Thank you for selecting Improvisation at the Piano for learning and teaching the art of improvisation in the classical style. This set of lesson plans will guide you through one semester (14 weeks) of group study based on Sections I and II of the text. Please consider the following points before beginning the course:
- These lesson plans can be used with classes of any size. However, it is best to have at least one keyboard instrument for every two students in the class. This ratio provides the best opportunity for personal interaction.
- Teach this course as part of a class in group piano or piano pedagogy. In a typical 50-minute weekly class session, the improvisation component will take 20-25 minutes depending on the concept assigned for a specific week.
- Students should be given chapter assignments each week to be practiced daily until mastery of the assigned skill has been achieved. A student should not move to the next concept until the assigned skill feels comfortable.
- Use the weekly lesson time to assess progress and determine whether further exploration of a given skill is required.
- When a new chapter is assigned, the teacher should take 1-2 minutes to introduce the chapter concept and be certain the class understands the proper way to practice the exercises during the coming week.
- While this 14-week lesson plan assigns a specific chapter each week, the teacher and class should work together to find a pace that is appropriate and effective for the entire group.
- Selective Pacing – Some students may desire to spend 2-3 weeks (or more) developing a particular skill. In other cases, more advanced students may want to explore more than one chapter in a single week. Therefore, it may be necessary to divide the class into multiple tracks, each moving at their own pace.
- This is a very important decision for the teacher, since students who fail to grasp essential concepts in the beginning will inevitably struggle later.
- If all students prefer to move slower through the material, this series of lesson plans would require more than one semester to complete.
- After teaching this course through one semester, you may find it necessary to divide it into two offerings – a two-semester course for complete beginners and one-semester course for students with higher aptitude.
- Quarter System – If classes are taught in the quarter system (10 weeks per quarter), stretch this 14-week plan into 20 weeks and complete it in two quarters. To do this, take two weeks to complete the lessons for weeks 5, 6, 7 and 13. Also, add the “Borrowing” chapter found in the lesson plans for Individual Instruction (Week 14). The final week of the second quarter can be a “celebration” session in which the students are invited to perform for the class by improvising (solo) on the harmonic passages of their choice.
- The ability to improvise through a specific passage of a familiar piece;
- The ability to improvise over the harmony of an entire piece;
- The ability to improvise over any set of chords chosen randomly;
- To gain a deeper understanding of harmony.
- At the outset of this process, it is important for teacher and class to discuss the desired outcomes for the study of improvisation. Some outcomes may include:
LESSON PLANS: WEEK 1
During The Lesson:
- Use the first session to skim through Section 1 (the first five chapters) with the class and explain how it will unfold, progressively adding skill upon skill until a range of basic improvisatory skills is acquired.
- Discuss outcomes from this course.
- Play through a few Chapter 1 exercises, so that the students understand how to practice during the week. Have each student spend some time experimenting.
- Read Introduction (Page 1) and “What is improvisation?” (Page 3)
- Complete Chapter 1: Living in the Language (practice all exercises)
During The Lesson:
- Have each student find an improvising partner. If possible, there should be only two students per instrument. (If necessary, divide into groups of three and ask them to rotate positions.)
- Have each student demonstrate (to his/her partner) the ability to improvise with Chapter 1 exercises.
- Utilize the technique described in Chapter 4 (Speaking to One Another) to create an interactive session with each pair of students (see Exercise 4-1). In groups of three, one student will have to observe while the other two interact.
- Throughout this course, feel free to rotate improvising partners at any time, as appropriate. Interaction with different players is a valuable experience for the improviser. Some students may prefer to have a different improvising partner during each session.
- Decide whether to explore Chapter 1 for another week or move to the next chapter. If some students want to spend more than one week with Chapter 1, you may want to consider the Selective Pacing concept described in the Overview section.
- Be sure the class fully understands the range of expressive tools available for improvisation – rhythm, dynamics, duration (articulation), tone and silence.
- In the past, these expressive tools have been used only because the composer dictated their use.
- This experience is different because the player is in full control. The tools are now “owned” by the player.
- Students who move too quickly through the material and never become comfortable with the tools in Section 1 (Chapters 1-5) may be handicapped in later chapters. The teacher’s job is to ensure that students are in command of the tools and can use them “at will” to express musical ideas. Ideally, each skill will become “second nature” before the students move to the next concept.
- Discuss the strategic use of silence. Explain that silence is not just the passive “absence of sound.” It is an active, intentional tool of the improviser that creates space and balance. Encourage its use often to allow ideas to “breathe.”
- Chapter 2 – Upper and Lower Neighbors
During The Lesson:
- Have each student demonstrate to his/her partner the ability to improvise with Chapter 2 exercises.
