The Big Secret of Teaching Improvisation in Your Piano Lessons

You’ll hear a lot of chatter online about teaching improvisation to your piano students. Questions about how to fit it in, what to do, the best resources and the value of improv come up often.

But there’s one big secret that I don’t hear mentioned.

Teaching improvisation in piano lessons – the BIG secret!

Ready for the secret? Teaching improvisation can be one of your best teaching tools.

I’ll say that again. Improvisation can be a teaching tool. It’s not just something you can (and should) include in lessons – it can actually help you to teach other key skills.

Scales

This is where improvisation makes the most regular appearance in my teaching.

As I’ve written about in 7 Ways to Practice Scales, Why Learn Scales and How Do We Make Piano Scales Fun and Relevant; improvisation is like magic for learning scales. If scales are vegetables (and that’s how a lot of students see them) then teaching improvisation is like a transformative marinade.

Teach your students to improvise using the scales they learn – and you won’t have to nag or cajole about fingerings. They’ll need those fingerings to get around the scale more easily.

Improvising is one awesome and creative way to kick-off a lesson. Learn some more fun and out of the ordinary warmup ideas in this post.

Form & Structure

Let’s say you’re about to introduce your student to a piece in Rondo form. Wouldn’t that be easier if they experienced it first, rather than just seeing it on paper?

Teach your student a few different complimentary patterns and you can easily give them this experience before they need to label the form they’re using.

You could even label these A, B, C, D as you’re teaching them. This will give your student “real world” context for why we use this system to explain the forms. It makes it easier to follow your structure for the improvisation.

Try this the next time you have to teach your student one of these dry concepts. It makes a big difference to learning retention.

This is even easier to see on a lead sheet. Learn the basics of lead sheet playing in this post.

Left Hand Patterns

So…it’s happening. That first piece with the Alberti bass pattern is coming up. You can feel it ahead of you and you know this student is going to find it tough.

Sometimes as teachers I think we fall into the trap of compounding difficulties like this with the music reading element. We think that it’s not true learning if we don’t let our students try reading things first.

But this is just making things harder than they have to be.

Next time one of these common left hand patterns is going to be coming up soon – teach it to them by rote first. You can then use it to improvise, create and experiment BEFORE they see what it looks like.

When they do see it in notation it’ll still look scary at first, then they’ll release it’s an old friend. It becomes one of the easy bits of the new piece – not the hardest. How cool is that?

If you’re looking for left hand patterns to teach, I love this sheet from Tim Topham. So handy and great for adult students in particular.

Rhythms

Have you ever had a student struggle with a particular rhythm pattern? Who am I kidding, of course you have. If you’ve been teaching for more than 5 minutes and aren’t actually magic that is.

Well, here’s a sneaky way to head that off at the pass. Introduce that rhythm through teaching improvisation.

Not just any old which way though. I recommend using a short phrase to represent the rhythm. This is the best (and sneakiest) way to get your student really comfortable with that rhythm before they see it and read it.

I say before they see it…but you can even do this while your student is working on their piece already too. Just don’t tell them your plan. Stealth is best.

All you need to do to implement this is:

  1. Come up with lyrics or a chant that fits the rhythm
  2. Teach the words to your student and chant them together
  3. Clap and chant them together
  4. Play an accompaniment while your student plays this rhythm on one note (while chanting, or audiating the words)
  5. Expand this so they can use a small palette of notes

Explore this rhythm through the lyrics in improvisation many times before you point out the connection. The way I like to unite the two if at all possible is to play their piece and ask them to find all the *insert phrase here* parts. E.g. “Can you find where the candy bar and chocolate cake bits are in this piece?”

Much like with the left hand parts improvising above, this exercise can transform the potential sticking points of the new piece into the easy bits. They become gimmees instead of the brow-furrowers.

Looking for more tips on improvisation? Read this post on getting away from the page and getting creative.

What does teaching improvisation do for you?

How could you make improvising time work harder in your lessons? Did I give you a new idea to try in your teaching?

Let us hear what you think the role of improvisation is in the Vibrant Music Studio Teachers community on Facebook.

6 thoughts on “The Big Secret of Teaching Improvisation in Your Piano Lessons”

  1. Brilliant, Nicola!! Such a great idea to teach the concepts by rote before they see them written. Much less intimidating to students! I’m going to be teaching some composing/improv over the summer so this will definitely come in handy. When we get back to the “regular” stuff I hope the students will recognize the concepts they see over the summer!

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  2. Yes! This is so true!

    If a student can improvise with a particular Major or minor scale, it’s SO MUCH EASIER to teach key signatures. F# Major and C# minor are no longer scary because they’ve improvised in those keys before.

    Once students are comfortable improvising with Alberti bass in one place on the piano, require them to improvise with the same harmonic progression found in their sonatina. This goes a long way toward helping them memorize the piece. Yes, you can teach functional harmony to elementary & intermediate level pianists if you do it through improv!

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