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The way we use to learn is frequently focused on the methods we are accustomed to. But our next guest contributor, Bradley Sowash, challenge us to get creative and explore beyond traditional methods of teaching and learning piano.

In 2006, I was asked by my publisher to attend a national music education conference to help market my new jazz piano method. Never having been on the other side of an exhibit booth before, I somewhat nervously asked passersby “Are you interested in teaching improvisation to your students?” Since most piano teachers are inherently friendly, I was relieved when most of them agreed to take a polite look at my books. A few, however, seemed offended, reacting indignantly with the likes of, “Why, certainly not!” before proceeding down the aisle to peruse the latest editions of Fur Elise.”

A Balanced Teaching Philosophy
Balanced Teaching Philosophy

Not that there’s anything wrong with teaching what we’ve come to call classical music. After all, it develops great technique, increases music appreciation, and develops an awareness of our musical roots. A lot of it is deep, genius music that will continue to be played 500 years from now. It’s just that a curriculum focused solely on reading music is inherently unbalanced.

When ear skills are not equally emphasized alongside learning to read, musicians become entirely dependent on the written page. Worse, it sends a message to our students that their creative impulses and contemporary musical tastes are irrelevant to their piano studies. And when that hits home, a lot of teens (including me at that age) simply quit. Those who remain interested may go on to win competitions and accolades but then what? What role will the piano play in their adult lives? Will they be able to play lead sheets for fun after work, accompany holiday singalongs, improvise in their church’s worship band, or jam with a guitar playing friend?

Moving Forward

Fortunately, many of today’s teachers are breaking the “read only” cycle with the help of updated piano methods that include creative prompts and the newer sounds being written by today’s best educational composers. Some are going further by closing the books altogether now and then though they often feel unsupported.

After lecturing on musical creativity, it’s not uncommon for teachers to pull me aside, saying almost secretively as if it’s something to feel guilty about that they enjoy teaching chords, popular styles, and improvisation but don’t really feel confident about how they go about it. Lacking a well-planned curriculum, they resort to just making it up as they go along (which by the way is a great definition of improvisation).

I get it. It’s difficult to suddenly begin teaching “off page” when you’ve been taught to read written music exclusively but so worth it. That’s why I urge my colleagues to take advantage of professional development opportunities and resources that illuminate “off page” teaching strategies. Here’s why it matters:

“Pop” 10 Benefits of Creative Music Instruction

Students who learn to read and improvise:

  1. Feel more engaged with learning music.
  2. “Own” their music because they are encouraged to personalize it.
  3. Appreciate playing music as a means for self-expression rather than only as a domain for “right or wrong” notes.
  4. Enjoy a wider variety of contemporary styles that appeal to their peer group.
  5. Perform with friends in non-traditional settings outside of the concert hall such as coffee houses, talent shows, church, or jazz groups.
  6. Maybe even pick their first paid gigs.
  7. Become better interpreters of written music. That’s because rather than merely reproducing the notes on the page, creative students can better understand how they came to be there in the first place.
  8. Utilize both sides of their brains by reading and improvising.
  9. Listen more when since creative music making sensitizes the ears.
  10. Understand that great music wasn’t always “just there.” Composers and improvisers had to make it up using the same techniques “back then” that creative musicians use today.

Teachers who teach reading and improvisation:

  1. Enjoy teaching more engaged students.
  2. Replace the antiquated “teacher knows all” philosophy with a new paradigm of shared exploration with their students.
  3. Discover that there are “riches in niches” as word gets out there’s an improv teacher in town.
  4. Retain students through the quitting years since students who make their own music have more staying power and ownership of their music skills.
  5. Demonstrate that music theory is not really theory but actually a set of “practical” tools for making music.
  6. Keep current by helping students play contemporary tunes they request.
  7. Teach with motivating software, apps, videos, and backing tracks.
  8. Enhance group lessons through jam session conventions i.e. “you play the bass line, and you play the harmony, and you play the melody on top.”
  9. Watch students make connections between their improvisations and composed music.
  10. Learn from their students whose creative explorations stimulate all kinds of questions and discoveries.Feel more engaged with learning music.

Our profession is moving toward restoring a balanced curriculum by equally emphasis reading and creativity. The eye-ear revolution has begun. Are you onboard?

Until next time, enjoy your creative music-making journey.

Bradley Sowash is a composer, creative concert pianist, multi-instrumentalist, recording artist, author, and educator specializing in improvisation. As an educator, he pioneered live online group keyboard creativity lessons, co-founded 88 Creative Keys workshops & webinars with Leila Viss and is a frequent presenter at national music conferences. The Neil A. Kjos Music Company publishes his widely-acclaimed keyboard improvisation books.

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