So why exactly does the Hoffman Method teach improvisation from the very beginning, starting in Lesson 2? I’m going to back up and ask why teach improvisation at all? Is improvisation an optional thing, or is it an integral part of music education? Is it something we should expect from music students, the same way we expect kids in elementary school to learn to add and subtract? Or is it just a kind of playing around that some music students do after real practice is over?
Let’s think about the way we learn a new language. Say you’re a native English speaker and you want to learn Spanish. What if your teacher only had you memorize and recite things in Spanish. You might be able to do it with a lovely accent, but then would you be ready to sit down and have a conversation with someone? Could you chat with a native Spanish speaker about your family? About your day? You might memorize all the vocabulary and know what it means, but if you freeze when you’re asked to put it together in an unscripted, meaningful sentence, are you really fluent in Spanish?
Just like fluency in a spoken language means you can improvise a conversation, fluency in music includes the ability to improvise in sound. Musical improvisation is like holding a conversation. It doesn’t have to be super complex, I’m talking about a basic conversation. Just like a “fluent” speaker is expected to be able to have a simple, unscripted conversation, every musician should be able to sit down and do some basic improvising. They should be able to play music that’s not memorized, but comes out spontaneously as they create it.
Calling for a Shift in Music Education
When I was a young piano student, I don’t ever remember my piano teacher asking me to improvise. Oh, we did a little composition now and then, but improvisation wasn’t part of my early training. Only later did I realize what a powerful thing improvisation can be for a growing pianist or for any musician, at any level. That’s why I start to teach improvisation in Lesson Two of the Hoffman Method. It’s not the usual thing to do, but improvisation has so many benefits that I want my students to get going on it right away. I’m excited to see that other music teaching methods are also starting to recognize the importance of improvisation for beginners. I think it’s an essential shift for music education.
For me, improvisation is core. It’s an essential part of a good music education. I want my students to be fluent in music, not just memorize other people’s songs. They should be able to put together simple notes into original, spontaneous musical ideas.
Three Myths About Improvisation
In this next section, I’d like to debunk some common myths about improvisation.
Myth 1 : Improvisation is something only jazz musicians do.
This is totally wrong. Ask any professional church organist. Improvisation is an essential part of their job. They’re up there playing in front of the entire congregation and they don’t know how long before the next part of the service will begin. They have to improvise and be ready to bring whatever they’re playing to a pleasing close at a moment’s notice.
Classical musicians used to improvise all the time. Over the last 250 years we’ve lost that, but it used to be expected. It wasn’t until around the time of Liszt that the virtuoso performer, who played only memorized pieces written by great composers, became a highly held thing. Before that, when a pianist gave a concert he would play his own compositions or even improvise on the spot. In fact, in the days of Bach and Mozart, if you went to audition to be a church organist you had to improvise a fugue on a given subject as part of your audition. (In case you don’t know, fugues are extremely complex compositions that involve multiple interweaving melody lines that are staggered, like when you sing a round.) That’s mind-blowing to me, but musicians used to do it.
The art of improvisation has slowly been lost among classical musicians, though folk and jazz musicians still improvise when they perform. You do see it coming back to classical music too. Here’s an example. In the concerto from the classical period there is something called a cadenza, which is a section of the music where the orchestra stops playing and pianist is supposed to improvise. At some point, someone (like Johann Hummel) wrote down a pre-composed cadenza for these concertos, and for over a century afterward everyone took the short-cut of learning those instead of improvising. But now things are starting to change. For example, the pianist Robert Levin performs classical concertos by Mozart in which he improvises his cadenzas live on stage, just like it was meant to be.
There’s something special about hearing an improvised performance. You know you’re going to hear something that’s different from anything you’ve heard before!
Myth 2: The ability to improvise is a special gift only some are born with.
Like any skill, improvisation improves and develops with practice. People are not just born with it. A great improviser has practiced, I can assure you of that. Some people may have a special knack for it, but that doesn’t mean practice won’t make them better. And even people who don’t feel like they can improvise can learn. It’s not a magical gift. If you can play anything on the piano, you can learn to improvise.
Myth 3: Improvisation is an advanced skill and therefore best learned later.
