Introducing Creativity in your Instrument Lessons, part 1

music student improvising on the clarinet

By Mireia Clua Geli

For instrument teachers who want their child and teenage students to develop their creativity while they learn to play the instrument.

Part 1: Introduction

All human beings are creative. We make decisions, we create answers and solutions, we imagine, we dream... What each of us does is unique and unrepeatable, therefore original.

Music is one of the many fields in which we can invent and create. We can all create music if we have the right tools.

To include creativity in music teaching, teachers can guide students through activities, games and exercises. In this series of articles I will show you some of my favorite activities that you can begin using right now with your students.

I like to start with question and answer games to introduce students to the spontaneous creation of music. These games will be a preparation so our students can later improvise over chord progressions and compose melodies. Besides being creative and developing that ability, the activities I propose will also bring other benefits to our students:

  • Internalize the feelings of harmony.
  • Understand new concepts through practice.
  • Express emotions.
  • Connect more deeply with their instrument.

Also, in my experience, students play in a more dynamic way with better and more refined musicality when they improvise because they don’t have the distraction of following a score.

Setting the mood

Our main purpose as teachers should be transmitting the magic of music to our students, to give them tools to channel their emotions and provide an environment of trust and respect so they can develop freely.

For a deep understanding of music

Music is made of feelings that we can all perceive. Music theory helps us sort these feelings out and name what we already feel in music, but is not a substitute for that experience. Music education often tries to explain all the theory, concepts and formulas, completely detached from the feelings. This is like trying to explain to a child the color green without the child ever seeing it. Isn’t it easier to show him several green items and simply tell him that this is green?

I propose to do the same with harmony. First we will help our students to notice the different feelings created by harmony, and then we will name these feelings as the child learns to recognize them. In this way we can give our students a true and deep understanding of music.

For me, improvisation is a tool to explore music and a great channel to express our own emotions. The goal shouldn’t be to impress others with licks of very fast notes, virtuosity and complicated rhythms. Music is much more than that. The interesting thing is to capture your own musical ideas and learn how to express your genuine emotions.

No judging

Musical improvisation is a practice and like everything else, it has several facets. One facet is the exploration and discovery of sounds and another facet is to play a solo at a concert. It is very important not to confuse these two moments because they are indeed very different. Improvisation is not just a way of making music, but a way of studying the sounds. When we play a solo in a concert it sounds good but we are not exploring and studying harmony. And vice versa, when we are in the practice room looking for new sounds, we are growing and learning but it won't necessarily sound like a song or a concert. Therefore, we have to give our students room and space to explore without restrictions, to play dissonant notes, to struggle to express a melody and we must even allow them to play out of tune. If we provide a safe environment where they don’t feel judged, through practice they will learn to express their ideas more easily and their music will evolve naturally.

Error doesn’t exist

In music creation error does not exist. Each one of us is at a different point along our path: some can more easily express their ideas than others, some have ideas that we like more than the ideas of others. We are all creative and nobody has the right to judge what we express. Who can tell me that something is wrong if I've invented it myself?

Guiding students

Some students have a hard time diving into improvisation. It's like starting at a blank page and not knowing where to start drawing. That doesn’t mean that they are not creative or that they don’t have talent. With these students, we will always start with very few notes, such as the first three notes of the scale. As they start feeling more comfortable we will give them more notes to play with. This process doesn’t need to be restrictive. If a student has been improvising for a while with three notes and suddenly plays a different note, maybe now it's time to expand the range of available notes.

Freedom

To explore music, one should feel free and not be restrained by rules. This is why I am not in favor of teaching rhythmic patterns or licks for the students to repeat and use them in their solos. Nor am I in favor of introducing a wide variety of exotic scales. Our popular music is based on the major scale, and to know it and understand it we have to go from there.

