When to start Arrangements, Comp and Improv, Accompaniment
Robin Keehn, Washington
If you are a newly licensed teacher, you received specific instruction on your Licensing session on how and when to introduce Arrangements, Composition and Improvisation and Accompaniment. All of the information is also available via an audio recording in the Teacher Reference Library.
I realize that for many people, having something in writing provides another level of support that can be easily accessed. I have just completed putting all of the instruction down on paper for new teachers and teachers who find themselves wondering when and how to introduce the various streams. This is for all teachers, not just newly licensed teachers. It is easy to hit “Information overload” when you are a teacher so my hope is that you can refer to this as you move forward.
Please let me know if you find this helpful.
As a newly licensed teacher you have access to five more components of the curriculum. Those components are:
Composition and Improvisation
Arrangements for Level One
Foundation Level Two
Arrangements for Level Two
I want to tell you today how and when to introduce each of these components. My first year of teaching I was feeling overwhelmed and I considered these “supplemental.” As a result, I delayed in introducing Composition and Improvisation, Arrangements and Accompaniment. I found myself moving pretty quickly through Foundation Levels One, Two and Three. When I did introduce the components, because I had waited so long, my students were resistant. They would say things like, “I just want to play the regular songs” or, “You never made me do this before” or, “I will not make anything up.”
I realized two things right way. By delaying, I inadvertently set myself up for some problems. Students weren’t cooperative and they also weren’t learning all the wonderful things that I wanted them to learn—like how to compose, improvise and how to accompany others. I also had a challenging time keeping groups together. By only teaching one part of the curriculum, anytime I had students moving at even slightly different paces in a group, I was left with no choice but to break groups up and to reconfigure my group lessons.
I made an adjustment after that first year and I want to tell you how I teach now so that you can avoid some of those issues.
Composition and Improvisation
I start Composition and Improvisation the second week of lessons regardless of age. I start by asking a simple question, exactly in these words. After the students come in to the class, I greet them, ask them how they are, how they are feeling about piano and then I say, “So, did anyone make anything up this week?” The students usually look at each other and then someone say asks, “Was I supposed to?” And, I say, “Well, sure, if you wanted to.” I ask that same question each week and usually the third time I ask someone has done something. I never make a value judgment, instead I say, “Wow, I’m really happy that you did that!” and we start working on Composition and Improvisation.
My goal in asking that question is twofold: To give permission and to build an expectation. I have found that is enough to get people exploring and experimenting on the piano. It is the perfect starting point for working gently and consistently on composition and improvisation. Remember, there are lots of additional ideas in the FAQs library.
We have Arrangements for Levels One, Two and Three. Arrangements are more challenging for students because unlike the Foundation pieces, there is no video, no audio recordings and no written notes for the Arrangements.
When you get the Arrangements Teacher Training Materials, you will get a book. When you open it you will see Dreams Arrangements One, Two and Three; Night Storm One, Two and Three; Jackson Blues One, Two and Three and so forth. That is the way the materials are organized, not the order in which they are to be taught.
Next, you will receive an audio recording as a part of your TTM. That audio has Neil teaching you how to teach each of these pieces from a playing-based approach. Be sure to learn the Arrangements this way.
The arrangements should be taught as soon as students are solid on a piece. You can teach variations first because they are quite simple but then move on to arrangements. We don’t tell you exactly when because that will depend on the students you have. Students who are older or who have previous experience will be ready much sooner than very young children who took a number of weeks to play Dreams Come True.
When you teach arrangements, be sure to teach only a very small portion at a time. Because your students don’t have support materials or any written notes to remind them of what to do, you need to give small pieces each week. Once you start an arrangement, don’t take any breaks from week to week until they know the whole thing. Be sure to put the Arrangements right on the playlist, below the last Foundation piece they learned. **
Let me give you an example of what this might look like in a class. Let’s say you have a group of six to eight year olds. Let’s say that they are going to be learning Amazing Grace this week and that they know the Dreams Variation where Dreams moves up one octave and one note. Some teachers call that Soaring Dreams or Dreams Up and Up. The arrangement you are teaching this week takes Dreams in that new location and, instead of playing a single note in the left hand, you will be playing +2 chords. The LH notes are: D, E, F and A; for the second chord move down one note so it is C, D, E and G and; for the third chord the notes are Bb, C, D and F.
