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Lesson Plans for Individual Instruction

Improvisation at the Piano

 

 

OVERVIEW:

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 the teacher through the first fifteen weeks of study based on Sections I and II of the text.  Please consider the following points before beginning the course of study:

 

  • If the student and teacher agree that improvisation should become an integral component of the student’s weekly instruction, the authors recommend devoting 10 minutes of a 60-minute lesson to the development of improvisational skills. 
  • 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.   
  • The weekly lesson time will be used to assess progress and determine whether further exploration of a given skill is required.   
  • While the following 15-week lesson plan assigns a specific chapter each week, the teacher and student should work together to find a pace that is appropriate  and effective for learning.  Some students may desire to spend 2-3 weeks (or more) developing a particular skill.  In other cases, an advanced student may decide to explore more than one chapter in a single week.  Therefore, this series of lesson plans may take anywhere from 10 to 30 weeks to complete depending on the aptitude and experience of the student.
  • When a new chapter is assigned, the teacher should take 1-2 minutes to introduce the chapter concept and be certain that the student understands the proper way to practice the exercises during the coming week.    
  • At the outset of this process, it is important for teacher and student to discuss the desired outcomes for the study of improvisation.  Some outcomes can include: 
    • 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.

 

  

LESSON PLANS:  WEEK 1

 

During The Lesson:

  • Use the 10-minute segment of the first lesson to skim through the first five chapters with the student and explain how this section will unfold, progressively adding skill upon skill until a range of basic improvisatory skills is acquired.
  • Play through a few Chapter 1 exercises, so that the student understands how to practice during the week. 

Assignment: 

  • Read Introduction (Page 1) and “What is improvisation?” (Page 3)
  • Complete Chapter 1:  Living in the Language (practice all exercises)

 

WEEK 2:

 

During The Lesson: 

  • Review progress by having the student play a few exercises and improvise.
  • Utilize the technique described in Chapter 4 (Speaking to One Another) to create an interactive session (see Exercise 4-1).
  • Decide whether to explore Chapter 1 for another week or move to the next chapter.  Some students will want to spend more than one week with Chapter 1. 

Teaching Notes: 

  • Be sure the student 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. 
  • The student who progresses too quickly and never becomes comfortable with the tools in Section 1 (Chapters 1-5) may be handicapped in later chapters.  The teacher’s job is to ensure that the student is in command of the tools and can use them “at will” to express musical ideas.  Ideally, each skill will become “second nature” before the student moves 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.” 

New Assignment:  Chapter 2 – Upper and Lower Neighbors

 

 

WEEK 3:

 

During The Lesson: 

  • Ask the student to improvise with a few exercises from Chapter 2.
  • Utilize the technique described in Chapter 4 (Speaking to One Another) to create an interactive session (see Exercise 4-2).  Use different keys.  Have fun together!
  • Decide whether to explore Chapter 2 further or move to the next chapter. 

Teaching Notes: 

  • 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 student utilizes fully.
  • At this early stage, ask the student 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.  The student who felt these exercises were too repetitive and boring should be quickly humbled by the instruction to switch hands. 

New Assignment:  Chapter 3 – Elaboration

 

 

WEEK 4:

 

During The Lesson:

  • Ask the student to improvise briefly with a few exercises from Chapter 3.
  • Spend more time with the interactive session (see Exercise 4-3).  This should now be a highly engaging part of the lesson – a chance for teacher and student to communicate through musical ideas.  Enjoy the collaboration!  (If student and teacher are not having fun with interactive trading, both parties are 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. 

Teaching Notes: 

  • Make sure the student understands the concept of longer phrases. 
  • If necessary, 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 then match them with notes.
  • This week, emphasize the use of tone in improvisation.  Ask the student 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. 

New Assignment:

  • Chapter 5:  Spreading Your Wings
  • Chapter 4 is not necessary, since it has been used each week from the beginning.

 

 

WEEK 5:

 

During The Lesson: 

  • Make sure the student understands 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 student. 

Teaching Notes: 

  • Try calling out starting points and destinations randomly (for example, Middle C to the E in the next higher octave).  Then, ask the student to meander from the starting point to the destination.
    • First, ask for a direct route to the destination; then a more circuitous route (using only the RH).
    • During the interactive session, periodically call out a new destination and instruct the student to meander to that note.
  • 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 student can turn the exercises upside down (see Exercise 5-4, part 1), playing quarter notes (or another steady rhythm) in the RH. 

New Assignment: 

  • Read Section 2 Introduction:  Essential Tools
  • Chapters 6-7:  Scales 101 and 102

 

WEEK 6:

 

During The Lesson: 

  • Review the lesson to make sure the student has practiced 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 the student has not tried these exercises in different keys, experiment during the lesson.  

Teaching Notes: 

  • 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 student understands that small changes to a scale can help the player accommodate changing harmony.  Remind the student 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. 

New Assignment: 

  • Chapter 8 – Which Scale to Choose?  
  • Do not assign Exercises 8-6, 8-7 and 8-8.

 

WEEK 7:

 

During The Lesson: 

  • Review the exercises in Chapter 8 (pages 35-40).
  • Make certain that the student understands how to “see” the harmony of a passage.
  • Determine whether the student needs to do remedial work in harmonic analysis before moving forward. 

