improvisation

Monster Dance

Monster Dance

Last week, I introduced Jennifer Fink's Monster Dance to an 11-year-old student. It was a sight-readable piece for him - something we could put together in one lesson. The piece is written for left hand solo, though it ventures up into the treble clef partway through. Once we had worked through the key patterns, tricky moves, and looked for repeated material, he wanted to play it all the way through from the beginning.

As he played, I thought about the beloved Disney/Pixar film, Monsters, Inc. (one of my personal favorites!).

"Have you seen Monsters, Inc.?" I asked when he finished playing. "Um, yeah, of course!" he said, with a sparkle in his eye. "Have you seen Monsters University?" he asked. "Um, yeah, of course!" I said, imitating his inflection. "I was thinking - which monster is the best match for the music in Monster Dance?" "Definitely Sullivan," he said without pause. "I was thinking Sully, too," I said. "What about Mike Wazowski? What kind of music would fit his character?"

He immediately went to the high side of the piano and started playing something.

Adventures in Bell Ringing: Improvisation Activities

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Please note: some of the links in this post are affiliate links, which means if you decide to purchase through any of them, I will earn a small commission. This helps support the blog and allows me to continue creating free content. Thank you for your support!

We've had three rehearsals with our little bell choir now and they're doing so well! As you may recall from my last post, SD and I tried to plan a variety of music for the first few weeks - pieces that called for a flexible number of bells and covered a range of playing and reading levels.

The first night, we had several new ringers and a few that were new to reading music entirely.  (Side note: I was thrilled by this - it's so exciting to me to have new people come out to learn and make music together!).  With this scenario in the back of our minds, we also planned a few improvisation activities that wouldn't rely on music notation.  This way, we could start making music right from the beginning with whoever came that first night. 

Getting Started

We passed out pencils and pairs of white gloves to everyone as they arrived and made temporary bell assignments based on the pentatonic scale.  We used a C-based pentatonic scale (C-D-E-G-A) but you can easily transpose it to another key of your choice.  Each person had 2 bells.

Random Ring

We introduced and demonstrated the basic techniques of ringing and damping and then let everyone try it for a minute or so, freely and in their own tempo.  (This was the perfect setup for our improvisation activity because, essentially, they were already creating a "random ring" effect without even realizing it!). 

Once everyone had a good feel for ringing, we started the activity formally, this time with the lowest C (C3 or C4) chiming three times to start us off.  Everyone was free to ring as frequently or infrequently as they desired and since we were only using the notes of the pentatonic scale, we told them not to worry about damping for the time being.

The goal was to create a sort of "wind chime" effect that would become the backdrop for the familiar chant melody, "Of the Father's Love Begotten."  The first two weeks we did this, I played the melody on the piano with plenty of space in between phrases.  The third week, SD played the melody on the saxophone (the way we hope to play it in worship later this month).

Pros

The great thing about this activity is that there are no wrong notes.  The pentatonic arrangement ensures that even if everyone played their bells at the same time, the resulting sonority would be a pleasant one.

There is no real sense of rhythm involved, as it is determined at the individual level, so those with lower levels of musical intuition won't feel self conscious about not ringing in time with everyone else.  Also, there is no reading involved!  Those who are new readers don't have to worry about following the "third line and fourth space" while keeping track of the beat - they can just play, uninhibited.


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Help those you teach learn the language of music.

This printable collection of six rhythm pattern card sets features a total of 192 different patterns made up of quarter notes, half notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and quarter rests in duple and triple meters (32 cards/set).


Rhythmic Canon

Another activity we introduced the first week was a rhythmic canon.  The inspiration for this came from Michael Keller's Developing Coordination Skills.  Instead of reading through the examples in the book (which involves an explanation about ignoring the lines and spaces that are notated and just ringing what you have in hand), we created three shorter examples and notated just the rhythm patterns on a large white board at the front of the room.

Each pattern was two measures long (4/4 time) with a repeat sign marked at the end.  The patterns were numbered, "1, 2, and 3."  We were still in the pentatonic arrangement but we let everyone choose whether they wanted to read the rhythm with one or two bells.  Some opted to alternate R and L, others changed bells every measure, and others played everything with only one bell.  The goal here was to introduce a little bit of notation and get everyone used to reading together (in rhythm) as a group.

First, we read each pattern together (with repeats).  Then, we asked each person to choose one of the three patterns to play and surprise us (the goal was to hear all three patterns at the same time).  Finally, we asked them to again choose a pattern from the list but this time, cycle through all three patterns (with repeats) like a canon (the goal was to have each player read all three rhythm patterns independently).

