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Improvisation and Creativity

Improvisation and Creativity

By Wayne Estes
NFMC Piano FestivalOftentimes I feel that I’ve gotten bogged down in my own practice with technical studies, reading, scale work and I see my teaching style starting to go in the same direction.  But many of my students aren’t in grad school and studying to become a professional musician, so I must remind myself what they are coming to study with me for.  I can remember being 4 yrs old and in my grandmother’s house listening to her play piano duets and church hymns with friends and I remember them cajoling, laughing and singing loudly.  I thought “this is what music is and I want to do this when I grow up.”  I’m hoping my students and families are coming in with a similar excitement and wonder like I had when I was a child listening to my family play live music, records, the radio, and taking me to church and to music concerts.  If they aren’t coming in like this, we need to help change the family dynamic and help our families to create this environment with our students in their home.
But somewhere in all my many years of studying and practicing music I got excited about my own technical study and thought everyone else should be super excited about progressing like this also.  But many young students and families are just not to this point yet, and so we need patience and a plan to share and help them to see that continued study on any instrument will likely create much personal and musical growth and excitement as time goes on.  Instead of driving home reading, study, technique and practice, practice, practice; I invite you to investigate sharing a little creativity with your student, so that they will stay in your program and then in 3, or 5 or 10 years you can grow an awesome musician instead of having them get bored in the first 6-12 months and leave you, quit lessons and/or leave music forever.  Let’s discuss getting back to the basics and share and invite some beauty and creativity back into your practice program and teaching program…and that’s where working on your ear training and messing around can be so beneficial.
I have written some small pieces that I share with my students and assign these to them to prepare for me.  It gives me great joy in hearing them practice them and perform them in front of me in lessons, and I tell them that.  I comically ask them what the “composer” would think of their interpretation and fingering choices and the dynamics and flow.  Would the “composer” suggest you need another week to practice this, and what does it need?   Perhaps more energy or bigger dynamic contrasting?   And they laugh because they know that the composer is me and I’m alive and right beside them.  I really try to get them to see value in the composer and composition and that they have the power to make the piece come alive or not.
I use this idea again and explain that the old dead composers were once like me and you and they were alive, and they had terrific and new ideas.  They noodled and doodled to create each piece.  And as we move to our next song in the lesson, maybe some ancient Clementi piece, I try hard to get them to understand that Clementi is just me several 100 years ago, a musician and teacher with cool and current ideas and music.  Clementi was vibrant, and his music needs to be reviewed and respected and performed excellently, just like my songs.  His compositions need to come back to life through their careful understanding and study which we do in lessons.  His ideas were written for an audience just like my songs.
Then I turn the tables and invite my student to compose something for just me and them (and their parents).  We are a small audience but a good one none the less.  My student gets excited, after all I remind them that if they do this well maybe their songs can be copyrighted and printed in a future music book maybe 200 years from now.  (And I remind them that some poor future piano student will likely complain that today’s current music of 2018 does not sound as interesting and cool as whatever they compose in the future in 2218.)
With my students that are around middle school age, I invite them to create a brand-new melody or idea of their own creation that they can perform for me at our next lesson.  I will play them several small examples of my own, and then I’ll replay them. The goal is for them to create something original and very short (2 to 4 measures only) and not to create something too long that it can’t be remembered or recreated in future lessons.  Then the next week they come bounding in with ideas, some students have excitedly tried to figure out how to get their ideas transcribed onto staff paper already, but many just have their ideas locked in their heads and they are excited for me to help them coax it out.  I am excited and enthused and I do not edit anything as I want the process to be all about them, but I try to find and suggest a groove and time signature so that we can apply a metronome and then they have to perform their piece 3 times for me in perfect time.  We do this only so that I can capture one of their performances with my sequencer and now we have information to transfer those recorded midi notes over into my Finale app so that we can write and print the music to their composition.  Then we get to edit it, date it, title it and print it and they are thrilled and the parents get pretty excited too.  And they get to see what really goes on with composing and transcribing music in these modern times.
With my youngest students, at elementary school age, we make the creative process much simpler and I invite them to improvise a melody with me using a 5-finger pattern like C major or D minor, or we will use the black key groups.  Limiting them to using only few notes at first (think 3-5 notes total at max), as we are not attempting to write a Sonata or anything difficult at this first juncture.  Think fun and something meaningful for your young students.  Many times, we will first jot down a small word/ideas or lyric first to come up with a direction.  We might choose to compose a song about their new baby sister or their dog, or an imaginary dragon.  I like to have them pick a subject matter that is very important to them, as this will likely impact and motivate them to do more.  Then we talk about our story’s direction, and should we be sad or happy, loud or soft and we search for a way to interpret the storyline into a melody that is minor or major or cluster tones and we find a direction to move our story with upward scales or downward melodies, or chords or attacks on the black key groups.  Sometimes I play ideas for the ones who are too timid to start, others are just wildly trying things.  I feel this 3-5-minute creative exercise will allow them be free and open up and try to be expressive with your guidance.  It might be scary for both of you, but it is well worth it.  Let them explore and be loud and random, as they really will respect and trust you more if you give them some wiggle time and room in your lesson.  But also remind them to try soft and to move in scale patterns like the other 10 million melodies that already exist do.  Then using letters (not real musical notation) we try to create our own music notation and we get creative and invent a new way to write down our notes and motion.  Maybe we write “play ABC” on our notebook paper or we write “play the 3 black keys softly just below middle C, 3 times going up”. I want my students to help me define the piano and it’s notes through their eyes, ears and ideas, and to engineer a way to write this so they can remember how to perform their song at home.  Oftentimes I will use my smartphone’s voice recorder app to capture and record our fun composition and lesson notes at the very end of this creative time, after we have the song mapped and formed.  This captures our idea so that we can begin at the very same spot the next week (and I can remember what we did) and it makes a terrific present to send home to mom and dad via email as a follow-up to what we created in our lessons today.

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