- Utilize the technique described in Chapter 4 (Speaking to One Another) to create another interactive session with Chapter 2 exercises. Use different keys. Encourage students to have fun together!
- Decide whether to explore Chapter 2 further or move to the next chapter. Again, it may be necessary to consider Selective Pacing (see Overview section).
- Emphasize a different expressive element each week. This week, emphasize note duration (articulation). The exercises in Chapter 2 contain some connected notes and others that are staccato and separated. Make sure that duration is an expressive tool that the students utilize fully.
- At this early stage, ask students to switch hands and improvise with the LH (while playing quarter notes with the RH). This is an important exercise that will utilize another part of the brain. Students who felt these exercises were too repetitive and boring should be quickly humbled by the instruction to switch hands.
During The Lesson:
- Have students demonstrate the ability to improvise with Chapter 3 exercises.
- Spend more time with the interactive session (see Exercise 4-3). By now, this should be a highly engaging part of the lesson – a chance for students to communicate with one another through musical ideas. Encourage them to enjoy the collaboration! (If students are not having fun with interactive trading, they may be approaching this process too seriously. Relax and make “having fun” the primary goal.)
- Decide whether to explore Chapter 3 further or move to the next chapter.
- Make sure students understand the concept of longer phrases.
- Use the analogy of verbal communication. A person who continually speaks in short, choppy phrases is considered an awkward communicator who must evolve into someone who utilizes full sentences and paragraphs. The same applies to musical communication. Begin to think in musical sentences.
- If a student is having trouble being creative, have him/her say a verbal phrase and then match the rhythm of the phrase with notes. Make a connection between verbal improvising and musical improvising. Create a series of verbal phrases and match them with notes.
- This week, emphasize the use of tone in improvisation. Ask students to create soft, sweet tonal phrases for a time. Later, ask for aggressive, strident tonality. Then, explore the range of tone between these two extremes. This will also involve dynamics, since tone and dynamics are closely related.
- Chapter 5: Spreading Your Wings
- Chapter 4 is not necessary, since it has been used each week from the beginning.
During The Lesson:
- Make sure students understand the concept of “Charting Paths and Meandering.”
- Start immediately with the interactive session. Trade 8 measures, then 4, then 2 using different keys. Create longer phrases.
- Decide whether to spend additional weeks in Chapter 5 to let all the concepts from Section One “sink in.” It may be beneficial to set aside an additional 1-2 weeks to review and practice all the expressive tools from Section I until they become “second nature” to the class.
- Try calling out starting points and destinations randomly (for example, Middle C to the E in the next higher octave). Then, ask the students to meander from the starting point to the destination.
- First, ask for a direct route to the destination; then a more circuitous route; then a very adventurous route (using only the RH). For simplicity, these three routes might be called “straight, curved, and wild.”
- During the interactive session, one partner can periodically call out a new destination and route. For example “Eb Wild” would tell the player to move to an Eb in a higher or lower octave using an unusual adventurous route. “G Curved” would tell the player to move to a G in another octave using an indirect route. “A Straight” would tell the player to move to an A in another octave in the most direct way possible.
- Also during the interactive session, change the standard “quarter note rhythm” to something more active. Choose one or more of the suggested rhythms (Exercise 5-3), being careful not to lose the basic pulse of the exercise.
- See if the students can turn the exercises upside down (see Exercise 5-4, part 1), playing quarter notes (or another steady rhythm) in the RH while improvising with the LH.
- Read Section 2 Introduction: Essential Tools
- Chapters 6-7: Scales 101 and 102
During The Lesson:
- Have students demonstrate (to their partners) the ability to play major and minor scales in the context of changing harmony.
- Make clear the purpose of these chapters – (1) to see and play scales in the context of harmony, and (2) to “own” the scales as tools for improvisation.
- If students have not tried these exercises in different keys, allow experimentation during the lesson.
- Many pianists view scalar exercises as repetitive tasks used only to improve fingering and evenness of rhythmic playing. But scales can mean much more to the improviser. These exercises are designed to help the pianist view scales (and manipulations of scales) as powerful tools for personal and expressive musical communication.
- In improvisation, the player must “take ownership” of the scales (i.e. use them actively, not just because the notes say so) and understand their use within changing harmony. These exercises help the player see scales in this new light.
- Help the student listen carefully for dissonances and resolutions that occur as scales are played at different speeds over the Alberti accompaniment.
- The teacher should instruct the student to change the direction or speed of scales randomly (or on cue whenever the teacher instructs during the exercise). These changes of direction or speed will create different sets of dissonances and resolutions with respect to the harmony. They will also help the student take control of the scales and see them not as rote exercises but as expressive melodic tools.
