Improvising

 
 
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If you had to choose just one, would you rather be able to speak, read, or write?

Most people would answer “speak,” because without the ability to speak spontaneously or talk with others, we would have a hard time getting our daily needs met. Nearly all humans speak, while billions do not read or write.

The ability to speak freely and spontaneously is the most essential of the various language arts. Similarly, in the days before a body of musical literature was widely available, a master musician was one who could speak spontaneously and masterfully at their instrument. When Beethoven and Hummel had a competition to determine who was the better pianist, both improvised on the same theme. The same with Mozart and Clementi. The question was: which musician was the more eloquent “speaker” at his instrument?

We are beginning to realize that, though the literature for the piano is unimaginably rich and diverse, the ability to read and recite is only a part of the complete, creative musical experience. We need the ability to have spontaneous conversations with our instruments to be creatively fulfilled.

Musical Conversations

Doesn’t it take talent to learn to improvise? And knowledge? And skill? How can improvisation be taught to beginners? Doesn’t the teacher have to know how to do it?

Just as we all have a latent ability to speak with words, we all have a latent ability to “speak” with musical tones. But if the ability to “talk with tones” is latent within us all, then why do so few people improvise or compose? Simple—it’s the way we educate musicians. Our training discourages us rather than encourages us in this direction.

We learned to speak fluently with words because our parents and others talked with us each day. Our parents speak to us each and every day, and engage us in conversations, so our latent ability to speak is gently and persistently drawn out of us. However, in musical education, this sort of thing doesn’t happen. We are taught to read and recite, often from the first lesson, and not encouraged to speak freely. Pattern Play gives us a way to do this from the first lesson. In the same way, when a teacher has spontaneous musical conversations with a student in each lesson, the student eventually learns to speak freely at the piano—and so does the teacher!

Click here to read an article I published in American Music Teacher back in 2010 about how to teach improvisation via a “musical conversation” approach.

The Deeper Gift of Pattern Play

The Pattern Play way of teaching improvisation (also featured in the Create First! series) offers an intuitive approach (rather than a theoretical approach or formulaic approach) to teaching improvisation. However, it offers a greater gift. The duet-to-solo approach (discussed below) gives us a way to begin cultivating musical sensitivity and responsiveness from the very beginning by bypassing the need for skill or experience or even competence. It gets right to the essence of music making—sensing tones, and responding to them.

In the duet-to-solo approach, we create a rich musical environment and then invite our students to play with us. Students will reply, “But I don’t know what to do!” Yes, exactly! They don’t know what to do, and they don’t have much skill. This is the perfect time to began awaking sensitivity, responsiveness, and creativity because the student cannot fall back on habit, knowledge, or a specific set of directions. They feel a necessity to use these latent facilities. They are motivated to tune in to both the sounds they are making and to themselves, and respond. Though not every student will raise to this challenge, many students will, and some students will do this to an astonishing degree.

What I’m suggesting is that the best time to begin teaching musicality, improvisation, and musical creativity is before the student has developed a high level of skill and competency. My experiences have shown me that it is actually harder for an expert to take risks and be creative than the beginner!

With the duet approach, students make music with their teachers immediately. They don’t need to study for years before “adding” feeling and expression to notes. They can make music and cultivate musicality from the start.

The Duet-to-Solo Approach

Few students are able to improvise solo from the start, largely because of the difficulty of the task involved. To play solo, we must learn the Pattern, improvise melodies, and do this all at the same time. The Duet-to-Solo approach is the way to be successful with most students. By playing duets before solos, the student is able to learn one element at a time.

Please see the two videos, one demonstrating this approach with “World Piece” from PP Book 1, and another demonstrating “Persia” from the same book. These videos illustrate how the Patterns are best introduced. I encourage teachers to have “musical conversations” with your students like this in each lesson, and over time, your students will learn to “speak” melodies.

