Frequently Asked Questions
I'm a teacher assigned to teach a group class on improvisation at my college, but I've never done it before. Where do I start?
The book is designed precisely for this purpose. Select the "Lesson Plans" link on the navigation bar above. Then, select "Group Instruction." This set of lesson plans will guide you through a typical semester (or two academic quarters) using Improvisation at the Piano as the text.
I'm not sure how to work improvisation into lessons with my private students. Any advice?
Some teachers like to set aside 5 minutes of a one-hour lesson for improvisation. In the "Lesson Plans" section of this site, there is a 15-week plan for using this book in the context of individual lessons. Click the Lesson Plans link on the navigation bar above and select "Individual Instruction." Depending on the level of the student, these lesson plans (covering Sections I and II of the text) can cover 12 to 30 weeks of instruction. Some students will prefer an accelerated pace, while others will want multiple weeks to process each lesson.
Once I have completed this book, what should I be able to do?
The player who works diligently through the exercises and who fully internalizes each concept before moving to the next should be able to do the following after completing chapters 1-15:
1. Easily create a myriad of improvised phrases (from melodic material existing in memory
or taken from the printed page) using an array of improvising tools explained in the chapters;
2. Use the above phrases in the context of simple harmony to create compelling improvised
3. Have the ability to identify the harmony of any simple passage and know which scalar material
to apply to that harmony for improvisation;
4. Be able to overcome the uncertainties of not knowing what to play next;
5. Be able to choose or create any short harmonic passage and craft an improvisation that is
appropriate and elegant.
Later chapters apply the principles learned in Sections 1 and 2 to more difficult harmony and encourage the player to communicate in longer, more elaborate phrases.
At what level should I begin to teach improvisation to students?
It depends on the personality and ability of the student. As soon as a student can play a steady rhythm and has learned to identify the notes of the major scale, he/she should be able to handle the exercises in the first five chapters of Improvisation at the Piano.
The first exercise, Ode to Mr. Morse, requires the mastery of only one note. Therefore, that exercise could be practiced by children as young as five- or six-years-old. During personal practice, young students may need to use a metronome to provide steady beats until those beats can be played with the left hand.
The key with young children is to make the experience fun, which is why we suggest you play the exercises as "interactive conversations" between teacher and student during a lesson (described in Chapter 4). Give students plenty of praise and encouragement as they express their creativity at any level.
Part 1 of the book is designed to emphasize expression and imagination only -- no technical mastery required. So, a student can experiment with improvisation before he/she has mastered the technical rudiments of traditional playing (scales, arpeggios, etc). Improvisation activates different mental muscles than those required to achieve technical proficiency. Therefore, a teacher doesn't have to wait until the student is technically advanced to begin teaching improvisation.
During Part 1, you may have to continually remind students to utilize the various expressive elements (dynamics, articulation, silence, etc), since their natural inclination will be to focus only on rhythm and melody (that's true of adults, as well).
Once the student learns scales and arpeggios and develops a repertoire of pieces, he/she can move to the exercises in Part 2 (Scales 101, Melodic Manipulation, Skipping, Jumping, Repetition, etc). A student who can play Fur Elise is ready to explore these exercises in-depth and apply the concepts to any simple harmony.