So, in come the students. You greet them, ask them how they are, you ask them how their week was and how they are feeling about piano (The Relationship Conversation). Do Playlist review (each play a little bit of a few pieces), review the song they learned last week and teach them Amazing Grace.
Now, you are ready to teach Dreams Arrangements Two (We call it Soapy Dreams because it sounds like the theme to the Young and the Restless, others call it Family Dreams). So, you say, “Okay everyone, come on up to the piano. I want to show you three little chords that I want you to remember for next week. There is the one ABOVE C, the on ON C, and the one BELOW C. You sit on the bench while they are gathered around and they say this with you as you demonstrate the chords. The students are fine but behind you, the coaches have run for paper and pencils and they are writing down every word that is coming out of your mouth. They are looking over your shoulder and asking what that black note was that you played and they are talking to each other.
This is the point at which you really need to swing around and address the coaches. Here is what I say, “Coaches, I want to thank you for your commitment. I appreciate your diligence and your attention to detail. I can see that you are getting your child to the piano and checking that playlist and you’re all doing a great job. I am going to ask you in this situation and others just like it that I will be sure to point out, to take a step back and let this be a project that unfolds between your child and me. Here is what I am doing. On a very regular basis, I am going to be exercising your child’s memory muscle. I’m not going to do it by asking your child to play something over and over; rather, I am going to link our learning to a learning tool or strategy that will help them remember. In this case, I took three little words and linked them to three chords: above C, on C and below C. I am quite confident that your child will remember that for next week but if not, we’ll review it again.
We’re going to do this on a regular, even weekly basis. What you’ll see a year from now when we’ve gone through Reading Rhythm and Reading Notes and we’re in our first music book called Time for More Music, we are going to get that book out, open it up and look at the first page. We are going to talk about some things and right away your child is going to see the rhythm patterns that unfold throughout the piece. Then they will see the note or interval patterns. They are going to notice a few more things and then they will take the music home. They will be able to play it and when they come back to class the next week, they will be able to play the piece without any music in front of them. That is pretty exciting!”
I can guarantee you that you will have this conversation or one just like it with the coaches of students or adult students. If you can articulate the purpose of the arrangements, you will have coaches and adults students on your side and they will support the process.
On a final note, don’t expect to get through all of the arrangements in the first couple of years. Slow and steady is the key. Complete a full arrangements over the course of some weeks and then take a couple of weeks to do something else before you go on to another arrangement.
Accompaniment is a program that you can begin as early as mid-Level 1 or in Level 2. Really, everyone is capable of learning accompaniment very early on. The exceptions may be elderly adults and students with special needs.
The Simply Music Accompaniment I program teaches all the chords in all the keys with three basic shapes. It gives students immediate access to playing from lead sheets, fake books, piano-vocal-guitar books, and chord charts. That means that they can be playing Adele, Praise and Worship music, Maroon 5, The Rolling Stones or the Hawaiian Wedding Song. They can play Christmas carols in December even if they are only six years old and just started lessons in September. It is a real gem!
My point in telling you about all of these programs is that by knowing how to teach these programs, you can teach what I call a “Multiple-Project Approach.” Teaching multiple projects is beneficial for you and for your students. For you, it is much more stimulating and enjoyable to have a number of projects going. For your students, they will be developed as broad musicians, both knowing and understanding many musical styles, concepts and skills.
The other reason I highly recommend teaching multiple projects is that it gives you the ability to manage groups. If you are only teaching the Foundation pieces, then when you have two students in a group who are beginning to move through the pieces faster and three who are going a little more slowly, your only choice is to break the group up. If you are teaching multiple projects, you have an opportunity to manage the group.