Many other methods introduce students to improvisation using the pentatonic scale. The pentatonic scale is used because it avoids the two most dissonant notes of the major scale: the fourth and seventh. This way we can improvise and make everything sound “good”. I am not at all in favor of starting there because we are limiting our students. To provide a set of notes that always sounds consonant leads students to a superficial approach to improvisation that allows them to play without listening. Our goal is not to make everything sound "good", but to lead our students to the experience of playing while listening and making decisions in the moment.

There are also methods that propose rhythmic exercises to make our solos more varied and elaborate. I'm not in favor of that either, because it is an unnecessary distraction that forces students to look for opportunities to interject a rhythmic pattern that does not come naturally to him or her. This is another bit of "help" that students don’t need.

Question and Answer Games

Many students have always played their instrument following a score. They are not used to listening to others, repeating musical phrases and creating music spontaneously.

The question and answer games that I’ll show you will develop your students' ability to listen and to express musical phrases, and will also enhance their musical memory. This will create a foundation for the students to later be able to improvise over harmonic accompaniments and compose their own songs.

Keep in mind that the exercises are progressive in difficulty. Each of the following activities should be practiced and enjoyed many times in many different classes before advancing to the next level.

Game No.1: Copycat

We will start by choosing a major scale that is comfortable for the student. This will be the scale that we will use for all of the following games. First we will play together this major scale that we’ve chosen. Then, once the notes of the major scale are clear and located we can start the Copycat game. The teacher plays a short melody with the instrument and the student listens and then repeats the same melody. We can start with short and easy melodies and increase the challenge over time. Be careful that the student doesn’t see your fingers, but instead, uses his or her ear to catch the melody you play. With this game the student learns to listen and analyze music, and we also train the student's ear and musical memory.

Game No.2: Question and Answer

We start by playing the major scale to warm up and to locate the notes that we will use for this activity. I like to begin by first calling the student's attention to the sound of our voices when we ask a question or give an answer. When we ask a question our voices tend to rise at the end, and when we give a definitive answer our voices tend to go down at the end. This isn't intended to be an absolute rule that the student must follow. We just want to get the student thinking about what questions and answers sound like. Playing music is like talking or telling a story.

Now the teacher can introduce the concept of question and answer in music and play a few examples for the student to listen to. In each example the teacher should play one musical line that sounds like a question, and then a second musical line that sounds like the answer to this question.

After a few examples we can start playing the Question and Answer game. The teacher plays a simple melody in the form of a question, and just after that, without stopping, the student plays an answer. We keep going on for a while, always following a pulse. We should give the student freedom to play without establishing any rules, without labeling as "right" or "wrong" what the student is playing. The student will find the notes that he or she likes and will eventually create more elaborate answers.

After a while, we can switch roles. Now it is the student who makes the questions and the teacher who answers them. Remember that we are playing in the context of a particular major scale that we’ve chosen. With younger students we can start playing questions and answers in a smaller range of notes, perhaps using only the first 5 notes of the major scale, and increase the range gradually as he or she gains more confidence.

Game No.3: Student Creates Both Question and Answer

After many sessions playing the game of question and answer, we can go a step further. Now the students can create both the question and the answer, regardless of the dialogue with the teacher. This is a beautiful moment because many students realize for the first time that they are able to invent melodies without help from anyone.

So now we can truly can make a musical conversation: the student plays one sentence consisting of both a question and an answer, and then the teacher plays another sentence which also includes both question and answer. This way each one gets inspired from the other’s ideas. Remember that we don’t have to love all the melodies we invent. Both teacher and student need plenty of room to play and experiment without the fear of playing something "wrong". Remember that it's impossible to be wrong in something that one is inventing.

Note:

Don’t worry either if the student doesn’t play “perfect” questions and answers that follow a meticulous form. With practice and being exposed to music, your students will keep developing their ability to invent and play melodies. The key is to dedicate 10 minutes of every class to creativity games, rather than spending one whole class improvising now and then.

Where to go from here

In part 2 of this series I will show you how you can include chords and harmony in your creativity exercises. Click the link below to keep going!

(Click here for lesson #2 on Introducing Creativity in your Instrument Lessons)

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