- In Chapter 7, be sure the class understands that small changes to a scale can help the player accommodate changing harmony. Remind them that such changes are allowed at any time, since the improviser is in full control of the notes played.
- Students may desire to spend extra time on these chapters to grow more comfortable with scales in different keys. The student’s goal should be to master the scalar exercises in every key.
- Chapter 8 – Which Scale to Choose?
- Do not assign Exercises 8-6, 8-7 and 8-8.
During The Lesson:
- Review the exercises in Chapter 8 (pages 35-40).
- Make certain that every student understands how to “see” the harmony of a passage.
- Determine whether any members of the class need to do remedial work in harmonic analysis before moving forward.
- This is a pivotal chapter in the process of learning to improvise. Understanding harmony is a critical skill of the improviser. Do not move beyond this chapter until every student clearly understands how to identify the harmonic structure of the two “Fűr Elise” passages in this section (pages 35-40).
- If a student is struggling to “see” harmony, find some simple passages from other pieces in the student’s repertoire and that student practice identifying the harmony together with his/her partner.
- A hymnbook is an excellent resource for learning harmony. Hymns are usually notated in block chord format – and the harmony is usually quite basic.
- Some students may need to spend a few weeks learning how to identify harmony and select appropriate scales before moving to the next chapter. If these skills are underdeveloped, the student will experience frustration in later chapters.
- Although the exercises ask the student to improvise with the scales selected for the passages, this improvisation is not the main focus of the chapter. Rather, the emphasis is on seeing harmony and selecting the appropriate scales. The succeeding chapters will provide much deeper instruction on what to do with the selected scales.
- Chapter 8: Exercises 8-6, 8-7 and 8-8.
- Ask students to work through these exercises without referring to the analyses that follow each one. Student should use the analyses only to measure success after completing each exercise.
During The Lesson:
- Have the students play through the passages from Exercises 8-6, 8-7 and 8-9 for their partners.
- One partner may want to play the LH part of the three exercises and have the other partner improvise over the harmony using the selected scales..
- Determine whether any students still need remedial work in harmonic analysis before moving forward.
- Students who are comfortable with these exercises are ready to move to the next chapter.
- Before the lesson, the teacher should prepare some new passages to test the student’s ability to identify harmony and select scales. A hymnbook can provide many examples.
- Test passages should not exceed four measures in length to ensure that the students enjoy success in identifying harmony. More advanced students may select longer passages, but should avoid complicated harmony that may cause frustration. The goal at this stage is to experience success.
- Chapter 9: Upside Down and Inside Out
- Ask students to bring some of their favorite pieces (in printed form) to the next lesson.
During The Lesson:
- Select or compose 3-4 additional melodies and ask the students to turn these melodies upside down and inside out.
- Some familiar melodic examples are:
- Good Morning To You (aka “Happy Birthday To You”)
- I’m a Little Teapot (children’s song)
- Mexican Hat Dance
- Row, Row, Row Your Boat
- Each partner should select some short phrases from his/her favorite pieces of music and ask the other partner to turn these phrases upside down and inside out.
- The student should see these exercises as “mind-stretching” challenges that will prepare the way for other types of melodic manipulation in later chapters.
- The chapter introduces two tools of scale manipulation that produce new melodic material through the inversion or revision of familiar melodies. These skills will become part of an improvising “toolbox” that can be accessed effortlessly once they become second nature to the player.
- The student should not worry about turning the melodies exactly upside down or inside out. The key is to experiment – and realize that there is no single “right way” to accomplish these exercises – only a myriad of equally acceptable ways.
During The Lesson:
- Students should demonstrate (to their partners) the ability to play through Exercise 10-1. Be sure to transpose into unfamiliar keys.
- Create an interactive session with Exercise 10-1. Trade 8 bars, then 4, then 2.
- Try the above interactive exercise in different keys. Have fun together!
- Decide whether more time is needed on this skill before moving to the next chapter.
- This chapter presents several well-known piano exercises that utilize skipping. However, there are a myriad of other skipping-based exercises that a teacher might recommend for practice. Don’t feel limited to the examples shown in the chapter.
- Encourage students to create new patterns (not just the familiar ones) that utilize skipping.
- Emphasize the critical importance of transposition. Familiar patterns become “new” in the mind each time they are seen in a different context. Practicing only in familiar keys will hinder a student’s growth as an improviser. Transpose everything.
- Urge students to persevere in personal practice. Some of the most creative moments may occur after the student has experimented with a particular concept for several minutes.
