in yours. Please comment!

1.  What caused pianists to abandon the craft of improvisation even though organists did not? We know that improvisation was common among keyboard players up until the late 19th century. So what factors contributed to its decline among pianists?

2. Should current piano pedagogy be governed by those factors?

3. What kind of improvisation did classical pianists do back in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries? What kind of improvisation do classical pianists currently do? What sort of improvisation could they do, and who would listen?

4. If I believe that improvisation skills are desirable, how do I make them an essential part of my piano pedagogy, not just a filler activity at the end of a lesson? As an extension of that, how should we structure our piano festivals and evaluations and method books to reflect our values?

5.  What kinds of demands for creative musical skills do my students encounter in their musical lives apart from me, at church or school for instance? How can I help them with these needs? What print or online resources are available?

6.  How important is off-the-page creative music making for my students' personal well-being, and is this something my teaching should address?

7. Can I and should I embrace improvising in all sorts of styles? How can I influence my students' development of good taste while not stifling their creativity when that creativity emerges in a style that I don't know much about (jazz) or might not like (current pop)? What defines "good taste," and is it dependent on genre? Can pop be useful? Whose opinion influences my answers to these questions?

8. Can I be comfortable giving and listening to assignments that are more about a messy process than a nice, clean product?

9.  How can I teach improv in such as way as to give students some immediate gratification while also encouraging the discipline of drills and exercises that will help them learn to think harmonically on the fly?

10. How much lesson time am I willing to devote to creative music making as opposed to performance and interpretation?

I could probably think of more, but these questions are enough to drive my blog for a year! I hope they've gotten you thinking, and I hope you'll share those thoughts in the comments.


Kay Lowry said...

Laura, I was glad to read this post as it was presented on Bradley's site. I attended the SMU-IPT last summer, where Bradley, Leila, and Forrest Kinney taught. It was not quite the same as your experience, but still life-changing. I love how you ask questions. As someone who has had a year to mull this over, let me encourage you that you are asking the right things. I don't believe there is a one-size-fits-all answer. As I think about my "traditional" teaching, it has morphed over the years as I have tried different approaches with different students. In this broad area of improvisation, I anticipate the same thing happening. As part of our solution, my teaching friends and I are hosting some group classes this summer focusing on lead sheets, jazz, and pop. I hope your adventures are as fun and productive as ours!

Laura Lowe said...

Thanks for your comment, Kay! Yes, "one-size-fits-all" is a bad model for any kind of education, whether piano or otherwise. I'd love to hear more about your group classes.