I was recently reading a thread of comments on a parent’s forum and someone was asking what to do if their child was not enjoying the improvisation being assigned by their piano teacher. Most of the parents were saying not to worry about it. Improvisation is too advanced, they said. Don’t push it. Skip it. Learn it later.
Now, I don’t want kids to struggle with improvisation, but I want to emphasize that it is not an advanced skill. You wouldn’t say to a language student, “Don’t worry about conversation yet. Let’s just memorize scripts and poems.” I think conversation is a great way to start learning a language. It requires your memory to become quick and flexible. It also doesn’t need to be complicated at the start.
Improvisation doesn’t need to be complicated either. You can improvise a rhythm on one note. Once your student is comfortable with one note, pick two notes. One idea you can try is to take two notes and have a musical conversation. Sing words as you play one of the two notes, like, “How was your day today?” and your child might answer something like, “It was good.” Then you sing, “What did you do?” and your child might respond, “We played soccer at recess.” This will help them connect improvisation with conversation in their mind. Just like there’s no single right thing to say in a conversation, there’s no right or wrong ways to play the notes. I’ll talk more about ways to encourage a reluctant improviser later in this article.
Four Big Benefits of Improvising
There are ton of benefits for a music student who learns to improvise, but here are my top four:
Learning to improvise is empowering.
It tells a student, “I am a musician, I create music, and making music is easy.” A student’s first improvisations should be very simple and easy. Some kids don’t feel safe jumping right in to improvisation, but there are some thing you can do to help with that, which I will talk about later in the article.
Improvisation teaches a healthy attitude about making mistakes.
There are no mistakes in improvisation. It helps kids realize that there are certain things in life where there’s no right or wrong, there’s just what you want to express right now. Improvisation combats the uptight, can’t-make-a-mistake attitude that can come if students only memorize performance pieces. Mistakes are going to happen, but we roll with it and keep the music going. With improvisation we never stop and fix a mistake, we just keep the music going.
Students who improvise develop a much better rhythmic awareness.
When you practice a written piece of music sometimes you get stuck on playing the right notes and lose the beat. With improvisation, kids feel the beat and let the music flow whatever happens.
As a musician, improvisation makes you a better listener.
Kids turn off their ears sometimes when they play a memorized piece. They read notes and type them in without thinking. When you improvise there are no notes to read so it opens up your ears to hear what you are playing. You discover new sounds, new rhythms, and really learn to listen to what you play.
Improvisation and Creativity
Once again, improvisation is such a valuable part of the music learning experience that I do it right from lesson number two. As students progress, improvisation continues and grows with them. I want improvisation to be a delightful part of playing the piano. Kids love to create. They naturally want to draw, sing, dance, make crafts, all sorts of things. As adults sometimes we feel like we have to be “good at it” in order to do it. We have to do it right. And of course we admire those who have developed a high level of skill. But that’s not the only thing creativity is about. It’s about what’s beautiful to you. It’s an expression of what you feel.
How to Help a Child Who is Reluctant to Improvise
As a piano teacher, I see one of two reactions when I ask a student to improvise. Some students think, “Hooray! I can play any note I want!” and charge right in. Others think, “Oh no. I can play any note I want,” and freeze in terror. If you or a piano student you know is the kind that will freeze up when there are too many options to choose from, here are some tips to help you find the joy in improvisation.
Find the Right Mindset
Start by overcoming the fear of making mistakes while improvising. In improvisation, there are no mistakes. There are no right or wrong notes. We are just messing around and seeing what sounds good and what doesn’t. We’re experimenting with sound. An improvisation doesn’t have to sound like a performance. It’s just for having fun. If you play something you don’t like, then learn from it, move on, and try something else.
Remember, mistakes are never to be feared. As a parent you can nurture this mindset with your children. When a mistake happens, just say, “Okay, that was a mistake. Let’s learn from it.” Activities like improvising are a great way to learn to be a risk taker, to put yourself out there, to experiment, and to express.
Choose Some Boundaries
When you are first learning to improvise, having an entire 88 keys to choose from can be very intimidating. With so many options, how do you even know where to start? Sometimes creativity explodes when you have boundaries to work within. For a start, try something simple, like choosing a set of three black keys, or just the C pentascale. Experimenting within these boundaries can help you feel safer.