Here’s a four-step outline of the approach. Every piece in the Pattern Play series begins with a two-page Duet, followed by a page dedicated to Solo playing. Basically, in step 1, the student is learning to play the treble part in step 1, the bass part in step 2, and playing hands together in steps 3 and 4.

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  1. The teacher plays the Bass part of the Duet. This involves repeating a Pattern a few times (preferably by memory), creating an inviting musical environment. The teacher invites the student to “play to me” using a select group of keys shown on the facing page, the Treble part of the Duet. “Play with me on black keys.” Or, “Play with me using the first five notes of the D Major scale.” The teacher is to vary the Pattern in response to the student. Every piece has a Vacation in addition to a Pattern, and this is a contrasting part, a B section. The teacher moves back and forth between playing the Pattern and the Vacation.

  2. After the duet is over, the teacher says, “I want to play the top part!” And so the teacher and student switch places. At this point, there is something very important to understand: The teacher doesn’t merely show the student how to play the accompaniment for the duet, but starts preparing the student to play solo. So, the teacher turns the page of the PP book and teaches the student how to play the Pattern and Vacation shown on the Solo page. The student is learning how to accompany themselves. The teacher can teach by rote or by reading from the book. The teacher improvises melodies while the students plays the Pattern and Vacation with their left hand many times.

  3. When the student is comfortable playing the Pattern with her left hand, the teacher suggests to the student that she start adding melodies with her right hand, keeping it simple so that the flow continues. The teacher continues to add sounds so the student doesn’t feeling watched or judged as she is learning.

  4. At some point, the teacher quits playing, and the student is now playing solo.

Without this approach, many students fail because they try to do everything at once. This approach also works because the student is immersed in making music, and doesn’t feel as if she is being watched and judged by the teacher. The teacher is just “playing along,” and the learning comes as a byproduct of making music together.

Playing Solo

There are many ways to help students coordinate the two sides of the body—the pianist’s central problem. We can only play the hands apart if we can feel them playing together first. So, constantly ask your students to play the same rhythm in both hands for a while, to establish this feeling of togetherness. Once a student feels the two sides of the body moving to the same beat, then suddenly the two sides are able to do different things, and this is because the connection has been established.

One way to help students “keep it simple” is to ask them to first create melodies with just one finger, then just two fingers. Or, to create with one rhythmic pattern, played over and over.

There are many other techniques, and they are all based on the idea of keeping things simple before making them complex. Why is this so hard to do?

Trios and Small Groups

All the Pattern Play pieces have a four-page layout. The fourth page of most of the pieces is called the Trio-Quartet page. Three people can play the pieces on one piano, or four people can play when using two pianos.

There are three main parts: Bass, Middle, and Treble. Generally speaking, you create a trio by having one person on each part, and a quartet by having two people play the Treble part on two pianos.

Trios are a great way to get people involved in instant music making. For example, at the end of a lesson, ask the student’s parent to play a trio with you and the student. Here are some other possible ways of making a trio:

  • teacher, student, and sibling

  • teacher, student, and the next student

  • three family members

  • three students

When teaching group lessons, it is often quicker to teach the students their respective parts by rote rather than having them read from the book. They tend to memorize the Patterns much quicker that way.

If you have more than three people, try playing the Musical Chairs game. To do this, play the Bass part and have one student play the Middle part while another plays the Treble part. Ask the other students to stand by the piano, listen and observe, and then take over one of the parts when they feel ready. Eventually, each student should try to play each part. Changing places often involves some amusing contortions, like playing the game Twister. Small kids will often crawl under the grand piano to get out of the way of the student replacing them.

The only “rule” of the game is that the students can’t stop the beat! I tell students, “If you stop the beat, you have to pay the teacher a fine of forty dollars!” That gets their attention, and then I tell them that this is not true.

Performance Ideas

Pattern Play is not geared toward public performance as much as private exploration. However, students may wish to share their Pattern Playing with others. Here are some ideas on how to incorporate this basic way of making music into recitals and other performances.

