Playing Your Own Notes

Improvising is a relatively new thing to my personal playing and studio teaching life. As a young pianist, too many years ago to count, I was not encouraged to improvise and not given many opportunities to create music in either the worship environment nor in the performance world.


For the past two years, with encouragement from Andrew Eales, I have been venturing into the world of teaching improvisation to students.  It has been a hunt and peck kind of existence as most improvising musicians tend to be self taught, play by ear for the most part and exploratory by nature.  They tend to expect you to just ‘get it” because they did.  As a very concrete and sequential person, just jumping into the whole improvisation thing without a guide book is a crash course to failure for me.


Thank heaven for the workshop held in Denver at the end of July by 88 Creative Keys.  Bradley Sowash and Leila Viss put together a marvelous three day learning experience that taught the teacher how to improvise, teach improvisation and feel confident about the process.  My mind was just buzzing with ideas.  The class exceeded my expectations.  


After much thought and some curriculum changes, the studio is tackling improvisation at every lesson and during our group theory/keyboard ensemble lessons for the new academic year.  We have been improvising but not to the extent that every lesson deals with some aspect of improvisation.  


For my fourth and fifth graders I see this new direction as having a huge impact on their future musical life.  Not only will they have a very clear understanding of musical theory but I just might have a little time to prepare a whole crop of jazz players who can, should a band director ask nicely, play alone or with a combo using their own notes.  I can only imagine what this will do for our future Mile High Music Making composers.  


I have started using Andrew Eales Keyquest and Bradley Sowash’s Jazz method to introduce chord structure, use of the ACMP feature on the digital keyboards and playing short familiar melodies by ear while adding chords in each key.  I did some of improvisation during the 2013-2014 year with the Premier Keyband but not to the extent where every lesson focuses on some element of improvisation and the use of chords in root and inversions to harmonize a melody.  


This week, I started with primary chords in the key of C with the Elementary and High School theory group this week.  We will utilize one piece for each group to encourage playing in each key.  I think it might be wise to keep a video record of our progress.  As students become more at ease with the process, we can look back to view our progress using the video diary as our guide.  


Wish us luck.  We are off on a new adventure.