When ‘New’ Isn’t Always Better – Creative Piano’s Proper Place

How to combine the traditional with the creative mind.

When ‘New’ Isn’t Always Better – Creative Piano’s Proper Place

creative piano teaching

Creative Piano

Recently I’ve had more opportunities to observe my children playing with their friends. We have promoted and nurtured their individual – and very active – imaginations. But when we put them together, they often spend so much time negotiating and renegotiating their imagined scenarios and figuring out the rules to go with them that I sometimes wonder if they actually give themselves any time to really play!

Then we went to a party with another group of families and their children invited mine to a pick-up soccer game.

The Rules

My children quickly learned the simple set of rules, and they all played and played and played for hours. The three excitedly recounted every moment of the games, kick by kick and fall by fall, for the full hour-long ride home.

There was no lack of creativity in their expression, or imagination in the way they strove to describe their experiences in words. But not having to come up with the rules on their own seemed to lift a huge burden off their shoulders, where they could put so much more energy into interacting, learning, and having fun.

One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that some students actually like and do well with the more “old-school” way of doing things. It can be neat and clean and require no extra structures for me to invent. Instead, I can focus my attention on different levels of their process in helping them to unpack the information and skills that they’re learning.

These more “traditional” students still benefit hugely from what I’ve learned from more creative approaches. Every student has their humps, and the creative teacher is more ready, willing, and able to help every student pinpoint the obstacle and overcome it.

Read more: 20 creative ways to start your next piano lesson

Creative Piano Teaching

I look at my children and their constant creative re-creating, and realize that I just may have a leaning to that same tendency. For example…

When I first started teaching, I had lots of creative ideas.

A few of them actually worked.

(The chromatic atonal ear-training didn’t go over real big…)

Some of the others evolved and grew and blossomed through time and experience.

What follows is…

  • an exploration of how some of these creative ideas ran their course, illustrated by anecdotes that in some cases are true, and in other cases amalgamations of true experiences
  • a few examples of ways to deploy creative piano ideas in more traditional contexts

No cookie-cutter lessons

When speaking with new students or their parents, they are often surprised when I ask them what they want to learn. I’m the teacher, I’m supposed to know what they’re supposed to learn, right?

“No cookie-cutter lessons” has been one of my slogans since the start.

At first, I thought that meant I had to reinvent the wheel in every moment.

With experience, though, I learned that it’s not always about the wheel. Sometimes it’s the tire, sometimes the rim, sometimes the transmission needs a tweak, or the steering column – but rarely the entire automobile.

Read more of Andrew’s work: 5 Ways to Help Your Students Master Rhythm

As I grew in my teaching, I learned that, yes, each moment does offer a unique and rich learning opportunity. The key in the ignition, so to speak, is for me to put the student first. That means that my creativity at the service of my student.

That takes careful listening to my students. Not just what they’re saying out loud, but to their expressions, emotions, and enthusiasm (or lack thereof), body language, parents… even their piano playing.

It also means listening to my own intuition, being willing to try something that I may have never done before if the moment calls for it, a sense of humor, and not being afraid of mistakes. One of the greatest playgrounds for exercising this sense of listening, responding, and experimenting is…


When I started teaching, I quickly observed how much younger students love to improvise. I love to improvise. It was a match made in heaven.

Many of us remember the days when our teachers never improvised or encouraged or wanted us to improvise or even memorize our pieces. When improvisation was something we played with on our own, exploring the sonic wonders of this amazing music machine we call, “piano” (though many of my youthful improvs were anything but piano…).

Read more: Strategies to help get your beginner students improvising

And now here was my big chance to change all that!

I love improvising with my students. There is such a profound connection to be made, such an opportunity to assess their freedoms and their limitations, to help them break free or reign themselves in, to teach theory, dynamics, structure, melody, harmony, technique through example and experience, to explore musical forms and styles that may be unfamiliar at first, to give them the gift of being heard, respected and supported…

Imagine my surprise when after a rousing improvised duo exploring concepts of pitch, rhythm, dynamics, and structure, – as I’m preparing to pontificate on our next grand improv opus – my student meekly turns to me and asks, “Can we play some songs now?”

“What song do you want to play?”