There are obviously a number of ways to do a rhythmic canon-type activity in rehearsal - I'll leave the creative variations up to you!  Happy improvising!

Previously:
Starting a Bell Choir

Image credit: This work, "Improvisation Activities for Handbells," is a derivative of "handbells" by Joe Lewis, used under CC BY-SA 2.0. "Improvisation Activities for Handbells" is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 by Ashley Danyew.

Six Ideas for Fall Piano Lessons

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Do your students love Halloween as much as mine do? 

Every week they come to lessons so excited to tell me about their costume plans and the decorations in their classroom or at home so this year, I decided to introduce lots of Halloween and fall-themed music and lesson activities during the months of October and November to celebrate the season.  Here are some of my favorite ideas:


Six Ideas for Fall Piano Lessons

Please note: some of the links in this post are affiliate links, which means if you decide to purchase through any of them, I will earn a small commission. This helps support the blog and allows me to continue creating free content. Thank you for your support!

1. "Trick-or-Treat" warm-ups

A great way to review scales and warm-up patterns!  Have students draw a few technic patterns from a bowl (or perhaps a festive jack-o-lantern!).  Will they stumble (trick) or master the pattern on the first try (treat)?  Of course, some sort of treat will make this challenge all the more fun!

2. Creativity challenge

My younger students LOVE making up their own pieces each week.  This month, I've been assigning Halloween "creativity challenges" and I love hearing the things they come up with during the week!  Here are a few examples of "creativity challenges" for Preparatory B/Level 1 students:

- Make a piece about Halloween using your new warm-up (5-finger scale in A minor).
Make up a song about Halloween using four rhythm patterns (notated on assignment sheet).  Don't forget to write words for your song!

3. Rhythmic speech match-up

I saw this idea on Pinterest and knew it would be a great activity for lessons leading up to Halloween.  Create a list of seasonal phrases (i.e. "acorns falling from the trees" or "pumpkins are round, orange and brown") or use this list of Halloween phrases that match a series of set rhythm patterns.  Have students read the phrases out loud and choose the rhythm pattern that matches.

4. Seasonal pieces

There are so many great pieces out there for fall and my students love having a "special piece" (usually something not from one of their books) to work on in addition to their other assignments!  Here are a few of my favorite pieces for fall for Preparatory B/Level 1 students:

- The Haunted Mouse (Faber & Faber, Level 1, Lesson Book)
- Song for a Scarecrow (Faber & Faber, Level 1, Lesson Book)
- Pumpkin Boogie (Faber & Faber, Level 2B Lesson Book)
- Whirling Leaves (Faber & Faber, Level 2B Lesson Book)

5. Candy corn dictation

Such a cute idea from Emily at The Sweetest Melody!  This is another fun rhythm activity for fall lessons, appropriate for all ages, as the rhythms you choose for dictation can be tailored to the individual student.  For example, I might choose duple rhythms with triplets for one student (to reinforce her understanding of triplets), duple rhythms with quarters and eighths for a first-year student, and patterns with more subdivisions for an intermediate level student.

6. Duet improvisation

I love playing duets with my students during lessons, especially ones that we create together in the moment.  The Haunted House improvisation in The Music Tree, Part 2B has the perfect programmatic title for Halloween-themed lessons!  (Note: Since this is an improvisation activity, it's really suitable for a range of levels, since the musical material provided is just a starting place.)

Happy fall teaching!

Daydreams

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This was the name of the piece I assigned to Bobby last week.  Bobby is a well-mannered red-head, autistic, and in the 8th grade.

Now in our third month of lessons, this piece from The Music Tree, Part I is four measures long with three 4-beat patterns total.  Bobby immediately brought his hands up to the keyboard and played through the piece, aggressively.  Looking at me briefly for approval, I pointed to the page and said, "What about this half note?"  "Oh yeah," he said quickly, replacing his hands on the keys.

Again, he played through the piece, correcting his position when he realized he was off by a step.  He began again.  I could tell by his body language that he was just not in the mood to play music off the page.  In a moment of hesitation, Bobby suddenly diverged into another register and musical atmosphere completely, though I recognized a few patterns from "Daydreams."

"Why don't you play this version of 'Daydreams' and then play me your version based on some of these patterns," I suggested.  Forcefully, he again played the four bars, struggling to keep the rhythm going.  "Okay," I said.  "Now play your version of 'Daydreams.'"  With no hesitation, Bobby brought both hands up to the keyboard in a fell swoop and began playing his improvisation.  Both feet immediately moved to the una corda and sostenuto pedals and he experimented with the change in sound with unabashed confidence.

