When you first start becoming a little more creative in your piano teaching, there is a tendency to jump straight to some of the more challenging activities like composing, without realising that there are many simpler ways to get started.
I like to think of creativity in music education as falling into one of three levels.
Level 1 activities are all about exploring ideas to do with the music students are already learning.
The first and most simple Level 1 creative idea is to be imaginative with the title of the piece. What images does the title conjure up? What story might it be telling?
In my Piano for Leisure Series 4 books, there is a piece entitled “March of the cubs” by Frank Hutchens. When I play this, I imagine a family of bears with mummy and daddy bear leading the way and their cubs following close behind.
When the music changes, the bears have been startled by something or have found something interesting. And at the end of the piece, as it gets quieter and has less movement, the cubs are going to sleep.
Looking a the story of a piece is a great way to encourage imagination, story telling and creativity in your students without having to create or compose anything new.
PS. I later found out that “March of the cubs” is actually about Scouts, not bears! Oh well, I still prefer my story and that’s one of the pleasures of interpretation.
Other Level 1 activities are based around adjusting non-pitch elements in a score. Things like:
This is by far the easiest way for teachers to get started with creative ideas in lessons and I encourage teachers who are just dipping their toes into creativity to start here.
While you’re exploring these elements, it’s also fun and creative to encourage students to play music in a completely different way to that intended.
What if “March of the cubs” became “Waltz of the cubs” or “Funeral march of the cubs” (sorry, that was a bit morbid!). How would that change how you play it and what the piece says? What if you played a quiet, introspective, slow piece in a fast and loud manner?
I’m sure many teachers are already doing many of these Level 1 activities in their studios. If so, then feel free to explore some Level 2 ideas.
Level 2 creativity involves creating new pitch elements through:
These activities are still based on the repertoire that students are learning, but are about creating new music based on the notation given.
One of my favourite activities at this level is what I call a Music Mashup.
This is when you take elements of a student’s piece and use it as a basis for improvising.
For example, if a piece the student is learning has a repeating LH pattern, you can easily get students improvising over this LH pattern using notes of the scale of the key of the piece.
If the original piece is jazz, use a blues scale. If it’s classical, use the regular major or minor scale.
Kids absolutely love doing this and it’s great for deepening their understanding of the music they are playing as well as being fun and motivational.
I’ve created a totally free handout about Musical Mashups below – download yours below and try it out today.
This is where students create music out of nothing – ie. compose from scratch.
While I love getting students composing music from nothing, if this is new territory for you, I’d strongly encourage you to consider Level 1 or 2 activities to get you started.
When students are at this Level 3, they might be:
I have a range of resources to help you take your teaching to this level.
Get my download of the three stages of piano teaching creativity so that you can use these in your studio and be reminded about some of the ways that you can get creative.
You might have heard me talking about my 4 Chord Composing course recently. It has been one of my most popular resources in the Inner Circle.
For transfer students, teens and adjust, you can certainly start with some Level 1 and 2 activities, but I’d strongly recommend my 4 Chord Composing lesson plans and videos which you can access at topmusic.co/chords.
This is my go-to first lesson with teens and transfer students because it’s highly engaging, students LOVE it and you will learn a lot about them from this activity.
If you’d like to access the full course, then I’d love to offer you a special discount to join my Inner Circle community.
You can get access today and take 30% off an annual membership by using the coupon code 4CCGETSTARTED when you register. Click here to find out more and make sure you select the Annual Plan to take advantage of this offer.
When it comes to getting creative, there are lots of options in lessons and your choice of activity will depend on:
Once your students are in a more regular schedule of learning new pieces and for younger students, I hope you’ll consider exploring some of the Level 1 and 2 ideas.
Looking forward to hearing how you go!
Tim Topham is the founder and director of TopMusic. Tim hosts the popular TopCast show, blogs regularly at topmusic.co and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as pedagogy, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, California Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.