If you like to include composing and improvisation in your piano lessons… or, if you’ve always wanted to but just haven’t started, then the Christmas season is the perfect time to begin!
Putting a New Spin on Old Carols
When it comes to Christmas tunes, I’m on a personal mission to have my piano students be familiar with more than just Jingle Bells and Rudolph. I’ve received way too many blank stares when I suggest “I Saw Three Ships” or “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” and, as a lover of all carols, it worries me that these tunes are in danger of disappearing.
One important way that my students learn these traditional carols is by using them as a composing and improv project.
Composing Using Christmas Tunes
As you explore a variety of Christmas repertoire with your kiddos, help them to learn to identify the main motive in each tune (the 1 or 2 measures that form the main musical idea that is repeated often throughout the piece). Isolating this motive and then using some compositional techniques like sequencing, repetition, retrograde etc. with this motive helps your students to memorize these melodies (they’ll recognize these carols instantly from now on!) and also gives them the opportunity to experiment with well-known music.
Using just the motive from a carol, you can create an entirely new piece (follow the formula below and it generates a simple little piece, no problem-o) and then your piano kids can have some fun creating a slightly-altered title (think “God Rest Ye Merry Hummingbirds” or “It Came Upon a Thursday Clear”).
The Formula You Need:
Their piece will be in ABA form and looks like this:
A Section: Original Motive – Repetition – Sequence – Measure(s) of their choice
B Section: Repetition – Sequence of the Repetition – Repetition – Measure(s) of their choice
A Section: Original Motive – Repetition – Sequence – Original Motive – Ending of their choice
*repetition = repeat one measure of the motive
*sequence = play the motive, but start on a different pitch
Improv Can Happen Too!
If you have kids who are more than familiar with the traditional tunes, then you can really use this to your advantage and bring in some improvisation ideas too. Can they figure out the right hand melody of the carol by ear? Great!… Work out the chords that sound good in the left hand and have some fun varying the accompaniment. Do they have a wide repertoire of Christmas carols under their belt? Awesome!… Put together a Christmas “mash-up” by creating segues between the main themes of several tunes.
The sky’s the limit – and it’s the best time of year to introduce some creativity to keep your piano kids motivated and practicing over the holiday break.
Composing Not your Strong Suit?
If you’re not particularly familiar with the compositional form or some of the compositional terms mentioned above, you may want to check out one of our newest resources “The Curious Case of Muttzart and Ratmaninoff”. In this exciting resource we guide both teachers and their students on a step-by-step compositional journey.