Resource Roundup: Improvisation

Do you use improvisation in your studio? I do … starting at lesson one! What I’ve learned from a lot of teachers is that improvisation is not something they were taught growing up, and it intimidates them quite a bit. I get it – new things are always intimidating! But we have to take a step back and realize that we are asking our students to conquer new things Every. Single. Week. Therefore, we ourselves should be willing to try new things!

Some of the newer methods include improvisation here and there in between the many skills that they deem important for a well-rounded piano student. But in no way are they included to the point of actually allowing students to get comfortable with the skill.

This is NOT an article about why you should include improvisation in your lessons … but here are a few quick reasons you might consider.

~ Improv can help you teach other critical skills!

~ Improv can help you reinforce other critical skills!

~ Improv brings theory to life!

~ Students gain a sense of ownership of their music!

~ Students learn to better listen to what they are playing!

~ Students are encouraged to explore their instrument in new and creative ways!

~ A sense of shared exploration between student and teacher is developed!

These reasons and many others can be found in the blogs below. Each blog has thoroughly explored improvisation … So much wisdom here 🙂

Colourful Keys

The Curious Piano Teachers

Tim Topham

So now onto the resource part of this post … because I had mentioned that I use improvisation from the very first lesson I have with a student! I have also mentioned in past posts about how I’ve organized and consolidated my resources to be as easy as possible to pull out when I need them (see my post on using our Mental Energy wisely here). This means that yes, I do have an improvisation binder tucked neatly into my studio!

Having this handy dandy tool banishes the argument that there is never enough time for it all (although I do feel like this at times!). If we start with improvisation or have an extra two minutes at the end, I can easily whip out the binder and pull exactly what I need for each student within seconds. Do this one to two times a month, and everyone gets acclimated to this new skill very quickly!

So what would you find in my binder?

~ Andrea and Trevor Dow over at teachpianotoday.com have made some incredibly cute and fantastic and FREE resources for you to use when teaching basic improvisation. They are mostly holiday based, and assist you in focusing on specific rhythms with your student. These are typically my go-to for a student’s first lesson. The student leaves the lesson with a HUGE smile because he/she has just made some really awesome sounding music right off the bat!

Check out their St. Patty’s Day and Easter improvisation activities to get you started for the coming months 🙂

They also have adorable Happy Birthday and Loose Tooth versions! Perfect for any time of the year!

Andrea and Trevor have so much more than just what I’ve shared … so I encourage you to check out their vast treasure chest on their website here!

~ Also from the Dows … your more advanced students don’t get left out! If you join their PianoBookClub the monthly book is periodically improvisation based. (They have part of the music written, and suddenly the melody drops out and they give a rhythm along with left hand patterns. This is great for improvising in different styles!) They have also produced Wunderkeys Pop 1 and 2. Each unit is centered around gaining a thorough understanding of a key. The last activity in each unit is an entire improvisation page to ensure the student has learned all of the skills they need in that key! I LOVE these and have several students working out them right now either as their method or a supplemental scale book 🙂

~ Next is a very different resource, but just as useful! Tonic is a game my students and I play often. It is a very well – produced resource that is as simple as pulling a card and following the instructions. It includes chromatic dice if you need help picking which tones to use. The entire game is focused on expressing and freely playing through our music. And this game has done a fantastic job of pulling my students out of their comfort zones enough to explore music in ways they would never have imagined if left to their own devices.

~pic taken from the product’s website~

Creating a song out of one note played all over the piano? Their horrified looks give the opportunity to talk about tone quality, exploring different octaves, rhythms, and so much more.

This week’s fun has been this card:

It has been amazing to see what my students have come up with. It has also given me an even better sense of who needs to work harder on their listening skills! But I think the best part? I got to improvise right along with them. Not only was I having fun, but they got to see and hear ideas that they could build upon in the moment. Have I mentioned that I’m excited about all of my improv resources yet?!

~ The final resource I want to share today is Eric Baumgartner’s Jazz Piano Basics. I have a few middle/high school students right now who are hoping to join jazz band in the fall. This is a fantastic resource to get a good grip on jazz: exercises to learn the concepts, question and answer listening/playing examples, improvisation pages, and a final performance piece to put all the skills together in each unit. But by far my favorite part is the question and answer and improv pages. Because students can log in and hear the listening examples at home, their ear training skills have skyrocketed. Then when we get to the improvisation, they are much more prepared to play actively instead of passively. The first three resources I shared are not specifically for jazz improvisation. These books only focus on jazz. We have definitely had fun using them!

Find Book 1 here

Find Book 2 here

Are these the only ways to teach improvisation or resources to accomplish it? No- the list far exceeds the amount of information you’d want to read in this post. But I’m hoping this gives you a good start in seamlessly adding improvisation into your lesson plans. Having these resources tucked into an easily accessible place in my studio has made all the difference in how both I and my students view this important skill!

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