Let me give you a specific example. Let’s say you have a group of four students who are between 10 and 12 years old. It’s been a perfect group in every way and you are nearing the end of Foundation Level 1. In the past couple of weeks you have noticed that a couple of students are moving a little faster and you are at a decision point. Either you break the group up or you manage the progress by teaching multiple projects. Let’s say that you decide that you are going to try that approach and you’ve done something to prepare for the students this week.
Before I go any further, let me share something I saw Neil draw on a white board in my early days of teaching. He drew a square. Inside the square he drew a circle. The circle was so big that it touched every edge of the square. He said that the square represented the lesson time and that the circle represented the foundation piece he was teaching. As large as that circle is, it cannot touch the four corners in the square. Those “corners” are where we put things like hearing the playlist, Arrangements, Composition and Improvisation, Accompaniments Reading Rhythm, Blues Improvisation, etc. Of course, this is a picture and that circle (Foundation piece) can expand or contract at any given time (intentionally or sometimes unintentionally).
Back to the scenario…. The students and their coaches walk in. You greet them, ask them how their week was, ask each of them how they are feeling about piano, and gather up their playlists (that are on their laps). You hear some playlist, you review the piece they worked on last week, you teach a little of a Jackson Blues arrangement, hear one or two of the students play a part of their latest composition and now you are ready to teach half of Fur Elise. Let’s say you have about 10 minutes left and that you started the Accompaniment Program a couple of weeks ago. Let’s say that they know their C, F, G and Gb chords (straight chords). Today you open the Accompaniment I book to Amazing Grace and Auld Lang Syne and proceed to teach them these pieces. Now you are ready with one last project.
This week, in preparation for this group, you went online and went to www.Ultimate-guitar-chords.com or something along those lines and you found the chord charts for a couple of very familiar songs that use the C, F and G chords. You made four copies and put a student’s name on each copy. You pass them out and say, “Okay, I have one more project that we are all going to take a look at right now.” You do whatever teaching you need to do and then you say, “Alright, not everyone needs to take this on as a project this week. In fact, (and you look at the two students moving more slowly) you guys don’t need to have any attention on this at all this week. Why don’t you give me the music and I am going to keep it right here in this envelope next to the piano for you. I want you to focus on all of the other projects but any time where you feel like you want an extra project, you just come right in and grab this music.” Now, you look at the students going faster and say, “I want you two to work on these pieces and be prepared to play them next week.”
Here is what typically happens. The parents of the students who need a little more time breath a big sigh of relief because they know that their students have to work hard to keep up. The students who need something else to do are happy but they aren’t moving ahead but are broadening their experience.
What I have found is that three things happen. First, the students who took the music generally have something to share when the other students take the music (like, if you play this chord here, it is easier to get to the next chord) and that begins to build teamwork. Next, the playing field always levels out. Those two students who are moving faster are also awesome soccer players and they make the playoffs and miss nearly a whole week of piano. Three, this teaches students to trust you. If you have that music waiting at your piano as you promised, students learn to trust you.
In conclusion, it is in your best interest to teach multiple projects as soon as possible when teaching Level 1. Jump into Composition and Improvisation the second week of classes. Introduce variations and arrangements (very small doses) once students are solid on a piece. Start Accompaniment mid-level 1 or in Level 2.
Remember, you only need to learn enough to stay ahead of your students. Comp and Improv is very simple to start with a question and then just playing on the black notes (Pentatonic) with the pedal on. Learn one arrangement (pick and easy one) and teach it. Start learning a second arrangement once you’ve learned the first one. Accompaniment is really simple—learn the “straight” chords first and teach those.
You will enjoy your lessons more and your students will benefit from a broad, solid musical foundation.
*With regard to playlist, we have a Supplemental Program available where every arrangement has been renamed to help students remember them. It is called Playlist Management. This program also lists all of the arrangements, accompaniments and pieces and your students highlight the pieces they are working on. Many teachers have found this helpful in managing lessons and the playlist.