This week’s guest post features an article by pianist, composer, and educator Forrest Kinney. In his post, Forrest introduces his approach to a creativity-based model for music education in which improvising (or what he prefers to call “creating” or “free play”) is taught alongside traditional approaches from the outset.

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Create First! Teaching Improvisation from Lesson One 

Improvisation. It means many things to many people. To me, it’s a rather clumsy five-syllable word that could easily be the name for some sort of invasive medical procedure. It doesn’t convey the delight that comes from freely creating music, an activity that has enriched and sustained my musical practice for over four decades. I prefer to call it “creating” or “free play.”

For hundreds of years, improvisation has been taught in a certain way when it has been taught at all. First, you learn to play a song—melody with accompaniment. Often this means you will learn about chords in the process and how to style them. (I call this activity “arranging” because it can be taught without involving improvisation.) Then, as you play and repeat the tune, you vary it while keeping the harmonic pattern of the accompaniment. And so, you might first play Amazing Grace in the key of G, then embellish the melody, and then perhaps freely create melodies using the notes of a G major scale.

This time-honoured approach is undeniably practical. After all, keyboardists in churches and dance bands have been varying tunes for hundreds of years. And this is largely what jazz musicians do today—they learn and play tunes and then freely improvise over the chord progression, the “changes.”

However, there are some serious drawbacks to this approach. The main one is this: One has to be able to play tunes, play chords, and be able to put them together in a fluent way so that one is then able to improvise. As a result, beginners are not allowed into the kingdom.

This is unfortunate because the first lesson is the best time to begin improvising! And so, what has been needed for a long time is an approach that allows students to begin improvising in the very first lesson and encourages them to continue throughout their lives. We have needed an approach that will not replace the traditional approach, but provide an entrance way to it and also be a creative adventure in its own way.

The Pattern Play and Create First! books offer such an approach. In the first lesson, teachers create a rich, patterned sonic environment and invite students to “play with me using black keys” or “make sounds with me using these four keys.”  The teacher continues to play duets with the student in each lesson. Just as our ability to speak fluently is drawn out of us because our parents talked with us each day, so the ability to “talk with tones” is drawn out of a student through these weekly musical conversations.

When the student is ready (this may be weeks or months or even a year later), the teacher helps their students learn to play the accompaniment “Pattern”. Students are then able to accompany themselves and can improvise solo at home.

In this way, a student can be introduced to the various elements of musicality (consonance and dissonance, dynamics, articulation, etc.) and all the basic materials of music—scales and modes, intervals, and chords. Students explore the character of these materials by creating with them first. And so, a “Dorian mode” is not some abstract theoretical idea, but it is an exploration of a musical world called Scotland, or Ancient Doorways, or Miles Ahead. Most theory and technique can be introduced in this exploratory, imaginative, creative way (click here for a video introduction to Create First! or Pattern Play approach).

One of the beauties of this approach is that students can be introduced to a wide variety of music styles near the beginning of their study. They can create sounds with Japanese scales, Persian scales, harmonic minor scales, and whole-tone scales.

Eventually, one develops the freedom to create freely in a wide variety of musical styles with many musical materials in a number of keys. One’s play has a flowing quality, and this carries over into our playing of literature. And, naturally, one is also able to improvise on tunes with sensitivity and understanding.

This approach is purposely simple to allow complex music and musical feelings to grow. The Patterns can be played differently each time and can grow and change as we do.

Many teachers have told me they have been astonished at the musicality in many of their beginners, latent musicality that is given a chance to emerge through free play. Others have told me their “problem students” turned out to be the most musical and creative of all!  And many teachers have found there is an unexpected benefit from teaching improvisation with duets: They, too, become more fluent and feel freer.

Don’t we all wish we could immediately express ourselves at the piano? Don’t we wish that there could be a direct transmission from our feeling to tones without anything in between? There is such beauty in that, a beauty that all musicians should be given the chance to experience each day.

– Forrest Kinney

Further reading & resources

A selection of works from Forrest’s Create First! series, each with video demonstration, is now available to subscribers on the Online Academy. Click here to view the series introduction and to find out more or click here to view the series index.

A stand-alone eBook version of this material which includes access to online material and video demonstrations is available for pre-order from our eBook store with two licensing options:

  • Personal use license (single user license) – click here
  • Studio license (for use by an individual teacher with multiple students) – click here