Traditional Students Learning Comp & Improv
Found in: Composition & Improvisation
Colleen H., Michigan
I am a newly licensed SM teacher. I have been teaching traditionally for over 30 years. I am very excited to start teaching the SM method and especially the comp and improv program to my students that are switching over to SM. That was my big selling point for SM since they have not received any training in that area before.
I was hoping to introduce the comp and improv by their second lesson. Most all my students know their scales, arpeggios, major and minor chords and all the I, IV, V7 chords. How in depth and structured is the teaching for the comp and improv? It appears that the teacher is left to come up with their own ideas, which has me a little anxious since I am strictly a note reader myself!
Sue K., Australia
I struggled with the comp/improv program as there is very little guidance. I have come up with a very successful method for getting students started with composing.
Get them to select a 4-chord progression. Next, chord goes to the left hand and in the right, they choose 1 note out of each chord to play with the chord. So, now they have a chord in the left hand and a single note in the right hand.
Next step is to add some notes to join the first note and chord to the second. Second to third and third to fourth. Usually, the left had takes care of itself, creating 3 or 4 beats, breaking it up and playing however they want. I have not yet had to coach anyone through the left had – it just evolves. This is 4 bars of an 8 bar melody.
At this stage, we talk about how music is made of melody, new melodies, variations and repetition. They can repeat it, vary it or lengthen it by doing the whole process again for a second half of the melody.
Then it is open slather – changing keys, adding notes, repeating it, making new melodies, etc. With a conclusion – obviously at the end! They can create an intro if they want.
I find taking them through this, and encouraging them to listen for the repetition, variations, etc in music, they soon get the hang of it. In fact, they are amazed to find that there are formulas which can be followed.
Pop music – intro, melody, new melody – play them a few times and then a conclusion. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus. Classical is a bit more complex and we haven’t been there yet.
Christine T., Pennsylvania
For a very first project, I do a duet. It’s called One Note Improv. I sit at the bottom of the piano, the student at the top. I put the damper pedal down and I say, “ We are going to do a duet that sounds like bells. First I play a note ( and here I play a single white note, with a loud ringing tone), then you play a note ( and I wait for the student to play). Then I play another, and the student will play another. At some point I will play two notes one after the other. If the student tries something different I will play something similar. I might introduce a black note, or a note cluster. A student might try playing with the forearm. Almost anything goes and by listening and playing off each other we create a piece that is different every time. Eventually I listen for or create a cadence and we end it. Then I reflect a little on it verbally.
A variation on that is to do just black notes.
Kristen Fairfield’s idea: For a first composition project have students make up a piece using 5 steps of sound and a chord. Write it down, or capture it on video with a camera, phone, or video camera.
Brandi L., Pennsylvania
I, too was very apprehensive about delving into the Comp & Improv program since I have done very little of this myself. However, I have learned (in the very short time I’ve been teaching SM) to take cues from my students! An example:
I’m teaching a very bright 6-year-old boy who is a very visual learner. He had been working on the LH of Jackson Blues and, each time he would lift his hand to play the next set of notes, his shoulders would go straight up to his ears! I tried to get him to relax his shoulders a bit, but told his mom he could work on that at home. This week, he came back and said he pretended he was a T-Rex, and could only move his arms at the elbows (no shoulder movements). Then, he started getting a bit silly and told me a T-Rex only has 2 fingers, so he couldn’t play like that. Well, I told him his project for this week was to write a song about a T-Rex. The song should only use 2 fingers in each hand. He was thrilled and very anxious to get started!
I have to take moments like this and use them to my advantage, since this does not come naturally to me. So far, it has worked quite well. I’ve asked students to write songs about their favorite activity, book, or animal. When something advantageous comes up in conversation, grab onto it and use it!
Brianna B., Arizona
A recent tool that I am using with my students is Rory’s Story Cubes. These dice have pictures on them and are meant to help children (and adults!) learn to tell stories. You just either roll the dice, and use whatever pictures come up and tell a story about them, or you just pick some. I have told my students that instead of “telling” a story out loud, we are going to “play” a story.
I have used this with all of my 6 students the past two weeks, and it has gone really well. My most advanced student is in level 7, and the lowest one is in level 1. Also, I think this will work with many age groups as well.
With some of the younger/lower level students, I have used a combination of the story cubes, and Legos. With you being a newer teacher, I will go ahead and explain the Legos too. I have taken duplo legos and written on them things like, middle to top, top to bottom, 5 steps of sound, DCT sentence 1, broken chord, BMTM, etc. to give them ideas or tools to make up their own song!