Comp and Improvisation Chord Ideas
Robin Keehn, Washington
I had a bit of a revelation over the past two weeks that I thought might be helpful to some teachers regarding composition and improvisation. I have always approached Comp & Improv from the 3 note song and going from there, and it works well. However, I have noticed that I have some students who have been with me for a few years and who are very strong at comp and improv while others aren’t. Two weeks ago I asked the stronger composers and improvisors how they come up with their pieces. Across the board, they all told me that they come up with a CHORD PROGRESSION that they like and build their songs from there. Sometimes they find chord progressions through experimentation, other times they find a song they like and get the chords to it (online or in a fake book) and use it as a starting point.
This week, with all of my students, we picked a chord progression that they liked. Then we explored playing the named note in the LH as an octave (like d) while playing a D minor chord in the RH with a 1:1 ratio. We proceeded through a total of 4 chords (which I selected). Then I had them play the chord as a broken chord or a rolling chord while playing the octave in the LH (pedal on). Next we changed the rhythm of how they were playing the chord and octave. Suddenly what seemed difficult became very approachable!
The next step that we worked on was to change the TYPE of chord, either from major to minor or from standard chords to chords from our Accompaniment 1 book (9th chords, 6ths, major 7ths, 7ths, etc). The more your students know their chords, the easier this process will be but even fairly inexperienced students with limited Accompaniment experience, will be able to do this.
Next week we will work more on coming up with a melody line to play with those chords–possibly starting with just 5 notes in the RH.
I also told my students that no one “owns” a chord progression so they are not breaking any rules by using any certain progression. We looked through a few fake books and noticed how certain progressions show up everywhere. I think it helps students to relax when they understand that they aren’t stealing anyone’s ideas (unless they write a melody line and words that are just like someone else’s song).
This was a great project that really turned the light on for a bunch of my students this week. It was really exciting and rewarding to see those reluctant composers get smiles on their faces as they discovered they really could do it!
Amy L., Australia
It is fascinating what you say Robin about this way of teaching them to compose, and it’s exactly the method I use. I use my chords as a basis. I can write from a melody perspective now, however my very first song when I was 11 was just the basic C F G progression. What you’ve said is extremely useful and will definitely help your students in the long run!
I also find that one of the first things I try with my students is lyric writing. Looking at syllables and rhyme schemes (with older students). With the young ones it’s just about them creating some new words using the melody. They seem to LOVE this and it has become a ‘game’ at the end of the lesson if they’ve done well and we have a bit of spare time. I encourage them to write lyrics at home, and some of what they have come up with is amazing for such young minds. I give them a topic (or they choose one in class) such as cupcakes, cats or the theme blue and away they go!
I hope this encourages all teachers to get their students composing – it’s just another valuable part of music and in my opinion, an extremely useful asset to expressing and releasing emotion.
Gordon Harvey, Australia
I currently have an 8-year-old student who is a whiz at that. He doesn’t even know what the chords are that he’s using, but we’re just starting into the Accompaniment 1 program and have begun to reverse engineer – looking at the chords he’s using in his compositions and figuring out what they are – a powerful acknowledgement of the legitimacy of his work.
Yesterday I gave a couple of classes the project of using I IV & V chords in an order of their choice and coming up with a melody. They could either play the sequence as an accompaniment and come up with a sung melody or play the chords in the LH and simply pick notes from the same chords to play in the RH. To make it really easy for one student, I even suggested a particular progression of C F C G – a common chord progression that you can’t go wrong with.
Sheri R., California
More on composition: something that I do when teaching the songs in Accompaniment is something that I think helps them relate more fluently with the page and at the same time also exposes them to composition and/or improvisation.
When they learn, say D, G, and A I have them just get comfortable, without looking at the progression on the page, with jumping their right hand back and forth between these chord shapes, two at a time (so D – A, D – G, A- G) until very easy. Of course, they also get the left hand notes under control without ultimately looking at their hand.
Once that is easy I tell them to use those chords in any order they want and letting their ear guide them, still without relating to the page, and using both block and broken chords and then maybe even using five fingers (they would need to figure out what notes their fingers 2 and 4 will play by listening). This gets them comfortable with seeing that they can just take these three chords, or however many are in the progression, and make beautiful-sounding music.
I think if they get comfortable physically with the chords first, it’s easier to then relate with the page in a more fluent manner for accompaniment playing. And they’ve also gotten the improv and/or comp experience at the same time and can see how a family of chords from a known song can be used to recreate.
Thanks Robin for sharing this because I needed the reminder to do more of this! The opportunity of Simply Music to transform students relationship with creativity is enormous and I think we all need reminders to weave this into the foundation and other streams in a bigger, deeper, habitual, and ultimately, more meaningful way.
If you haven’t conquered your own fear of composing and/or improvising yet, I encourage you to start with the ideas here as it’s all based on something you and your students are already doing anyways! And remember, it can be as simple as one melody note or chord per left hand bass note to start with.