Each week I write my student’s assignments in a plain notebook. Quite frequently, as I’m leafing through a younger child’s book, I discover a string of letters, or a scrawled drawing of a staff (number of lines variable) crowded with half notes.
Some of them are proud of their “compositions”, others sheepish. But usually, when I ask them to play them for me they are not able to replicate something that sounds whole and complete, or that seems to have much relationship to the notation they have attempted.
The desire is there: they want to attain the magical power to record in writing a meaningful piece of music, like the songs they are learning to play in their lessons. Of course, there is much to learn about that ability to write the musical language.
But in order to write something meaningful, first, you want to have something meaningful to write.
Channeling the Creative Urge
Admittedly, many of our students’ desire to create new music leaps far ahead of their skills to produce it. As a result, the first bloom of creativity is quashed early on.
Most piano teachers in the past 100 years or so have assumed that you must develop your technique, theory, and appreciation of other people’s music to a great extent before even thinking about composing. And even more if we’re talking improvisation (which became practically extinct in the classical world).
This was not the case during much of classical music history. It is well known that many of the classical composers began at a young age – and that they were also improvisers.
In fact, Beethoven first gained notoriety for his spectacular improvised variations, and cemented his fame by humiliating Daniel Steibelt with a fantastic piano improvisation on the upside-down cello part of this rival’s quartet (which became the theme for his breakthrough Eroica symphony).
And many of our students (whether we know it or not) are also improvisers – especially the younger ones who still have that sense of play and exploration.
When I look back on my own upbringing, and my attempts to duplicate the thunderstorms rolling through Ohio summers, I am eternally grateful to my parents who never once told me to “‘stop banging on the piano”.
Either that, or I was playing so loud I couldn’t hear them.
“Play to Learn” or “Learn to Play”?
Children know how to learn. They learn to walk without formal training, and to speak without talking lessons. They learn a myriad of motor and social skills in the course of free imaginative play with their peers, and with more structured play and games.
In other words, mostly children play to learn. And we grownups would do well to remember how to do that ourselves.
Even though we call it “playing” the piano, traditionally piano lessons are all about “learn to play”, rather than “play to learn”.
Of course, these two approaches are not mutually exclusive: each one benefits from the other, and learning is maximized when “play to learn” and “learn to play” combine forces.
Piano improvisation is spontaneous composition. Since our students are already improvising, we can gently add a little “learn to play” to their “play to learn” to help them gain greater understandings in musical structures, and shape their explorations into meaningful musical expressions.
In other words, we can gradually add a few rules to the game.
The Raw Material
Before adding the rules, observe the students’ improvisations in their natural environment. That way, we’ll see how we can help them blaze a trail from improvisation to composition.
While these improvisations are as varied as our students, over the years I’ve noted several characteristics that shape themselves into a rough progression of two developmental phases. Let’s look at each phase, and how to guide the student into thinking more compositionally.
Phase 1: Expansion, Exploration, Experimentation
Students begin by exploring the vast array of keys. Since they are not well acquainted in the sounds a piano can make, they experiment with high keys, with low keys, with black keys, white keys, loud, soft, single notes, tone clusters, glissandi, playing with one hand, two hands, foot pedals, etc.
They quickly discover that this massive instrument offers them the opportunity to lose themselves in a vast universe of sound. Accordingly, Phase 1 improvisers rarely give much thought to constructing a complete piece of music, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
At first, the sounds produced are anything but intentional. The focus is exploratory (“Let’s see what this machine can do”) rather than willful – “Let’s see how I can bend this machine to do my will.”
So, students are not much concerned with sounding like anything they’ve ever thought of as music. They just want to see what happens to the beast when they pet it, hit it, or pull on its tail.
As they learn through playing, they gain more control over the sounds they are producing. Still, specific pitches are rarely important in this phase.
Phase 1 Composition
This phase can tell us a lot about the student’s thought process, and hint at what we can do to guide them.
