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Cultivating Creative, Motivated Students - Part 2: Improvisation

In the first article, we talked about using multimedia to foster creativity and motivate your students. (If you missed it, click here.)

In part 2 of this 3-part series, we will be discussing improvisation. Don’t be afraid of this one, either! Musical improvisation is not just for jazz musicians, it’s for all musicians. It’s the basis of composition and experimentation, and it’s necessary to find one’s expressive voice. Imagine a child who learns to speak English but can only recite poems and monologues. He never creates his own sentences. How bizarre! And yet many musicians don’t improvise or create what they want to “say” with music. They only recite what others have written.

Even with beginning students, try improvising one aspect while another aspect is already given. For example, give the student a specific rhythm and have them play any notes with that rhythm. If that’s too open-ended, then give them a specific set of notes like C, D, and E. On the flip side, you can give them a series of notes and have them improvise a rhythm. For example: C D E F G, but with any rhythm.

Taking this a step further, play a short phrase and have the student copy the rhythm but they don’t have to copy the notes. This makes for a fun back/forth or question/answer experience.

Another tip is to use black keys, and you can play a background accompaniment in Gb major. This allows the student's improvised melody to be pentatonic, which floats around with no apparent wrong notes! Of course, you don't need to explain any of the theory to the student yet, just have them play black keys while you play an accompaniment in Gb major or Eb minor.

Obviously it can become more complex as the student advances until they can improvise both hands, harmonies, melodies, etc. A terrific series that I recommend is Pattern Play by Akiko and Forrest Kinney (Frederick Harris). It gives a scale or set of notes to use in the right hand and then a left hand accompaniment that can be as simple as one note at a time. Teachers can adjust the difficulty and complexity accoring to each students' needs.

Click here to see Pattern Play.

Joy Morin has a great resource for improvisation that you can download for free on her website. It’s a set of flashcards with images that you can use as prompts for improvisation. This also ties in with the multimedia because students can choose pictures that they think fit their music, or create a series of images that tells a story. (Click here to go to her website).

One of the easiest styles to improvise is scary, creepy music. You don't have to think in a certain key or scale, just be free to create! Here’s a quick and easy way to improvise scary music on the piano, and Halloween is a great time to do this:

Students should learn how to use the language of music to create their own things and express their own ideas. A nice side effect of improvising is that they tend to have more respect and eagerness when learning repertoire because they’ve thought about what goes into creating it.I hope you will try it with your students. And if you're already doing it, do it more!

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