Thursday, July 2, 2009

Improvisation workshops in California

I'm nearly at the end of just over 2 days' work with students of Ellen Tryba Chen, a very enthusiastic teacher based in Saratoga, CA (near San Jose) She got a number of her students to prepare pieces from American Popular Piano Levels 1 to 4, both the pieces from the Repertoire books and the Improv Etudes associated with those same pieces. I have then been wheeled in to hear how the students got on and to suggest other ideas that might make them feel even more enthusiastic about jamming with a track and with each other. It's been a delightful experience. Here's the room we've been working in:
We used a grand piano as well as a keyboard, usually with 4 students in a group. I get all of the students to play the piece together first, with two students playing the original left hand part, the other two playing the original right hand part. We then try out drum patterns that might sound right for the piece, often derived from the teacher accompaniment. The students them "drum" while one of the group plays the piece. With a tapped beat from their foot as well, it's really getting the student used to keeping a beat as well as hearing other rhythmic parts while playing their part.

We then move onto the left hand chords found in the Improv Etude first Module and I suggest, with the backing track, how simple rhythms can already be invented using the left hand chords provided. Each student tries this out.

Then we talk about right hand improvisation "devices" - having identified the notes to use, we can then do various things, including:

1. playing the rhythm of the original melody but choosing our own order of notes
2. theme and variation
3. call and response
4. using silence - rests and long notes

I found that more unusual devices really appealed to the students - grace notes, pedal notes above the melody, melodies in thirds (and fourths and sixths) and additional notes, especially b5, were also seized on with alacrity.
Then we tried extended improvisations, with each student having a solo, accompanied by one or more of the other students playing their own versions of the left hand chords. All with the track of course. The solos are bookended by the theme all played together.

I met one mother of a teenage boy today and she said "this is what he has been looking for since he started piano" It's wonderful to see how much enthusiasm and commitment is in evidence when the students are given a chance to express themselves in this way.

I hope to be doing more workshops on improv - Summer Sizzle in Ontario is another event coming up shortly where I'll be doing more of this kind of activity.

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