Improvisation in the Lesson Room

improvisation

My three-year-old (Oh! excuse me) my three-and-a-half-year-old, Emma, is now interested in the piano.

Let me define interested here –

It’s early in the morning, and we (my wife and me) hear the pitter patter of little, sticky, bare feet across our rustic 1950’s wood floor.

We listen to a big CLUNK as Emma pushes the black fallboard of our mid-1990s Kawai Upright out of the way.

Tiny partially painted fingers begin caressing the white and black keys from low to high.

Next, dissonant clusters resound as groups of black notes are pressed with preschool force.

It’s not the most pleasant sound, but that’s okay.

She’s improvising.

That’s right; our three-and-a-half-year-plus-a-day-and-a-second-old is improvising!

I’m a huge proponent of dedicating a small part of the weekly lesson to improvisation.

Why, you ask?

Children learn to speak before reading, right?

Well, why should it be any different with music??

A child must first learn to speak the musical language before learning to read music from a page.

Consider this quote from an article featured on the Suzuki Association of the Americas website

The early years are crucial for developing mental processes and muscle coordination. Listening to music should begin at birth; formal training may begin at age three or four, but it is never too late to begin. Children learn words after hearing them spoken hundreds of times by others.

My daughter is learning to speak music.

And I’m encouraging it!

Now, I’ve never been one to lord practice over my children. (I have a six-year-old as well – Abby.)

Instead, I’ve adopted a different approach –

“Daddy?”

“Yes, Abby.”

“Can you give me a pliano lesson??” (No mis-spelling. That’s how she says it. My daughter plays the pliano.)

Believe me – she doesn’t have to ask twice!

You can’t force small children to play. Well, you can, but you shouldn’t.

Abby has declined my offer to give her a lesson plenty of times. And that’s okay.

I want HER to make the decision to play. And so far this approach is working beautifully.

Now, back to improvisation.

Webster’s dictionary defines to word “improvise” as follows –

Improvise – to compose, recite, play, or sing extemporaneously.

I feel like I need to define the long “e” word!

Extemporaneously – done, spoken, performed, etc., without special advance preparation; impromptu.

Emma (my youngest) did not prepare her ebony and ivory improvisation well in advance or its execution. She just saw the keys and went to playing.

And this is a beautiful thing! Children need this opportunity!

Freedom to explore possibilities is essential to the learning process, especially as it pertains to music.

Are there ways you can begin incorporating improvisation in your studio?

Maybe you already do.

Are there things you can do to enhance the time devoted to improvisation?

Consider this –

1.) The Ostinato (a recurring rhythmic idea as found in Ravel’s Bolero) is a beautiful canvas on which the young student paints with his or her improvisatory colors.

(Example – Play a quarter note ostinato on a low “C” and then have your student improvise with a “C” in his left hand and a “G” in his right hand. You’ll be surprised at just how clever youngins are!)

2.) Next, change your ostinato pattern up slightly. A minute change may trigger your student to come up with something different as well.


Thank you for spending a few moments with me! I hope that you’re walking away with some nuggets to help you in the important work you’re doing.

As always, feel free to leave a comment or question below.

See you next time!

3 Creative Ways to Increase Classroom Engagement

student in piano classroom

There she goes again (eye-roll).

Taking her eyes off of the music and allowing them to wander all around the room!

Sigh…

She’s such a good student when she focusses.

It’s a common scenario. Little minds wander. It’s hard to sit still. It’s difficult to focus.

But there are ways to increase engagement.

Here are three suggestions on how you can increase engagement in your classroom.

I’ve used these in larger settings, such as youth chorus, and group music classes. But they’re easily adapted to the private lesson room.

1.) Movement and Play

This one’s important. Young kids need to move! Some more than others. Believe it or not, this is a scientific fact.

In her brilliant article, Why Young Kids Learn Through Movement, Lara N. Dotson-Renta says,

Children acquire knowledge by acting and then reflecting on their experiences, but such opportunities are increasingly rare in school.

She goes on to say that kids learn through movement and play. Imagination is key!

Yet such learning is increasingly rare in early-childhood classrooms in the U.S, where many young children spend their days sitting at tables and completing worksheets. Kindergarten and preschool in the U.S. have become more and more academic, rigorously structuring kids’ time, emphasizing assessment, drawing a firm line between “work” and “play”—and restricting kids’ physical movement.

But how do we teachers encourage movement and play? Especially with our limited teaching time??

It’s a simple as reinforcing things via short games and activities.

For example, my class loves Rhythm Popcorn.

I simply line two rows of chairs facing one another, clap a simple rhythm, and then point to a student to repeat the rhythm. The student then points to one another student and he or she claps the rhythm. So on and so forth.

It’s a simple game, but it certainly increases classroom engagement. The students have fun and learn all about steady and precise rhythm.

2.) Transition

It’s easy to overlook this one.

Imagine you’re six-years-old again and asked to sit quietly on the piano bench for 20-30-minutes.

What would you feel? What would you think?

In their article What is a Normal Attention Span, Day2DayParenting says,

Young children do have relatively short attention spans and generally do best when alternating activities which require sitting still and focusing with those that allow for physical movement.

The younger the student, all the more necessary to transition, and transition often.

The article goes on to outline young children’s attention spans –

Children ages 5-6 years old typically can attend to one activity that is of interest to them for around 10-15 minutes at a time and should generally be able to filter out small distractions occurring simultaneously in the environment. They may only be able to attend to an assigned classroom activity for only 5-10 minutes particularly if they find it uninteresting or difficult for them and do not have adult guidance to stay on task.

Keep things moving along. Don’t rest too long on a particular song or activity. I’ve found 3-5 minutes to be the ideal time for each activity. Sometimes longer or shorter depending on the day and child.

Sometimes longer or shorter depending on the day and child.

3.) Visuals

Inspiration.com cites the following as benefits for visuals in the learning environment –

Visual learning helps students clarify their thoughts – Students see how ideas are connected and realize how information can be grouped and organized. With visual learning, new concepts are more thoroughly and easily understood when they are linked to prior knowledge.

Visual learning helps students integrate new knowledge – According to research, students better remember information when it is represented and learned both visually and verbally.

Visual learning helps students think critically – Linked verbal and visual information helps students make connections, understand relationships and recall related details.

Who wants to stare at the same thing for 30 minutes? Especially boring white and black notes on a page?!

Consider changing it up.

Why not print music on green or red paper around Christmas? Or orange paper leading up to Halloween?

This is a fun (and super easy) way to increase classroom engagement.

I’ve found small, handheld whiteboards to be wonderful teaching tools. Drawing examples of notes, rests, etc., on these boards and asking students to name them adds an extra layer of engagement and anticipation in the lesson room.


We need to remember those childhood feelings and embrace them. This is how we keep the sense of wonder and imagination in the classroom.

We want our students to long for the next piano lesson, asking questions such as, what’s Mr. Chris going to do this week? And, I wonder what game we’re going to play this time?!

Let’s encourage creativity in the classroom. After all, encouraging creativity, play, and imagination encourages learning.

Now teach, and teach well, you amazing teacher, you!