Piano Teaching Resources: Teaching Music Improvisation and Composition from a Familiar Starting Point

January 18, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Posted in Music Teachers Resources, My Experinces | 1 Comment
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When first starting to improvise or compose, the silence surrounding the instrument or the piece of blank manuscript paper in front of students can be rather daunting. Therefore I always begin creative activities within a genre that is familiar to music students. Sometimes, the best piano teaching resources come from our own experience, and I would like to share some of my observations here.

Outside your music studio, what engagement do your students have with music? Do they practice what you have just taught? Do they apply what they have learned and understood from their music lessons? These are some of the questions that music teachers may to ask new students. And that includes me.

Being a music teacher for several years, I observed that majority of my students hear pop music on the radio, ‘muzak’ in shopping centres, soundtracks in movies, ring tones and advertising jingles from different media while only a small minority of them are interested in hearing live music regularly, and a much smaller minority are exposed to new classical repertoire outside of their lessons.

With this in mind, the first improvisational or compositional activities in a music studio usually stem from a response to a visual stimulus and more often than not, they are a response to a short film. This has many advantages. Firstly, students are already familiar with the genre and do not need to spend much time studying the style. Secondly, students are creating works that are appropriate to their everyday environment. And lastly, a film gives the students a starting point in terms of mood and structure.

I find that one of the greatest struggles for young composers is structure. How long should this section be? How do I link all my ideas into one coherent piece? When should the piece end? Where should the climax be? How long is the build up to the climax? Is it too early or late to change mood? When composing or improvising a short film, the structure is largely determined for the student and the film also provides answers to other variables that can often be a stumbling block for starting the piece (for example, mood).

I am always fascinated by the different approaches my music students take to creative tasks. Some students study the film intently, watching it three or four times before starting to tinker around on the piano for ideas. Other students jump straight in and improvise in real time as the picture changes on the screen, always a second or two behind the action. And then there are the students who watch, furiously scribble notes and leave the lesson, turning up the following week with a completely notated, fully scored composition.

My younger students use film as an improvisatory starting point. I use it to encourage them to explore the piano – the range as well as both the timbral and textural possibilities. I also use these piano teaching resources to introduce the concepts of mood, expression and the communicative nature of music. For my older or more advanced students, writing a film score is a way for them to consolidate their theoretical knowledge and to express themselves creatively. Some questions that I ask my older students to consider are:

1. What is the mood of each scene? When does this change?

2. Should this scene be scored with silence or music?

3. Are you driving the action or commentating? (For example, is the composer creating suspense that might not yet be present on the screen, or are they scoring the moment as it happens, or even after it happens?)

4. Is there a climax?

5. Which character’s mood/opinion are you scoring?

6. Is the genre of the music being composed relevant to the people, the time and the place where the film is set?

I would love to hear how other music and piano teachers like you begin to teach improvisation and composition, how you use innovative piano teaching resources, and how you incorporate other arts disciplines into your studio. If you do not currently include improvisation or composition in your lessons or if it is a skill that is unfamiliar to you as a piano teacher, I strongly encourage you to head to YouTube, find a short film and begin creating! Good luck!

Visit these piano teaching resources and learn how you can benefit from this piano teacher software. – Earl Marsden

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1 Comment »

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  1. I love piano improvisation


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