“Well… my cousin showed me this.” She plays five notes on two keys, white black white black white…

Teaching the songs my students want to play

The “dreaded” Für Elise, written by a certain very creative piano teacher for a certain student, may be seen as Beethoven’s greatest gift to us – or the bane of our piano teaching career.

After some years in The New England Conservatory, studying microtones with Joseph Gabriel Esther Maneri, Film noir music with Ran Blake, atonal free improv with Masashi Harada, Klezmer with Hankus Netsky, and the Lydian Chromatic Concept with George Russell, I wanted to open the ears of every seven year old to the liberation of the dissonance, Asian modal systems, and the supra-vertical tonal order.

But here I was, face to face, with…

Für Elise.

Here’s where another one of my basic teaching principles came into play. Teach my students the songs they want to play.

In my naivety, I figured let’s go for the original – at least the first section. After all, if she can play the “deedle deedles” (as they have come to be known by my students) by rote, why not the whole first A section?

The song was way beyond her reading abilities, but bit by bit we decoded the patterns and learned the A and B sections by rote. She had the best recital ever.

I found that even with traditional music, students can play much more than they can read early on.

So here’s where my creative methods dovetailed beautifully with traditional music, and one of the places I began to see that the division between these two worlds was really an illusion…

B(u)y the book

I did and still do a lot of bookless teaching, writing lessons on the fly in my students’ notebooks. I’m guessing that these days 50 to 75% of my teaching is book-free. I’m a lot better at it now because I’m pulling from almost three decades of experience. But early on I realized that I needed the resources in a good piano method could save me valuable lesson time.

Read more: Tim Topham’s bookless approach to teaching beginner students for 10 weeks

But what book to choose?

When I was young, my teacher dragged me through the John Thompson method.

It was really hard. It felt like it took forever to learn a song. I didn’t want my students to suffer through the same experience. I thought that with the power of my principles I could do better.

I was repulsed by the ones with the goofy-trying-to-make-kids-laugh-at-ugly-cartoony pictures. In my opinion, these books are downright disrespectful of the depth and dignity and beauty of the children who want to express themselves through music.

It seemed like it was all about grotesque mascots and gold stars – like a bin of flattened 70s cereal boxes screaming, “Buy me, buy me buy me, “ competing for the children’s white sugar addiction and the parents’ frantic desires to appease them.

And adult students would feel embarrassed and belittled by them.

I didn’t much care for the brutish arrangements of used-to-be-well-known songs in some of the other books, with left-hand playing block I-IV-V chords and right-hand melody (like, when did real composers ever do that?).

The conservatory nerd in me I thought I’d love Mikrokosmos. Well, I did, but the students could not relate. At all.

I then found a series had beautiful artwork, and I became very impressed with the wholeness of their approach, the beauty and craft of the composition. Piano Adventures became my go-to method.

Admitting that sometimes it’s ok to “go by the book” was actually a maturing of my primary principle of teaching piano: no cookie-cutter lessons – teach each student what s/he came to learn that day.

And I’ve learned that the books had some surprises in store for me as well…

Read more: Our creative review of the new ABRSM piano exam syllabus

John Thompson Strikes Back

Some students inherit piano benches full of old books and Mom and Dad aren’t necessarily keen on buying new ones. And I’ve learned that there are some merits in these other methods.

Lila’s grandmother was very proud of her granddaughter’s enthusiastic participation in the school choir and musical plays. When she showed up, I expected an outgoing, bubbly type. Instead, Lila barely spoke above a whisper (when she spoke at all) and answered most questions about her own musical desires with, “I don’t know.”

Still, I believed that as a singer, she’d want to learn chording first to accompany herself. We began there, and she chose a beautiful song to learn. While she learned the chords well enough, she absolutely was not going to sing with me in the room. I offered to stand outside and pretend I wasn’t listening through the door – but that wasn’t happening either.

One day she showed up with a book. It had been her mother’s, and still had the penciled instructions, in an elegant cursive handwriting, on the pages.

John Thompson.

Well as we worked through the book, I was struck by the absolutely charming compositions and the lovely illustrations, the carefully crafted instructions, and the historical tidbits.

There was love on every page of this book. This was a man that loved music, and truly loved children. Maybe it’s because now I had children of my own, but I felt like I finally got it. I remembered the songs and the illustrations, how proud I was when I learned to play “The Fairy’s Harp” and “The Singing Mouse”. It was quite a healing experience for me, to realize that my young days of piano lessons weren’t as dreary as I remembered.