The first step is to encourage expansion so they have a larger toolbox when it comes time to compose:
- Do they jump around, exploring the whole keyboard, constantly changing and shifting contrasting sounds? Then point out something amazing they discovered, and bring them back to exploring it.
- Is everything loud and boisterous? Show them (by example works best) how they can contrast with slow, peaceful sounds.
- Do they focus in on one area or technique, or one obsessive rhythm? Then, demonstrate some different ideas to break them out of the box.
- Do the carefully and methodically play every single white key, one at a time from bottom to top and then each black key from top to bottom? Show them how to start in the middle and go out, and maybe do turnarounds in direction before reaching the ends of the piano (sudden changes in direction can be quite the funny joke for one of these types.)
The key for the creative piano teacher is to see each student’s improvisation as a question waiting to be answered, a limit waiting to be transcended.
Step two is really where the compositional thinking comes in. This is where we start gently adding constraints. Here’s an example of a narrative you can use:
“Ok, now I see you’ve played a lot of quiet sounds. We call these ‘piano’. Now play some really loud sounds. Ouch! How strong you are! We call those ‘forte’. What happens when you piano and forte take turns?”
Already here you have the basics of a compositional structure, and an opportunity to isolate any musical elements you wish.
“What are the three parts to every story? Very good! Beginning, middle, and end. For the beginning let’s play lots of short, loud notes. Now what will we do for the middle? Long, slow loud notes? Good idea! How about the end? Ok, really fast and soft. One, two , three, go!”
Here are more opportunities to teach the names of these musical elements. And the beginning, middle, end formula can have endless variants – yet it supplies what is sorely missing from most beginning improvisation – a conclusive ending!
Ternary Form leads quite naturally into musical storytelling. You can describe it to the student as making the soundtrack to a movie, come up with a story together, and “act out” the story on the piano keys. As well as teaching about famous soundtrack composers, program music appreciation is fair game – you can listen to some Nineteenth-century piece together, and then imagine the musical story.
Phase 2: Contraction, Selection, Intention
At some point, especially after learning to play a few songs, the student will realize that the songs that they are learning in their lessons don’t sound quite like their previous compositions. They wonder, “How can I make my improvisations sound like ‘real music?’”
This doesn’t mean that they won’t continue to improvise in a Phase 1 style – in fact, they may prefer the gargantuan expressive sounds they can improvise to the tiny songs they can play with their restricted music reading skills.
In the first part of this phase, the students often try to imitate the pieces they are learning, playing single notes with both hands at the same time. At first, they focus more on what it feels like than what it sounds like – the extraordinary sensation of moving our fingers individually.
From the whole universe of early keyboard exploration, they are intentionally selecting to learn about this specific aspect of playing the piano.
The idea is, “If I wiggle my fingers and it feels the same as when I’m playing book songs, then it’s going to sound like book songs.”
At this point, they often stumble on something that sounds good to them – and they have developed enough awareness and skill to reproduce it.
Earlier this week, I was improvising with a young student. She discovered a five note motive that she really liked. After playing it a few times, I suggested that she try and do something new with it – add a note to the end or the middle, play it higher, play it lower.
Try as she might, she couldn’t break away from playing these same five notes – over, and over, and over again.
Others, while their improvisations are still much more contracted and melodic than the wild expansions of Phase 1, are not yet at the point of being able to reproduce short motives.
Either way, once Phase 2 students discover that they can produce a series of notes they find recognizable and pleasing to their ears, they have experienced the possibility of having more intentional control over what they’re playing.
They like this feeling.
Many are willing to abandon the expansive creativity of the Phase 1 improvisations for this satisfying sense of control – even if it’s just a few notes, or a rigid rhythmic pattern.
Phase 2 Composition
Where Phase 1 composition works by adding gentle structural constraints to expansive improvisations, Phase 2 composers benefit from structured expansion of their concepts.
The first step, however is to be able to reproduce a short motive or melody.