  • Pattern Play Recital: Each student plays a duet with the teacher.

  • World Music Recital: Each student play a duet with the teacher, but now you choose from among the pieces that have a distinctly ethnic feel. From Pattern Play 1 - Persia, Africa, and Ireland. From Pattern Play 2, Japan - Caribbean Dance, Spain, and Medieval Story. From Pattern Play 3 - Tango and Brazil. From Pattern Play 5 - Cinco Pesos.

  • PPP Recital: That’s Pattern Play with Parents. Instead of having your students play duets with you, have them play with one of their parents! If you do a “world music” theme, ask the students and parents to dress up like the people in that country. One time, a father dressed in a kilt to play Ireland (a kilt is Scottish, but close enough!), while a mother dressed up in a beautiful, formal kimono to play Japan with her daughter.

  • Duet Recital: Students play duets with each other.

  • Play trios and quartets. Hand out musical instruments so the audience members can join in.

  • In normal recitals, include beginning students by playing PP duets with them.

The Teacher’s Main Role

Our main role as teachers of Pattern Play (and of creativity in general) is not to instruct but to invite. Our job is to welcome our students into an environment where a student’s latent abilities can be nurtured and expressed. Our role isn’t to be teacher who tells a student “how to” create or make melodies or even “improvise.” We are to create a garden in which melodies and other musical seeds (and students) can grow and then flower. We are not teachers as much as co-creators.

To create the right environment, one of our response-abilities is to manage the level of dissonance a student must deal with. Each student has a certain tolerance for dissonance. Some people have little tolerance, and become startled at the least amount of harshness. These students recoil in shock at the sound of a major seventh or half step. For dissonance-adverse students (DAS), it’s best to create on just black keys for a while—Patterns in PP1 such as World Piece and Flow are ideal for this.

When introducing the idea of dissonance to a DAS, one approach is use Blues on Black, and point out how the one white key is clearly out of tune with the black keys. That one white keys makes the black keys feel blue! Tell them that dissonance is not “bad,” but what we can use to express intense feelings and emotions. Dissonance is necessary for music to have its expressive powers.

The white keys allow new dissonances (minor seconds, diminished fifths, major sevenths) and this makes improvising more challenging. So, for example, when teaching Ireland, it is not wise to simply say to a DAS, “Play with me on white keys,” or “Play with me in A minor.” While that approach works best with some students, there are too many dissonant sounds for the DAS. So show any DAS how to play an A minor triad and a G major triad, and then invite them to make melodies by simply breaking up those chords. That way, everything they play is consonant while they navigate the difficulties of playing in rhythm.

This chord-tone-first approach is a good one to keep in mind for all students who are not sensitive to the play of consonance and dissonance. By working first with just consonant tones, and later bringing in the non-chord dissonant tones, the student’s ears are sensitized to the difference. And unless a student has this sort of discernment, how can they play a melody with any real sensitivity?

The Following Lesson

Generally, you can play one or two pieces in the lesson as a duet with a beginning student, and that’s enough—just duets at first. The student isn’t ready to play solo yet.

When students are ready to take on solo projects during the week, take the duet-to-solo approach in the lesson, and then say to the student, “Play on this Pattern during the week. If you can’t remember the Patten or you want some more ideas, turn to your PP book.”

When the student returns the next week, ask them to play for you, but don’t be surprised or displeased if they haven’t “practiced.” Many students simply can’t get focused on improvisation in the way they can with technique or literature—it is too open-ended for them. Forcing or shaming people to practice it simply doesn’t work. Just do the duet-to-solo approach again with the same Pattern or a new Pattern, and again and again. With some students, it may even be years before they want to play solo at home, even though these same students will say that Pattern Playing with the teacher is their favorite part of the lesson! Be patient, and remember that, even if students never “go solo,” they are getting a lot of musical training just by regularly playing duets with the teacher.

