It is widely agreed in music education that improvisation is a ‘good thing’ – and yet many still don’t include it in their lessons with beginners, often because they aren’t quite sure how to get started. This short article offers a few easy suggestions for piano teachers.
My preferred tutor book for children (Get Set! Piano by Karen Marshall and Heather Hammond, 2013, Harper Collins) recommends improvisation in the very first lesson. Pupils are encouraged to ‘make up tunes to go with the pictures’, which show a mouse, fireworks, and an elephant. There is even a space for the child to draw their own picture, and make up a matching tune. This early experimentation encourages the child to discover the different sounds possible on the piano — from low notes to high ones, and from loud to quiet playing.
The idea here can be included in any first lesson, alongside any tutor. As well as helping the child learn the geography of the instrument, allowing them to ‘play’ at the piano right from the start sends a strong message that improvisation is encouraged.
Another great way of including improvisation in the earliest lessons is with the introduction of pulse and rhythm. There are many clapping games that teachers use at this stage, and these become a much more musical and fun experience if we include electronic keyboard backing rhythms, or similar. A simple rock beat provides a firm basis not only for improvised call-and-response clapping; it is a small step to take the activity onto the instrument, using first one, and then up to five different notes on the piano/keyboard.
As well as encouraging spontaneity and musical engagement, this is another great way to communicate your commitment to creativity within the lesson. Pupils will realise from the start that their music-making is not simply bound to the page.
But what about once we are introducing notation? This quickly becomes a priority for many teachers, with good reason. The danger here is that spontaneity and creativity don’t simply take a back seat — they disappear completely. It is an easy mistake to make, but can be avoided.
As when learning about basic sounds in the first lesson, including improvisation can help a pupil understand the mechanics of any piece of music. To illustrate the point let’s look at the piece Children at Play, the first piece from Bartók’s For Children. It is also the first piece in the LCME Piano Anthology Grades 1 & 2.
First, ask the pupil to use just the right hand to improvise using the notes from the C above middle C (with the thumb) up to high G. The teacher plays the left hand part that Bartók himself composed, but one octave lower than written (watch out for the rests!). This should be fairly easy for the student, but as they play they will be starting to make more informed choices of pitch, listening to the left hand part.
Try again, but this time invite the pupil to move the hand position up a note, playing from D to A. Different notes will prove more appealing in this hand position, and the pupil will begin to intuitively learn more about composition. You could suggest other hand positions, too, and be sure to answer questions about how the harmony works.
Once the pupil is able, you could suggest that they play with both hands together, with the same pitches an octave apart. This necessitates more conscious note selections, while developing coordination and technique.
Breaking away from the written music in this way can help a pupil learn about the mechanical nuts and bolts of music theory and composition, all through improvised trial and error. Depending on the piece that is being studied, it opens up the possibility of talking about functional harmony, easy trills in Baroque music, and so on.
Teaching improvisation need not — indeed, should not in my view — be a segregated activity artificially tacked onto the piano lesson.
It is possible to simply include improvisation at each stage of learning by thinking about the repertoire, techniques and music theory knowledge you hope to teach, and then finding ways to help pupils develop skills and understanding creatively, through exploration.
All that this really needs is a willingness to close the tutor book and make it up...
Andrew Eales is a well-known writer and piano teacher based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs his busy private teaching practice and creative outlet, Keyquest Music.
Andrew is also the owner of the popular Pianodao blog site, through which he seeks to inform, inspire and encourage piano players, teachers and students. www.pianodao.com