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#1316305 - 12/01/09 10:15 PM How do you teach improvising?
Wizard of Oz Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/12/09
Posts: 873

For the teachers here that improvise, how do you teach it to students and what ways have you found most success?

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#1316322 - 12/01/09 10:36 PM Re: How do you teach improvising? [Re: Wizard of Oz]
eweiss Offline
2000 Post Club Member

Registered: 02/28/09
Posts: 2393
Loc: Beautiful San Diego, CA
By giving students a certain Key, chords, and chord progression to play, I'm limiting choices so students can focus on expressing themselves rather than trying to decide what chord to play. Eventually, when they understand how limitations work, they're free to create their own set and improvise easily.
Play New Age Piano

#1316330 - 12/01/09 10:44 PM Re: How do you teach improvising? [Re: Wizard of Oz]
currawong Offline
6000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/15/07
Posts: 6135
Loc: Down Under
If you are talking about jazz, I don't teach jazz as such, so I don't teach jazz improvisation at anything past a very basic level.

(But that reminds me - you started a topic on playing by ear, saying "I'll post how I approach it after hearing what others think". We didn't hear back from you on that.)

As far as improvisation generally - I do a fair bit of improvising on a rhythm, or a set of notes - perhaps a sound exploration piece with an imaginative title, or using ideas that are in a piece they are learning. Sometimes we might begin with words and improvise a tune to fit. So many ways of doing it, depending on the purpose at the time. I do echo playing (and singing) with my youngest students, in various forms. When I was classroom teaching we did lots of improvisation, both of the "background music" variety (eg develop a group piece to accompany this story), pentatonic Orff-style group improvisation using ostinati with tuned percussion instruments. That's just scratched the surface smile
Du holde Kunst...

#1316382 - 12/02/09 12:13 AM Re: How do you teach improvising? [Re: currawong]
dumdumdiddle Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 09/16/06
Posts: 1269
Loc: California
I like to start young beginners with simple things like improvising on the 2 black keys or 3 black keys.

I also do a lot with 'Question & Answer'. Using only the 5-note scale of a particular key, I make up a musical question that ends on the 5th note; students respond by playing back anything within the 5-finger scale, ending on the tonic. After a few times of this I have THEM give me a question and me give back the answer. Sometimes I'll turn on a drum beat from my Clavinova for a little background. In my group piano classes I'll actually have the 'style' button on and use the single-finger chord feature to make a nice accompaniment. Then we go around the room, with each student responding in tempo to a musical question.

Our state MTAC has an Improvisation Syllabus and an accompanying 'Improvisation Games and Activities Guide' that I like to use with my students. The activities are leveled Prep through Advanced, following the Certificate of Merit levels. It's a wonderful resource for ideas on improvising. They are available to non-members too ( www.mtac.org ).
Music School Owner
Early Childhood Music Teacher/Group Piano Teacher/Private Piano Teacher
Member of MTAC and Guild

#1316394 - 12/02/09 12:37 AM Re: How do you teach improvising? [Re: currawong]
wavelength Offline
Full Member

Registered: 11/23/07
Posts: 340
Loc: Vermont, USA
It depends on the student, and I try lots of different tricks. It would be writing a book to go into detail.
One thing that seems to work with a lot of kids:
Minor pentatonic, presented as two groups of three notes like A C D and E G A. I might show them a couple of simple phrases to get them started, but I try to get their fingers to do the walking. Then I accompany them rhythmically, and get them to lock in with the groove. Then I get them to play bass notes or 5ths in their left hand. Then I get them to change their bass notes. At some point I give them a pattern to practice, like age ged edc dca cag ... and encourage them to find their own patterns after they get that one down.

Eventually I make a distinction between playing slowly and lyrically, and playing fast. I try to incorporate both. If the student tends towards playing a constant stream of fast notes, I suggest that they include some "long" notes, too. If they tend to play slowly, I suggest some occasional quick notes.

Whenever a kid improvises anything at all, I respond enthusiastically and with praise. Even if it's not an appropriate moment and my response is "Wow, that's really cool! But right now we're going to focus on the book" smile

Edited by wavelength (12/02/09 12:44 AM)

#1316473 - 12/02/09 04:15 AM Re: How do you teach improvising? [Re: wavelength]
Wizard of Oz Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/12/09
Posts: 873
hey currawong, yes thanks for reminding me. I find playing by ear and improvising go hand in hand.

This is my step by step to playing a song by ear: Let's take a simple song like "Row row row your boat"

1) First decide what key you are going to play it in. Usually you can tell if it's major or minor, or if it modulates. Let's pick C major.

2) Play the tonic of the key, which is C. SING the melody of the song in that key. Figure out which is the starting note. For "row row row..." it would be the tonic.

3) Just play the right hand melody and sing aloud while you play. This burns the melody into your mind.

4) Now add the harmony. Depending on the level of the player, start with the basic chords. 1, 4, 5.
Use your ear to determine which chord. You will make some mistakes, no problem, let your ear guide you.

This method works for ANY song. I taught a 12 year old girl how to play "row row row..." in my first lesson, and she'd never played by ear before.

As long as you break it down and simplify the process, most kids will get it. Singing aloud is important, as it reinforces the note in your mind while playing.

I've used this method for much harder jazz songs. Say a ballad like Only the Lonely by Frank Sinatra:


It is based in C major but uses all the blues notes, b3, b5, b7. So the harmony has to match accordingly.

I'll play the melody separately first about 10-20 times, even in octaves. Then I work on harmony.

For jazz, you can improvise and do all sorts of neat things. Tritone subs, playing "outside" the key, melodic minor modes, secondary dominants, altered chords, sus chords. All just fancy names that mean you are using different or non-diatonic notes from the key.

If you listen to Keith Jarrett play ballads, (he's the master) he'll incorporate many of these things. Listen to his rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

For any key, really all 12 notes are available to use and in the proper context will sound great.

I'd love to post some of my playing as sounds really are the best way to explain, alas I don't have a digital recording device at the moment.

#1316476 - 12/02/09 04:35 AM Re: How do you teach improvising? [Re: Wizard of Oz]
currawong Offline
6000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/15/07
Posts: 6135
Loc: Down Under
Originally Posted By: Wizard of Oz
I find playing by ear and improvising go hand in hand... Singing aloud is important...
They're certainly related. And I agree about the importance of singing.
Du holde Kunst...

#1316480 - 12/02/09 04:43 AM Re: How do you teach improvising? [Re: currawong]
Wizard of Oz Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/12/09
Posts: 873
Originally Posted By: currawong
Originally Posted By: Wizard of Oz
I find playing by ear and improvising go hand in hand... Singing aloud is important...
They're certainly related. And I agree about the importance of singing.

Absolutely. Piano is an instrument where you can let your fingers take over, as pressing a key will generate a sound no matter what. Your mind can aimlessly wander and you're playing by muscle memory, especially classical songs. You can go on "autopilot".

So forcing yourself to sing aloud will develop that relationship between the sound in your mind to the key on the piano.


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