What do you say to students after they play for you? Sometimes it will be reminding them to go to the Vacation—many students forget to do this. Sometimes it will be asking them if they would like to explore the Pattern for another week, and if so, would they like to explore other options.

What can you say to help them? In general, listen to where musical possibilities have been neglected and then help them realize those possibilities. Just as we might suggest to a student working on a Chopin Prelude that they try a different pedaling, or different dynamics, we can make the same kinds of suggestions with these pieces. What we are doing in both cases is helping the student explore the possible expressions of a piece of music, no matter whether the piece is a masterpiece or just a piece of a piece (as a Pattern is), no matter whether the piece was written two hundred years ago or composed just a moment before. There are always so many possibilities to be uncovered and explored. Here are some of them:

* Does your student play just single-note melodies? Explore playing pairs of keys and clusters.

* Is the student stuck in certain rhythms? It is good that they are playing within a Rhythm Pattern up to a point because that helps them to relax their muscles and develop a good flow. It helps them “get into” the music so that music will come out of them. But then, at some point, the rhythm makes a rut. You could help them find other Rhythm Patterns to play. I often will record new Rhythm Patterns for my students, so they can listen to them many times at home and get a feel for them.

* Do their phrases always begin when the Pattern begins and end when the Pattern ends? This is a very common rut. Help them create melodies that begin on different beats of the measure. Help them create melodies that extend beyond the length of the accompanying Pattern.

* Do they always play at the same dynamic level? How does the Pattern sound when played softly, loudly, with crescendos and diminuendos?

* Are they playing within a narrow range of the keyboard? Again, that is good up to a point because it allows them to focus on playing the two sides of their body together. But then, it is time to reach out.

* How about playing the same Patterns or melodies with a variety of different touches?

Above all, remember that PP pieces are not for display, but for discovery. It’s not about execution, but exploration. Relax, and enjoy creating!

One Piece or Many?

Some student prefer to play with one PP piece for weeks. Other prefer to play on three or four different ones in the same week. How do we know what is best for a student?

The guiding idea here is “engagement.” Creativity requires a degree of immersion, a level of care, a high level of interest. So, I find it necessary to do whatever it takes to maintain that high level of interest and care. That means that it is okay to “abandon” a piece before it is “done.” A student can always return to it another time (so it is not being abandoned) and a student is never really done exploring—there is always more to explore. And so, don’t worry about “quitting” pieces…just move on to another Pattern that captures their interest.

Some teachers might say, “But this doesn’t help the student become disciplined.” Creativity requires a different sort of discipline than the kind we are accustomed to. Normal discipline involves forcing ourselves to do what we don’t want to do—like going on a diet or doing taxes. In creative activity, we are not moved by external forces or commands, but an inner necessity, and this come about largely from being joyously immersed in what we are doing. So, discipline in creative activity consists of persistently finding what we love to do so that we can do it artfully.

Question # 1: What if I don’t improvise?

Teachers often ask, “But how can I teach PP if I don’t improvise?” Well, first of all, this is a great way for teachers to learn how to do it, too. Learn along with your students. As the proverb says, “Repetition is the mother of skill.” As you repeat this experience over and over in lesson after lesson, you will just naturally develop the ability to “speak” spontaneously. It’s really just a matter of doing it.

You can teach this approach because you are a piano teacher—a music teacher. Teaching creativity with Pattern Play is like teaching piano literature. You still introduce pieces to students and you still help them learn them. You still listen to your students play something, and encourage them to try other interpretations. The difference is that these are not pieces but pieces of pieces, and your student is supplying the missing parts. However, the principles of teaching remain basically the same.

