I have always felt that improvisation is a vital part of music. I became interested in it after I had completed many years of traditional studies. I soon discovered all that training did little to prepare me for it. My ear was horrible, and my theoretical knowledge outdated. Also, I noticed I was not the “exception to the case” – musicians with similar training to mine were left with the same musical handicaps. I was performing with self-taught musicians with far superior improvisational skills. This lead me to begin to question the validity of my traditional musical training.
Over seventy years ago, Dr. Shinichi Suzuki contradicted the standards of traditional musical education by proving that when exposed to a positive musical environment, very young children could learn to play an instrument. Traditional philosophy generally discounted the value of Early Childhood Education and the potential of very young students.
By the age of four, most children have learned the language and have become fluent speakers. They can convert abstract thoughts into complete sentences, respond to questions and have meaningful conversations. They are becoming increasingly comfortable with the highest of linguistic skills – the ability to improvise. Dr. Suzuki used this as the foundation for his Mother Tongue approach to teaching the performance of music to young children. I have been attempting to apply it to the studying the art of improvisation.
Over the years, I searched unsuccessfully for materials geared towards the teaching of improvisation at an early age. Therefore, I have had to create my own.
Dr. Suzuki once told me, “Each day, I look for a new idea to try with my students. I carefully watch how they react to it. If it works, I continue to use it. If not, I throw it away and look for another idea to try.”
I have applied his words towards my efforts. It indeed, has been a long, tedious process. The biggest challenge has been to present my students with easily-attainable assignments. Another is to objectively observe how students react to them. If it works, it is kept – if it doesn’t, it is trashed. This means countless hours making modifications, tweaking and re-designing. The results have been well-worth the effort.
Initially, I began experimenting with advanced students. Now, students as young as six are involved in the process. Materials are presented using a chromatic approach, (students learn to do everything in all keys), with the goal of building a complete mastery of the keyboard. This includes elements such as the blues scale, modes, chords, chord progressions, rhythm and more. For lack of a better term, I call this course Keyboard Theory
- Students as young as six have gained a much stronger working knowledge of the keyboard and notation via the first book of Rudiments. Major revisions were made to these materials prior to the 2017/2018 Teaching Year, with more to come for next fall.
- Students as young as eight being able to improvise 12-Bar Blues in the twelve major keys. Many have also begun improvising in these keys using the major scale and Dorian mode.
- Students, as young as ten are able to improvise in the twelve major keys using the blues scale, the major scale, and the Dorian mode, over more demanding walking bass lines and chord progressions.
- Students as young as twelve being able to add chord accompaniments to chord charts, playing the melodies with the right hand. In addition, being able to play the same charts in “keyboard style, with the left hand playing the bass and right hand the chords.
- Students as young as twelve studying supplemental materials as taught at the Berklee College of Music
- Ensemble playing was successfully begun by students as young as twelve. Students play along with recorded musical “beds”, in different keys and styles.
KEYBOARD THEORY and the DEVELOPMENT OF THE EAR
An integral component of my Keyboard Theory curriculum is the development of the ear from a practical perspective. Students cycle through various scales and modes in all keys, learning to improvise in each. This plays a large role in building mature, highly-developed listening skills.
KEYBOARD THEORY and TECHNIQUE
Skill development is always in the back of my mind. I use Keyboard Theory to present the student with technical challenges, small enough to attain easily, but important enough to play a large role in building new technical strengths.