Even better, I knew now how to teach, and I could help my student enjoy and learn much more than I ever did from these pieces.

Creative Ideas for More “Traditional” Students

Here are some ways that I some of the more creative techniques and methods discussed in this forum in more traditional contexts:


Apart from the certain composers in the Classical Era, there aren’t a whole lot of plain old scales in real music. Yet traditionally we practice them over and over, and they’re supposed to be so important. How we struggle with the way our right and left hands turn under at different places…

Scales are much more important in how their inner tonal functions relate and build melodies. One of the best ways to explore this is through improvisation. There is an infinite number of possibilities for general practice, and/or you can target very specific areas, like so:

  • Is your student struggling with turning 1 under 4 in a two-octave scale? Have him improvise, using that fingering, on la, ti, do, and re. Accompany him with chords to underline the harmonic function of those degrees.
  • Is she having trouble controlling fingers 4 and 5 in her left hand? Have her hold down la and mi with her right hand and improvise with do, re, and mi with her left hand (natural minor scales are more mysterious and are easier to improvise with than majors – which have more tension).

Ear Training

When we make certain mistakes over and over, it’s often because we don’t really hear the music. But you don’t have to do a whole aural skills course to deploy ear training in crucial situations.

I’ve found that sometimes teaching the student some solfa syllables on the spot and having him sing the passage he’s struggling with completely clears it up.

Related: The Best Ear Training Apps to Make Ear Training Fun

This happens a lot with dissonant notes. When a student is learning a Bach invention and playing it slowly, the dissonance which normally flows and drives the music forward sounds just plain wrong. Singing with the clashing notes, playing them loudly and obnoxiously – anything you can do to help them really hear what they’re playing – will often clear up a problem that you originally thought was a fingering issue.


When I was a child, written chords completely flummoxed me. Every black stack was repeatedly subject to excruciating dissection.

In my teaching, I’ve always had some more by-the-book students, and some that were more focused on chording and playing popular music. After a while I realized that teaching my book students chording – triads and inversions by rote, and not from written exercises – made it much easier for them to read these chords.

They can look at a pattern on a page and instantly recognize it as a first inversion, second inversion, or root position triad. They also begin to recognize broken chords in melodies, and have much more of an ear for the harmonic progression of the music.

While the books often have chord exercises, learning them kinesthetically (and those of you who have read my post How to Conquer and Make Complete Sense of Piano Finger Numbers know how into that sense I am) makes reading them so much easier!

And more…

I am so personally grateful for the opportunity to share my piano teaching experiences with you here on Tim’s blog.

There are so many things that I’ve done over the years intuitively that I hadn’t really put words to before. I hope you were stimulated by this article to claim your own intuition and all the little ways you’ve used your own creativity to help your students – please share them in the comments!

The Creative Attitude

More and more I’ve come to realize that the failure of “traditional” piano teaching – which has driven many of us to seek out and discover creative piano teaching for ourselves, and learn new ways of doing things from Tim Topham and this community – isn’t necessarily the fault of outdated repertoire or method books.

It happens when we stop listening to our students and our own inner wisdom, when we put our own pride in our creativity above the one principle that should rule them all: service to our students.

Sometimes that means teaching Für Elise for the thousandth time. And loving it even more than you did the 999th.

Andrew Bishko, Musical U

As Content and Product Manager for Musical U, veteran piano teacher Andrew Bishko helps others unleash the true musicality they have inside with the development of educational content and learning modules. Andrew also plays the accordion and leads Mariachi Flor de Missouri.

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  1. This is incredibly helpful and so true. When I was discovering more creative piano teaching resources I got pulled into a blog that uses the “absolutely-must-have-this-always-works” kind of marketing. I started using practice pages that were “guaranteed” for pre-teens to love. One of my talented middle school students didn’t like the creative — sometimes zany — assignments. I thought he should and I made him do them anyway. His mother tactfully contacted me and explained that he’s a serious kid and he’d rather take a serious approach to his music. I immediately changed my approach (and realized I should have seen this myself) but it was too late. That was the last year I had that awesome student. The same year another mom of two younger students also told me that her kids hadn’t liked the silly assignments. While some of the students *did* enjoy it, it simply didn’t work for everyone. This blog post puts it into such practical wisdom. Lesson learned!

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