I listened intently to the layers of sound - covering the extremities of the keyboard - very carefully placed and intentional.  In some cases, it was musical babble; in others, it was very much an embellishment of the original piece.  Amidst the glissandi (yes, glissandi) up and down the keyboard, the cluster chords, the quick flourishes, and even a theme from the improvisation he played for me last week (I was amazed that he incorporated this), Bobby returned to the original "Daydreams" again and again.  "He gets it," I thought to myself.  Sometimes, the patterns were played softly in the upper register (above the wash of sound he created with the pedal) and sometimes he augmented them slightly in the middle register.  I also noticed a few black-key motives from his improvisation last week making a reappearance in this new context.  It was fascinating to see and hear his creativity.

After a couple of minutes, I thought to myself, "So, how long should I let this improvisation activity last?  There are other pieces I'd like to get to in this lesson.  How do I know when he's at the end?"  At a seemingly logical stopping place, I interjected, "That's great Bobby!  I love your interpretation of 'Daydreams,'" but he simply glanced up at me and continued on with his improvisation.  I quickly realized that this was a valuable teaching moment and a perfectly appropriate way to spend our lesson time.  I listened to Bobby's use of tonal patterns, rhythms, and repetition.  I watched him play.  He was into it.  He was making music.  He was incorporating things we had learned but he was making it his own.  When he arrived at the end of his improvisation, I knew it was complete.

We finished the lesson with a few activities from the lesson book but I was struck by what I had just witnessed.  I wondered if others would hear the things that I heard - the creativity, the sensitivity, the synthesis.  I learned something new today about music as a language.

Matthew's Lesson

Every Monday night at 6:30 p.m., seven-year-old Matthew comes for a piano lesson.  Some days, these lessons are 80% discipline and 20% playing but this week’s lesson was an exceptional contrast. In preparation for our lecture recital, Steve and I had moved the piano from it’s usual front right position to front and center (and rotated 180-degrees).  This change to our normal lesson scene made an immediate difference with Matthew.  The curly-headed, wiggly child sat right down and flipped his book open to our newest page.  “Are we starting with this piece?” I asked, pointing to the first of the two.  Without a word, he brought his hands up to the keyboard and began to play.  He meant business!  I sat to the side and observed until the end of the piece.  Matthew has an excellent sense of rhythm so generally it’s just fingering and tonal patterns that we need to review.  This performance, however, required no review!  He played the song in it’s entirety while chanting the text.  I was impressed!

We moved on to the second piece on the page by reviewing the rhythm/text.  After tapping and chanting, I asked him to find his hand position.  Again, he played straight through, while chanting the text with no issues!

Normally, by this point in the lesson, I would be kindly asking him to take his feet off the pedals, sit still, play with only fingers 2 and 3, etc.  Since he was so focused and playing so well, I encouraged him to explore the change in sound when adding a little pedal.  He played very gently – adding about half of the sustain pedal throughout.

At the end, I asked, “How did that change the sound?”  He had an immediate response.  “It stays,” he said simply.  “Yes!” I replied enthusiastically.  “It makes the sound last longer, doesn’t it?”  “Yes, and if I were just playing notes like this-” he stopped to demonstrate a pattern of steps “then I wouldn’t need the pedal.  But if I were playing here [high register] and then I wanted to go down here [moving to the mid-low register] then I would need the pedal.”  What an insightful response!  It became clear to me that Matthew not only recognized the sound difference but knew how he would use it in the future as a way of connecting patterns in different registers!

Having recently learned about 2nds, playing on white keys (this book starts on the black keys), and dotted half notes, I asked Matthew to improvise a piece that incorporated all three things.  He thought for a minute before beginning.  Thoughtfully, he played a stepwise melody with a repeated rhythmic motive.  He used both hands and a wide range of keys.  The piece ended rather abruptly but from the look on his face, this was intentional.

“That was beautiful, Matthew!”  I said.  “What’s the name of that piece?”  “I haven’t decided yet,” he said in a matter-of-fact way.  “Let’s ask your grandma what she thought,” I suggested.  “I thought it sounded whimsical,” she said.  Seeing the perplexed look on Matthew’s face (“What the heck does that mean?!”) she quickly added, “Like playing with toys.”  “Hmm, what do you think, Matthew?” I asked.  “Toy Days,” he stated.  And “Toy Days” it was.