If a student is still hesitant to play with a few notes, try just playing on one note. Ask them to simply make up some rhythms with a single note. After trying that for a while they’ll eventually get bored with that one note and want to branch out.
Another boundary that works well is to use the lyrics of a song. Keep the same lyrics, but play different notes and maybe even some different rhythms.
You can also choose a rhythm, either from a song you know or a rhythm you compose yourself, and then try improvising different notes to that rhythm.
Have a Musical Conversation
As I mentioned before, this is a really fun activity to do with your music student. Go to the piano and play and sing a question, like “How was school today?” Then have your child answer, singing and playing. Maybe they’ll say something like, “It was fun, we got to paint pictures.” Then it’s your turn again. Be sure to listen to your child and respond to what they say.
When in conversation, people like to know that you’re listening to them. It makes them feel good, and makes them want to talk to you more. When your child is improvising, if you’re really listening that will encourage them to do more of it. Even if you don’t like most of what they’re doing, find something you do like and point it out. Make it something specific, like “That was a cool rhythm you invented.” Ask them if they noticed it and liked it to. Sometimes when kids improvise they just play random notes without really listening to how it sounds. Encourage them to listen to, assess, and feel the music they’re creating.
Another fun game to play is to have one person improvise a few notes, and then the other person will try to echo those notes. Take turns improvising and echoing. This really helps develop listening skills.
Play Along with a Backing Track
On our Hoffman Academy website each piano unit has a “Practice Album” which is a collection of backing tracks for students to play along with. Many of these backing tracks include space for students to improvise. These are different from our “Listening Album,” which helps students become familiar with each song they’re going to learn. After a student has learned a song well enough, they can start playing along with the practice album as they continue to polish their song. Many practice tracks include a section to improvise with. This gives students a good boundary, only eight bars to improvise, and then they go back to playing the melody again.
Our very first song, Hot Cross Buns, has an improvisation section on the practice track. Students should master the piece first (in Lesson 1), then in Lesson 2 they get to try out improvising. If your child is having a hard time with this, you can demonstrate. First play through the song, then improvise, and then play the song again. On the track you’ll hear four clicks to let you know when to start playing the melody both at the beginning and after the improvisation section. When you improvise, just use the same set of three black keys that the melody used, and within that limited amount of time. If your student feels stuck, just suggest using the same words, or the same rhythm, or to go up instead of down, or come up with your own way to set boundaries and make it simpler.
Improvisation continues in later units. For example, in Unit 5 I have students do an improvisation in A minor. By Unit 5 I want students to be more comfortable with improvisation, and so for this one they can use the whole A minor pentascale. The backing track has a jazzy rhythm, so if your student has trouble feeling the beat you can snap your fingers or nod your head in time.
Some kids will start playing random notes when asked to improvise. That’s not really effective. Encourage them to listen to what they’re doing. If they feel overwhelmed, have them choose two notes. For example, even you only play A and C you can still get some good sounds in the A minor improvisation.
Have Fun with Improvisation
I’m the father of two boys, and I’ve also had the privilege of being their piano teacher. Some of our most delightful moments have been improvising together. My piano teacher never said the word improvise, my parents never asked me to do it. That’s too bad. Teaching a child music without teaching them to improvise is like teaching them how to write but never letting them write their own words. You don’t have to go to college to learn how to write a poem or a story. Not every child becomes a novelist, but we want them to learn how to write a letter, or a diary entry, or a simple poem.
Let’s not just memorize other people’s music. Let’s make our own. You don’t need to be a professional author to write a journal or write a story. You can be creative with words and express yourself no matter what your skill level. Same with music. Let’s encourage kids to learn to express themselves with music. You don’t have to be a brilliant improviser to make it worthwile to create simple musical ideas. I’m certainly not an advanced improviser, but I really enjoy playing around with sound.
Classical musicians are bringing improvisation back, jazz players already do it. Let’s accelerate this trend by helping kids learn to improvise. Give them the joy, fun, and excitement of creating their own music.