Singing along with this melody is a powerful tool for the student to internalize what they’ve created. Sometimes that alone is enough for them to pin something down. Other times, they may benefit from more help from you – mirroring back to them, for example, until the melody is set.
Now that the student has composed a fixed melody, alternating between fixed and improvised sections is a good way to bring Phase 1 and Phase 2 thinking together. You can explain that this is what jazz musicians do – alternating statements of the “head” with improvised sections – and perform a demonstration of your own, perhaps even using their own melody.
If they’ve come up with several ideas, you can alternate them as well: “What would happen if we put your kitty song together with your dinosaur song?”
Phase 2 students are actually ripe for more advanced compositional techniques of motivic development. These techniques work extremely well with students who are “stuck” on one short motive.
Explain to them that they are about to learn the secrets of the great composers (maybe listen to Beethoven’s Fifth and point out all the ways he uses the short-short-short-long motive).
“Your song goes like this: ABC, ABC. What would happen if we played your song…. backwards?! CBA, CBA. That sounds nice! Did you know that composers have a fancy word for playing something backwards? They call it retrograde. Now let’s play it forwards, then backwards. Practice playing and singing that a few times until you can remember.”
“Now, what would happen if you took that same finger pattern and played the same pattern starting on G? Composers call that transposition. When you play your first pattern, then the second, that’s called a sequence.”
Using techniques like retrograde, transposition, sequences and inversion unpacks the motive and expands it into a longer melody. The melody can then be set into phrases, phrases into sections, and so on until your student has quite a substantial composition.
You can then add your own accompaniment, or help the students work out a left hand part depending on their abilities.
To see this process in action, try my Musical U post Play Your Way In: A Songwriting Game.
Writing it Down
As creative piano teachers, we all have observed that younger students tend to be less inhibited and more playful. Just as a toddler will show you a page of scribble and solemnly read to you the whole story that she has “written” there, they are not afraid to play at writing music notation.
Up to now, however, I encourage the students to resist writing it down. I would rather they memorize and internalize what they’ve created.
Also, the notation system has a whole separate learning curve. Combining short composition exercises with notation accelerates the learning for both.
Since the extreme limits of young students’ notational skills can lead to extreme limits in creativity, I have found it best to make this a separate exercise.
The big issue is rhythm: the popular rhythms of our culture are typically highly syncopated. These rhythms often find their way into student improvisations and compositions. Just because these rhythms are hard to read and write, doesn’t mean that they are hard to play.
If needed, alternate notation – writing down finger numbers or letters – can be useful as a reference. You might also have the student simply write pitches on the staff, without bothering too much with rhythm.
And if you have the time and inclination, solfege syllables will greatly increase your student’s recall of the melody, and ability to write it down when the time comes.
You can also include the child’s creative attempts at notation at this stage. Tweak gently please! Be careful not to overwhelm the student to too many notational details!
In most cases, I find that it’s better if notation is integrated into a separate compose/notate process. In the creative improvisation-to-composition process, notation works best as a last step, rather than part of the process.
Oh yes, but really do write it down!
All that being said, it’s very satisfying for the students to see their final work in writing. It makes it all seem so much more official! So if you have time, you can guide the student step by step in copying out the composition, or just do it yourself, maybe on a nice notation program, and present it to them as a gift.
Then when you do so, put the music on the desk and sight read their composition yourself. Turn to them and say, “You wrote that!”
There’s no feeling so amazing to any composer than to hear your work played by others.
Create, Create, Create
We humans are creative beings. And this creative urge is strongest in the young. With this piano improvisation to composition process, we can guide our students to move with their natural creative force. As piano teachers, we can do this best when we keep our own minds open, and sensitively observing and listening – with our ears, eyes, intuition, and hearts – to our students.
These processes can be adapted and modified by the creative piano teacher to tame – or squeeze out – improvisation to composition by students of all ages. Any ideas of your own? Questions about how you can do this? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.