- The continual use of skipping intervals can become tiresome to the listener. Give students permission to include scalar material at any time to create more listenable improvised passages.
- Find a simple LH passage from another piece (perhaps a piece a student is currently learning). The partner should play the LH part of the passage while the other partner improvises with skipping intervals using the RH. Eventually, each student should take control of the LH and try this exercise alone.
- Before moving on, every student should be able to select any short harmonic passage from a familiar piece and create a simple improvisation based on skipping intervals in various keys.
- Chapter 11: Upper & Lower Neighbors
During The Lesson:
- Select any series of four notes and have each student demonstrate the ability to create a lyrical phrase by connecting those notes with upper and lower neighbors.
- Have each pair of students repeat this exercise with several different sets of notes that are progressively more difficult. One partner should select the series of notes and ask the other to connect them with adjacent neighbors. Then switch roles.
- Repeat the above exercises using the lower neighbor first. Then, use the upper neighbor first. Finally, have the student select the first note randomly.
- The effective use of upper and lower neighbors is one of the most valuable skills in improvisation. The phrases produced by adjacent neighbors are some of the most lyrical and emotive that can be found in music.
- Take some time with the class to compare a “tighter” series of notes (for example, C-E-G-C ascending) versus a “wider” series of notes (for example, C-G-E-C ascending). Discuss which are more appealing and why.
- Activity: Try challenging individuals in the class to see who can connect the longest series of notes using upper and lower neighbors. Make it a contest.
- Try creating phrases with the LH using upper and lower neighbors. Using the less dominant hand is another way of taking ownership of this valuable skill.
- The goal of this chapter is for students to have full command of upper and lower neighbors as an improvisatory tool. As in the previous chapter, every student should be able to select any short harmonic passage from a familiar piece and improvise using a simple melody and upper and lower neighbors to connect notes.
During The Lesson:
- Students should demonstrate (to their partners) the ability to create jumping phrases using the techniques described in Chapter 12 – pedal point jumping, parallel jumping, arpeggiated jumping and octave switching.
- One partner should play the Alberti accompaniment while the other partner creates phrases with the RH that include various types of jumping intervals.
- Turn Exercise 12-5 into an interactive exercise. Trade four bars, then two.
- Jumping can become tiresome if used too often or too long. Make certain the class understands that jumping should be used as part of a balanced assortment of improvising tools.
- It may seem tedious to learn each skill (skipping, upper and lower neighbors, jumping) in isolation. But this method allows the mind to focus deeply on a single aspect of improvisation until it is ingrained in the mind.
- Note that math is learned in the same way – first addition, then subtraction, then multiplication, then division, etc. Eventually, the student who is well-versed in each separate discipline can begin to merge them together seamlessly through more complex equations.
- Similarly, the individual tools of improvisation – when learned well – will converge into a complete “skill set” that emerges spontaneously as the player improvises. Be sure to communicate this “big picture” to students that seem to growing tired of practicing separate skills.
During The Lesson:
- Each student should play any short, simple scalar pattern and ask his/her partner to create a repeating phrase that includes that pattern. This can be done with or without a LH accompaniment.
- Repeat the above with a non-scalar pattern.
- Each student should tap out an interesting rhythm and ask his/her partner to create any phrase (scalar or non-scalar) that builds on that repeated rhythm.
- Each student should play an example of sequential patterns using Exercise 13-1 for his/her partner.
- Each student should play a short rhythm or melody (maximum two beats) and ask his/her partner to use that rhythm/melody to create an example of recurring repetition (ala Exercise 13-2).
- The point of this chapter is to give the student permission to be repetitive. Too often, players are intimidated by improvisation because they believe it requires the spontaneous creation of new material at every moment. The player should be encouraged to use repetition as a tool that brings cohesiveness to improvisation.
- Be sure to emphasize the four primary uses of repetition found on Page 75.
- Like most things, repetition can be overused. Be sure it is used as part of a balanced portfolio of improvising tools.
- Chapter 15: Putting It All Together
During The Lesson:
- Each student should demonstrate the ability to improvise through Exercises 15-1, 15-2 and 15-3. This could be the final exam of the course.
- Allow students to perform for the class with solo improvisation based on the harmonic passages of their choice.
- Take time to discuss the progress made during this semester.
- The student who has successfully completed the first two sections of this text can be considered a capable improviser.
- Decide whether the student’s original goals have been reached. If not, consider what skills need further exploration.
- The student should now be able to take simple harmonic passages from other pieces and apply all the improvising tools learned so far to these passages. Be careful not to select harmony that is too difficult.
- For study of more difficult harmony, consider a separate course offering that begins with Section 3 (for advanced improvisers).