If you do nothing more than introduce the Patterns to your students by playing a duet with them, and help them learn to play the Patterns in the books in rhythm and explore the ideas there, that is enough. If all you do is remind them over and over that they have to know the Pattern more securely before they try to create with it, that is enough guidance. With just these reminders and the PP books, you will be a far better teacher of improvisation than I was for the first twenty plus years I did it. Though I had good intentions and ideas, I didn’t really understand what I was doing until I began creating these books. The PP books distill thirty years of trials and errors and successes. You have an approach that works.

Question # 2: But what if I still don’t feel comfortable teaching what I don’t do?

Then don’t think of it as “teaching.” You are learning with a student about a new way (actually, an old and largely forgotten way) of making music. You can say to them, “Even though I know how to play the piano, there is this new approach to creating your own music that I am very interested in. I’m just beginning, but I like it so much that I want to share it with you. Let’s learn it together!”

I think the most important thing we can give our students is not a particular skill, but an attitude towards learning. We are constantly modeling for them an attitude towards learning and creating. If you want your students to be confident in their abilities and trust in themselves, it won’t help them for you to say, “I have no talent for improvisation. I’m not good at this.” You are then teaching them that appearing to be competent is more important than taking risks, exploring, and making the mistakes necessary to become a greater musician. From the point of view of creativity, that is the unhealthiest attitude to pass along to them.

If you haven’t done much creating, use your “beginner” status to its best advantage. Model for your students a healthy attitude toward being a beginner. You could say, “When it comes to creating new music, everyone is really a beginner all the time. No one knows what is going to happen next. We are always just discovering as we go along. That’s what it means to be a creator.”

When our students see us relax and become willing to make some mistakes to learn something new, they also relax. They see that it is now okay to make mistakes and learn. The whole atmosphere is changed. The emphasis is on exploration rather than execution. Nothing kills creativity faster than an unwillingness to take risks and make mistakes.

I can’t think of a greater gift to give our students than to model for them that it’s okay to be a beginner, make mistakes, and learn to create something new.

Simplicity is the Key

As discussed above, the main reason that “speaking” (improvising) and musicality are neglected is that piano playing is so difficult, and the cognitive burden is so great. With Pattern Play and the duet-to-solo approach, the cognitive burden is greatly reduced. Instead of decoding notes, students are asked to play with just a few tones. They don’t have to remember notes or movements, and this frees them up to become sensitive and responsive. Students also don’t have to attain specific, expected results. They don’t have to “perform” for the teacher. They are just given some tones to play with, and a safe environment in which to play.

Simplicity is the secret of this approach. It allows people to become sensitive and responsive rather than burdened with too much to think about. In the beginning, the musical materials consist of Patterns that are short, simple, and repetitive, like most of the world’s non-literate music. Later, the music may grow into something quite complex, but it starts out simple. Pattern Play is something like Lego. Though the individual pieces (Patterns) are small and easy to grasp, they can be put together to create quite complex structures.

The simplicity of the Patterns means they are highly mutable—they can be varied in infinite ways. They are like a lump of clay or a blank sheet of paper. They invite us to change them into something of our own.

You can also think of Patterns as being like words in a language. A child who is four years old may use the same words as an adult, but the ideas expressed are quite different! A beginner and an advanced pianist can play with the same Patterns from Book One, yet each will play them to express different feelings and ideas.

In Pattern Play (and most non-literate music), short Patterns are repeated many times, sometimes to a degree that disturbs literate sensibilities. (Think of the repetitive nature of most popular music!) Yet, that repetition is necessary for the process. The student needs to be able to grasp the musical materials and sense the direction of the music to feel comfortable.

As literate people, we are accustomed to the sounds of complex scores. We believe we must study and, in doing so, “learn to play.”

However, before the relatively recent invention of musical notation, people didn’t study and “learn to play.” Rather, they played to learn. This is still how much music is “learned” in non-literate traditions today. A child in an African village is handed an instrument and invited to play along with the group. The child repeats and repeats, and slowly “gets it” without much or any instruction. The child learns by playing, tuning in, and responding.

 
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