So as a teacher, it surprised me to find out that some of my students were scared to compose. The fear of playing something that “sounded bad” was so paralyzing that getting some of my students to create their own music at the piano was like pulling teeth. This was totally foreign to me, and made me begin to brainstorm ways to get my students over this fear and to have fun being creative at the piano.
Over time, I found that starting students out early with the idea of creating music away from the written score really helped them to get over their fear of composition. We focus first on simply creating sounds, as opposed to “composing” an actual piece. Once students are comfortable creating sounds, we can slowly work up to putting ideas together and writing them down.
With that in mind, I usually start my students out by doing a story-based improvisation. In this activity, I tell students that I am the narrator, and I am going to tell a story for which they will provide the sound effects. There is no right or wrong in this story, and the sounds can be as silly as they like! Here is a typical story I use:
- Once upon a time there was a little bird who lived high up in a tree. (student plays)
- One day, the little bird saw a worm wiggling down on the ground. (student plays)
- The bird swooped down and caught the worm! (student plays)
- The bird took the worm up to the top of the tree. (student plays)
At this point I will ask the student to decide what happens next. Does the bird eat the worm? Does the worm get away? How will our story end? What sound can they create to depict this ending?
As students create their sounds, I offer praise and suggestions to help them along. Once we finish their story, one of their practice assignments for the week is to create their own story at home and to play it for me at their next lesson. This gives me a chance to see how comfortable a student is being creative without getting any prompts from me, and gives me an idea of how much (or how little) guidance the student might need with our next creative assignment.
What do you think? How do you first introduce the idea of composition/improvisation to your students?