We moved back in the book to review his recital pieces – “Inchworm” and “Playing Frisbee.”  We work on text from the very beginning of learning a new piece but in preparation for the recital, I’ve been working on having Matthew think the words internally instead of speaking them out loud.  We reviewed this for both pieces and as I joined him on the bench to add the duet part, I reminded him about bringing our hands up to the keyboard at the same time and lifting our hands off the keys and back to our laps at the end of the piece.  His grandmother was very impressed.

I had one more piece to review – “Merrily We Roll Along.”  This is a great example of knowing/singing a song one way and reading it another.  This elementary piano book carefully presents this song within a 3-note range for each hand and with only basic rhythms (for instance, no dotted rhythms).  I believe that reading is important, but I also know that Matthew knows this song with a different rhythm.  I’m not going to correct him with the simplified version when he can hear and play the more complicated version.  All I had to do was turn to the page and he began to play.

I had turned for just a minute to make a comment to his grandmother about practicing but I could hear him working out this song by ear.  He was looking at the book but we both knew he wasn’t really reading it.  He was singing to himself and when he played a wrong note, he would say to himself, “Wait!” and then begin the phrase again and again until he figured it out.  He didn’t stop until he could play all the way to the end.  I thought this was excellent and praised him for using his ear to self-correct.  I played my accompaniment for him and we sang the melody together (with the familiar dotted rhythm).  After that, it was much easier to play both parts because he already had an idea of how the two parts fit together.

We ended our lesson time with a few preparation steps for a new song – reading the text in rhythm and tapping while chanting.  We discussed the implications of the title (“Parade”).  “Have you ever marched in a parade?”  I asked.  “No, but I’ve seen a parade before,” he answered.  “Well, what do you think would happen if you were marching in a parade and suddenly, you decided to stop?”  “You would get run over!” he replied with big eyes.  “Probably so!”  I said.  “That’s what this song means when it says, ‘Keep the step!’”

Lessons like these remind me why I love teaching.  The creativity, the innocence, the playfulness, and the imagination make music so much more fun!  Can we all be a little more like seven-year-olds sometimes?

Making the Intangible Tangible

My piano studio is officially up and running and I have nine students enrolled for the fall.  I have quite a spread at the moment with students ranging from age 5 to retired adult.  I am also teaching seven students and staff members at Fitchburg State University.  It’s a wonderful opportunity to teach at so many different levels but I must confess, Kindergarten and 1st Grade is still my favorite age. Yesterday, I had a lesson with 5-year-old Lily.

With a head full of curls and always decked out in the latest fashion, Lily is bright-eyed and full of energy.  As such, we started our piano lesson with “warm-ups” a.k.a “get the wiggles out before you sit down on the bench.”  We wiggled our arms, we bobbed our wrists, and we wiggled all of our fingers (what a great way to promote large-body movements to fine motor skills and relaxation – something we all should practice!).

We spent the beginning of the lesson reviewing the pieces we started last week: chanting the texts while keeping a steady beat (for the following piece I used an imaginary oar as a variation of the arm swing), tapping the rhythm on the keyboard cover, singing, and looking for musical patterns.

Crossing the lake in a canoe, Paddling along enjoying the view!

“What do you see when you’re paddling across the lake?”  “Umm,” Lily said, cocking her head to one side.  “I see some trees, and a blue sky… and some clouds, and – this is silly.”  “What is it?”  I prodded.  “A bread-tree,” she replied, matter-of-factly.  What is a bread-tree, you might ask?  In Lily’s words, “It’s a tree with slices of bread on it!”  What an imagination!  If only we could look at the world through the eyes of a five-year-old every once in a while.

The second half of the lesson was spent on new material: We walked in place (keeping a steady beat while chanting the text), swung our arms, tapped our hands, and identified the starting hand position.  After demonstrating the beginning of the piece, I said, “Can you copy me?  Do you have it in your head?”

Immediately, Lily’s facial expression changed and I knew this was a concept difficult for her to grasp.  Think about the question literally – imagine the notes swirling around or maybe the printed page crumpled up in your head.  Quick – improvise!

“It’s not in your head?  Well, open it up (pretending to open a door into the top of my head) and put it in!”  She quickly copied my motions, smiling.  I knew she had heard me play the piece and we had spoken the text in rhythm several times as preparation.  Once we overcame this intangible gap, she played the piece just fine.

I learn so much about myself as a teacher in these kinds of lessons.  I can’t help but come home beside myself with excitement and eager to share my creative experiences with Steve – it’s the five-year-old in me.