Apr 10, 2017
by Steve Treseler. Even if you have little experience with improvisation and composition yourself, you can make a big impact on your students by helping them get off the page and create their own music during your private lessons.
The process nurtures creative, independent, and fearless musicians. As teachers, it helps us break out of our standard routines.
I’d like to share a few prompts from my new book Creativity Triggers for Musicians, which you can download for free here.
It’s important to remember that creativity is a non-linear path, so we need to adopt a different mindset from how we teach technique and notated repertoire. Some strategies include:
Let’s look at the techniques you could use in a real lesson:
Introducing creative music as games is disarming and fun. Some of the musical results are goofy, but this process is a gateway to deeper creative practices. One of my mentors, W. A. Mathieu, says: “The purpose of musical games is not to generate a polished product, but to make musicians feel safe, adventuresome, and confident in the creative process.”
Here are a few examples:
Ask your student to play a “question” phrase that ends in an upward direction. You respond with an “answer” phrase that ends with a downward interval. After a few question/answer phrases, switch roles.
Pass the Note
Play a single note (any pitch) and ask your student to respond with a single note. Repeat. Set a stopwatch and see how quickly you can play 30 notes.
Guess the Animal
Play a musical impression of an animal, and ask your student to guess the animal. Then, ask your student to assume the role of an animal and you can guess.
This is particularly effective in groups. Watch me lead a round of Guess the Animal at the 2017 Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival with a mixed group of instrumentalists and vocalists.
You could even try some some variations, such as Guess the Emotion and Guess the Machine.
Rhythmic Call and Response
Play a rhythm on a single pitch and ask your student to play the phrase back. Use the Drumgenius app to jam with jazz, rock, and Latin American drum loops.
Variations on a Theme
Embellishing a familiar theme is an engaging entry point to improvisation. This introduces students to the theme and variations form in classical music, and jazz improvisation over a repeated form.
To start, choose a simple melody your student has mastered, and ask them to change one thing — it could be the melody, rhythm, dynamics, lyrics, tempo, meter or something else.
Once they have experimented with a few on their own, they can explore more possibilities from the “Theme and Variations Menu”:
Here are a couple examples I like to play for students for inspiration. Louis Armstrong’s improvised variations on “When the Saints Go Marching In” (on trumpet and voice) and Mozart’s virtuoso piano variations on “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”
Ask your student to assume a new personality and play the song like an elephant, mouse, opera singer, robot, etc.
Composition doesn’t have to be a theory-heavy activity. My four-year-old daughter loves to write songs about our dog, so any of your students are ready to jump in.
Page from Michael Stegner’s brilliant Musical Monsters piano method.
Students can choose to notate their compositions or record the audio on their phones.
Write a melody about a person, place, object, animal, emotion, or story.
Melodic Text Setting
Choose a poem, and write a melody that corresponds with each syllable of the text. (Also see the section on text setting in my book). You can browse poems at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/
Choose a set of pitches for your student to write with. You can start with my “Pentatonic Scale Menu.” Try playing these along with a C drone.
Limit the rhythm, key, meter, tempo, density, and/or something else.
For example, write a four-measure melody in F minor using only quarter notes, quarter rests, and half notes.
Set a timer for five minutes, and complete the exercise along side your student.
You’ll be astounded by what your students come up with.
Steve Treseler is a Seattle-based saxophonist, teaching artist, and author. He is on faculty at Seattle Pacific University and teaches creative music workshops across the U.S.