Bradley Sowash is a composer, performer, and educator specializing in improvisation. He is the co-founder of 88 Creative Keys improvisation camps for piano students and teachers and his widely acclaimed keyboard improvisation books are published by the Neil A. Kjos Music Company.

May/June 2018: Create and Motivate

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Combining scales and chords Here are three exercises that benefit all  musicians regardless of their preferred style  or approach to making music: 1. Scales 2. Chord drills 3. Scales and chords t ogether The last two columns offered interesting  ways to practice the first two. Now, here's  a way to combine scales and chords into...
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March/April 2018: Create and motivate

The previous issue's column included a list of the benefits of scale practice as well as an approach to "squaring" scales to fit the four- and eight-measure phrase lengths so common in piano literature. Now, here's another way to practice scales for advancing pianists. Assign it to students who have a history of being motivated by extra challenges....
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Create and motivate: scales 101

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Practicing scales combines technique, muscle memory, and theory in one exercise. Yet when I asked a transfer student if she understood why her assignment included scales, her reply surprised me: "No, not really, but they must be important because my previous teachers also insisted I practice them." Sometimes, we, as teachers, forget to explain why ...
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Create and Motivate: Developing seventh-chord fluency

The ability to recognize and play chords without hesitation benefits all pianists. For improvisers, chord fluency enables practical skills such as learning tunes by ear, transforming lead sheets to arrangements, jamming with others, and creating one's own part in bands. For those who prefer to play written music, facility with chords improves learn...
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Developing triad chord fluency

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Like language students who have memorized vocabulary but are not yet conversant, pianists who have learned to construct chords may not yet be "chord fluent." So how do we help our students move beyond music theory worksheets to being able to interpret chord symbols and identify underlying harmonies in literature more easily? One approach involves a...
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Teaching with backing tracks

​ B acking tracks (pre-recorded or  automated instrumental accompaniments) are inherently motivational. Why? Because playing with a snazzy drum groove is simply more compelling than practicing with a metronome. Here are suggestions for integrating backing tracks into your curriculum to enhance technique, timing, and creativity—all at the same ...
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Practicing with backing tracks

Most young musicians learn to play their instruments with peers in a student orchestra, concert band, or group class. Student pianists, on the other hand, because they typically practice and perform alone for many years may miss out on learning essential ensemble skills such as: Steady beat—keeping a steady pulse and avoiding pauses to fix notes; L...
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Create and motivate: Rhythm boxes, part III

My last two columns introduced the placement of Xs in boxes to help beginning students understand rhythms better. Now, I'll wrap up this series with ideas about how to use rhythm boxes to practice more complex rhythmic concepts. Start by using a word processor to make and print blank tables like those below. Then, try these activities with your adv...
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Learning & Teaching: Create & Motivate

Rhythm boxes, Part II by Bradley Sowash  The last column introduced placing Xs in "rhythm boxes" to represent well-known tunes. Here are more ideas to enhance rhythmic understanding by teaching with this versatile tool.   Rhythm box activities Start by making and printing blank tables like those below. Then, try these activities with...
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Rhythm Boxes, Part 1

W hen asked to teach a music course to undergraduate dance majors, I soon realized that decoding written rhythms does  not come easily to non-musicians. For these students, writing Xs in "rhythm boxes" was easier to understand than learning to read music notation. Later, I transferred the idea to my books and lessons, providing music students ...
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Blues 103-Improvisation

In the last two columns, we looked at the steps involved in composing and varying a basic Blues melody. The next step is to stretch the form even further by adding improvisation. Blues scales You know how it feels good to complain a little now and then? It gets your concerns off your chest and clears the air. Sometimes, yesterday's problems can eve...
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Blues 102—Variations

Having addressed in the last column how to help students compose simple Blues tunes, let's now consider how to help them add on to their creations. 1. Embellish the melody Whether notated or improvised, ask your students to play their compositions a couple of times to be sure the melody is "set." If a melody is too elaborate, encourage paring it do...
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Blues 101: Basics

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Blues music evolved from its eighteenth-century roots in the work songs and lamentations of enslaved African-Americans to become one of the most identifiable streams in American music. If you grew up in the United States when I did, you heard it on the radio (Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B King, Eric Clapton, Ray Charles), in movies (The Blues Brothers), and...
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Pencil practice 102

As a student pianist at music camp, I once asked an improvisation teacher for tips to help me improve my creative skills. "Learn everything you can about harmony" was his quick answer. Today, I agree that, especially for pianists, chord fluency opens more doors to creativity than any other element of music. Writing chords by root In addition to mas...
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Pencil Practice 101

​Recognizing chord symbols is one of the biggest obstacles faced by beginning improvisers learning to play from lead sheets. Just as foreign language students write conjugations to become better speakers, pianists can improve their chord fluency with pencil practice away from the piano. Writing chords by key Follow these steps together with your st...
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In the Moment recital

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Steps to teaching improvisation

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If you are a regular reader of this column, you probably already teach creativity alongside traditional reading skills. However, if you are wondering how to structure this aspect of your lessons, you are not alone. After speaking on this topic, it's not uncommon for teachers to tell me—under their breath, almost secretively as if it's something to ...
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Comping 103—Waltz-time broken chords

​ Here's a riddle: What do you break to fix? Answer: bland blocked chords. ​Whether improvising teacher accompaniments or helping students dress up ho-hum arrangements, broken chords are a very useful trick to have in your bag. Broken chords sound great with lyrical, long-note melodies that beg for a busier accompaniment. They are also particu...
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Comping 102 -- Going further with "boom-chicks"

Last time, we explored playing a basic (boom-chick) stride pattern to accompany students when no duet part is provided. Now, we'll consider two ways to enhance and adapt this useful "stock" accompaniment. 1. Passing note bass Add variety and momentum to the steady boom-chick of a basic stride by connecting the roots of chords with passing bass note...
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Comping 101 - Accompanying Students

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Accompanying students is an enjoyable way to transfer musicality from veteran to rookie efficiently without so much "teacher talk."  For students, it  • tightens up their sense of time;  • helps them listen while playing;  • enables them to feel more like "real musicians";  • prepares them to play in ensembles;  • and ...
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