Teaching Notes: 

  • 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 the 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 practice identifying the harmony together.
  • A hymnbook is an excellent resource for learning harmony.  Hymns are usually notated in block chord format – and the harmony is usually quite basic.  
  • The student may decide to spend several 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.   

New Assignment: 

  • Chapter 8:  Exercises 8-6, 8-7 and 8-8.
  • Ask the student to work through these exercises without referring to the analyses that follow each one.  The student should use the analyses only to measure success after completing each exercise.

 

WEEK 8:

 

During The Lesson: 

  • Have the student play through the passages from Exercises 8-6, 8-7 and 8-9.
  • The teacher may want to play the LH part of the three exercises and ask the student to improvise over the harmony using the selected scales.. 
  • Determine whether the student needs to do remedial work in harmonic analysis before moving forward. 

Teaching Notes: 

  • 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 student enjoys 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. 

New Assignment: 

  • Chapter 9:  Upside Down and Inside Out.

 

 

WEEK 9:

 

During The Lesson: 

  • The teacher should select or compose 3-4 additional melodies and ask the student 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 

Teaching Notes: 

  • 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.    

New Assignment:  Chapter 10 – Skipping

 

 

WEEK 10:

 

During The Lesson: 

  • Ask the student to play through Exercise 10-1.  Be sure to transpose into unfamiliar keys.
  • Utilize the technique described in Chapter 4 to create an interactive session with Exercise 10-1.  Trade 8 measures, 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. 

Teaching Notes: 

  • 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 the student 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 the student’s growth as an improviser.  Transpose everything.
  • Urge the student to persevere in personal practice.  Some of the most creative moments may occur after the student has experimented for several minutes.
  • The continual use of skipping intervals can become tiresome to the listener.  Give the student 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 the student is currently learning).  The teacher should play this LH passage and ask the student to improvise with skipping intervals using the RH.  Then, the student should take control of the LH and try this exercise alone.
  • Before moving on, a 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. 

 New Assignment: 

  • Chapter 11:  Upper & Lower Neighbors

 

WEEK 11:

 

During The Lesson: 

  • Select any series of four notes and test the student’s ability to create a lyrical phrase by connecting those notes with upper and lower neighbors.  Repeat this exercise with several different sets of notes that are progressively more difficult.
  • Let the student select the sets of notes and repeat the above exercise.
  • Repeat the above exercises using the lower neighbor first.  Then, use the upper neighbor first.  Finally, have the student select the first note randomly. 

Teaching Notes: 

  • 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 student 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.
  • 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 the student to have full command of upper and lower neighbors as an improvisatory tool.  As in the previous chapter, a 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. 

New Assignment: 

  • Chapter 12:  Jumping

 

WEEK 12:

 

During The Lesson: 

  • Ask the student to demonstrate the ability to create jumping phrases using the techniques described in Chapter 12 – pedal point jumping, parallel jumping, arpeggiated jumping and octave switching.
  • Play the Alberti accompaniment and ask the student to create phrases with the RH that include various types of jumping intervals.
  • Have the student do Exercise 12-5.  Then, turn it into an interactive exercise.  Trade four bars, then two. 

Teaching Notes: 

  • Jumping can become tiresome if used too often or too long.  Make certain the student 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 in 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.        

New Assignment: 

  • Chapter 13:  Repetition

 

WEEK 13:

 

During The Lesson: 

  • The teacher should play any short scalar pattern and ask the student to create a repeating phrase that includes that pattern.
  • Play a non-scalar pattern and ask the student to create a repeating phrase that includes that pattern.
  • Tap out an interesting rhythm and ask the student to create any phrase (scalar or non-scalar) that builds on that repeated rhythm.
  • Ask the student to play an example of sequential patterns using Exercise 13-1.
  • Play a short rhythm or melody (maximum two beats) and ask the student to use that rhythm/melody to create an example of recurring repetition (ala Exercise 13-2). 

Teaching Notes: 

  • 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. 

New Assignment: 

  • Chapter 14:  Borrowing
  • Ask the student to bring some favorite musical pieces for borrowing exercises.

 

WEEK 14:

 

During The Lesson: 

  • Ask the student to extract short phrases or segments from familiar musical pieces that can be used for improvisation.
  • Play the Alberti accompaniment (or another simple harmonic passage) in the LH and use those phrases to improvise over the LH harmony.  (Feel free to adapt the phrases to fit the changing harmony.)
  • Try to play the above exercise in several keys. 

Teaching Notes: 

  • This chapter gives the player permission to borrow from the masters.
  • Borrowing is useful for acquiring familiar material that can become the basis for various types of melodic adaptation including transposition, upside down & inside out manipulation, expressive articulation, and octave switching.  In this way, one short phrase can become the genesis for a myriad of colorful adaptations. 
  • The player should never view borrowing as stealing (unless the borrowed phrases are never changed).  Once borrowed phrases are manipulated, they become the spontaneous property of the improviser. 

New Assignment: 

  • Chapter 15:  Putting It All Together

 

WEEK 15:

 

During The Lesson: 

  • The student should demonstrate the ability to improvise through Exercises 15-1, 15-2 and 15-3.
  • Take time to discuss the progress made during these 15 chapters.  Determine whether there are concepts that should be reviewed by the student before tackling more difficult harmony in later chapters.

Teaching Notes: 

  • The student who has successfully completed the first fifteen chapters 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, begin Section 3.

 

 

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Improvisation at the Piano
A Systematic Approach for the Classically Trained Pianist