So much of making music is structured. There are strict rules to be followed about what notes to play, how long to hold each sound, how fast a piece (or portion of) should be played…. the list is exhaustive! And while all of these rules combine to produce a creative end result, they can also stifle the innate creativity of a child.
I discovered this recently when I started to do some improvisation with my pre-teen student. She was completely crippled by questions: But what notes should I play? Should they all be quarter notes or should I have some half notes? I don’t know what note to play next! I was taking away all of the rules she had ingrained in her head… and it was disconcerting to her.
I’ve always been a proponent of not simply producing “jukebox piano students”; I don’t want my studio to just pump out kids who can play pieces that sound the same as any other piano student. I get the most excited about teaching piano when my students seize an opportunity to be imaginative. Whether or not this impulse to be creative goes against the “rules” is less important to me than their motivation to be original.
As piano teachers we have the ability to foster these moments of creative energy… and even to orchestrate these opportunities; encouraging our piano students to express themselves through music.
A Piano Teacher’s Guide to Imagination
We spend so much of our time teaching to rules that at times it’s difficult to remember that the creative side of learning to play the piano is just as important. After all, where would we be without the “rebels” who broke the rules and changed the status-quo throughout music history? So… here are 4 ways you can create moments of imagination in your piano lessons :
1. Story-Based Piano Pieces
Every single piece can tell a story. So much can be learned about expressive playing and phrasing if your piano students can easily come up with a sub-plot for the notes on their page. But this process needs to be more than simply tokenism; just making up a simple “this piece is about a dog chasing a cat” isn’t going to spark that seed of imagination enough to really make a difference when they play.
Instead, dive into their music head-first. Which theme is the “cat’s theme”? Which note signals their change in direction as they race through the alleyways? What does each dynamic marking mean to the story? What does each accidental “do” to the plot? More ideas for teaching story-based piano pieces can be found here.
2. Give the Tools for Improvisation
All piano students should learn basic left hand chording patterns. Teach them to play a simple 4-chord progression. Teach them how to vary the rhythmic patterns in their left hand. Show them how to make decisions about what right hand notes match each chord and then break free from the rules. Take away their fears of being wrong by showing them how to make wrongs right. For example, play an A minor chord in the left hand with a single F in the right hand… sounds horrible, but show them how even a “yucky” sound like this can be resolved by a simple right hand step down t0 E.
Give your students the tools to not be afraid of just “playing around” on the piano. So many piano students don’t know how to play a thing unless they have sheet music or a previously-memorized piece. This fact is one of the biggest contributing factors to a reluctance to being imaginative on the piano.
3. Create Soundscapes and Soundtracks
Use visual aids to help your students create soundscapes and soundtracks. Find inspirational pictures or interesting videos. Help them to tell the story of what they see using only the piano. Youtube is great for this – find old Tom and Jerry cartoons or similar, press mute and have your student take on the role of the sound-effects crew as it plays. Anything goes! Pictures or comics can accomplish the same after a quick discussion of what is happening and how it could be represented on the piano. A huge motivating factor behind the success of “The Adventures of Fearless Fortissimo” is the fact that each piece tells part of the story from the comic. There is a reason for every note in every piece.
4. Take the Mystery out of Composing
Piano students spend their entire lives playing the music of others. For those piano students who like the security of structure, give them the opportunity to learn the mechanics of composing to inspire their imagination. Some children are happier creating within a framework of rules and for those types of kids composing is an ideal activity. If you have no idea where to begin when it comes to teaching composing, resist the urge to just ignore it; the creation of one’s own music is one of the most motivating skills you can teach! Check out “The Curious Case of Muttzart and Ratmaninoff” if you need help knowing how to teach compositional techniques in a way that won’t confuse and snooze.
By encouraging your piano students to find imagination and creativity in their piano-learning journey you will not only be creating well-rounded musicians, but also motivated students. Children are innately creative and expressive and achieving a balance between rules and freedom is imperative when searching for ways to maintain long-term and happy piano students.