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Music together: Creativity in preparation for the book

Children are excited by sound, they want to make sound, and they want to explore possibilities and express themselves at the keyboard. Children are brilliant— until someone tells them they aren't. When faced with too many rules and layers of abstract concepts at the beginning stages of study they are often just overwhelmed by information they don't fully understand, unfocused because their attention is pulled in too many directions, and they lose motivation because their natural creative gifts go unexplored in favor of rigid and seemingly over-intellectual method book concepts. Being overwhelmed by information, protocols, instruction, and various stimuli can make a student feel inadequate and unintelligent.

Let's have no misunderstanding about the method book's importance in establishing a curriculum for musical development. A well-devised and thoroughly organized curriculum is crucial for developing a self-sufficient musician. But perhaps creativity and improvisation can be used to fire the ear, fingers, and imagination on a concept before students encounter the label in the method book. Immersion in a sound culture where students can understand and use concepts in sound before reading and writing may lead to better understanding at the fundamental level. (If you are interested in music aptitude, acculturation, and a sound before sign process, see Edwin Gordon's Learning Sequences in Music, GIA Publications, 2012 edition.)

For example, if students are going to encounter duple meter in a method book piece, they can explore the sound of the meter, rhythm, associated key patterns that will produce sounds at the piano, and how their bodies need to move to create those sounds. This exploration can start several weeks before they encounter the concept on the page. This creativity and improvisation allow them to understand the sound and how to play it—all before seeing the printed book label. Their natural creativity is part of the process and students are fully invested in the experience because it is "their" sound and "their" creation. The creativity comes first and leads to the label.

Using improvisation to teach can seem difficult—especially if a teacher has not had experience with it in his own study. With a little bit of planning, however, the process is actually quite simple. In reality, students only need to be able to do a few things to begin improvising at the piano, and teachers only need to be able to do a few things to facilitate the process.

What follows is an example of a template or script that may be used to teach and explore concepts at the beginning level before they are encountered in the lesson book—in this case, playing black keys and feeling duple meter. The same script may be altered to incorporate more fingers, black key groups, triple meter, or other concepts, etc., when the student is ready.

To enter the creative process, these are the things students need to know:

  1. Which hand and finger(s) to use
  2. Which key(s) to play
  3. What a steady beat is and how to maintain it


They also need constant encouragement and validation while creating sounds.

These are the things that the teacher needs to know and be able to do:

  1. Choose vocabulary carefully
  2. Use step-by-step instruction
  3. Present a model and coach the student
  4. Create an accompanying duet
  5. Prompt the student and instruct in the process


Template script:

  • Can we start by making up some of our own music today? It is so easy and I know you are going to be able to do a great job. I believe in you!
  • Show me your right hand—great!
  • Show me your finger number 2—great!
  • Can you find a black key and play it with your finger number 2? Great!
  • Find some different black keys and play them with finger number 2—great!
  • Do you know what a steady beat is?
  • Playing in a steady beat sounds like this (provide a model).
  • Can you do that? (If the students have trouble coordinating the fine motor skill, try going at a moderate-to-slow tempo and use directive counting words like "play, play, play, play" to tell them what to do with their body without adding layers of abstract numeric counting.)—Great!\
  • Now, I am going to count "1, 2, 3, play" and you will start playing. Are you ready?


Then let students explore the process and keep instructing them as needed while they are playing. If they are mastering the skill, don't be afraid to drop out of the process and let them keep playing. Some students may need more steps, and other students less steps in the process. The teacher vocabulary may also be altered, as necessary, to be more age-appropriate

If at any point students are confused, provide a model and show them what to do. Do-overs are always allowed, and I am happy to try as many times as needed to help students reach success. I want my students to know that I am right there with them to help and support them while they learn. Conversely if students begin to add more complex rhythms and patterns, they are showing us through sound that they understand the concept and are ready to move on in the process.

The next portion of the exercise involves the teacher creating a duet accompaniment (Example 1). What the teacher is doing is creating a sound culture around students that will emphasize metric strong and weak beats, steady rhythm, a harmonic progression of some kind that suggests periodic phrases (primary chord cadences or modal shifts, etc.), and as much expression as possible (dynamics, articulations, pedal, ending ritard, etc.) Students may not know what these things are called, but they hear them, and begin to learn how to react to them, and later use them in their own creative music-making.

While students are coordinating fingers, keys, and body movements, they are surrounded by all of the concepts they will need to perceive the meaning of the label in the book. They understand them through sound and by doing and hearing, before they encounter visual labels in the book. When they get to the page in the book, the part of instructional process that is needed turns into "remember what we did just now in your improvisation? This is what it looks like on the page," and they learn the terminology of what they have done and may have a deeper understanding of the concept aurally, physically, and then visually.

Throughout the process, our best teaching tools are always smiles and validation, validation, validation.

Even if students cease study at some point, by improvising throughout their instructional process they will have learned how to create their own music and will have gained a lifelong pleasure and pursuit that will always be with them.

Example 1: An example of an improvised duet in duple meter using black keys.

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