Creativity & Composition in Private Teaching
Private lessons, applied music, one-on-one music education. Typically, what comes to mind is an image of a teacher and a student sitting down to work on the student’s technique and repertoire. The focused, individualized teaching can supplement the work the student is doing in a traditional K-12 or college setting, help an adult learner keep up the skills they learned earlier in their life, or introduce an entirely new instrument to a student.
How can creativity factor into one-on-one teaching? Should it be present in this setting? My answer would be a resounding, “yes”: creative exercises can and should be a fundamental part of your private work with students.
Many teachers ask their students to warm up by playing scales, intervals, or arpeggios. This strengthens technique and literally warms up the student for the rest of the focused playing they will be doing throughout the rest of the lesson. These hallmarks of traditional music education can also be used as a springboard for creativity in the private lesson.
Try asking your student to play a traditional warm-up exercise of your choice. Then, using 1, 2, or 4 bars, depending on the student, begin a “musical conversation,” asking the student to improvise over the exercise. They can try using the notes of a specific scale in their improvisation, only specific intervals, or the pitches of various arpeggios. After they have finished the exercise, it is your turn to play! Keep your playing at the same level of complexity as theirs, and take cues from their performance. Encourage your student to begin playing right on the downbeat; with lower-level students, this can be a great way to help them internalize the pulse. Keep trading bars until you would like to end the exercise.
Many students, especially if they have never engaged in this kind of on-the-spot creative process before, can feel uncomfortable or nervous. If this is the case, ask your student to “keep it simple”, starting with quarter, half, or whole notes, and perhaps just one pitch. Again, make sure to keep your playing simple as your student begins to explore improvisation.
Incorporating this kind of exercise into your warm-up technique can have many benefits. Your student gains experience improvising, and because the exercise is based on technique, their knowledge of the scales, intervals, and arpeggios will improve. Make sure to highlight aspects of their creative playing once the exercise is done for encouragement.
This exercise can be modified or extended in a few different ways, sometimes even in the same lesson. Try asking your student to begin their musical phrases on the same pitch that you use to end your musical phrase. This strengthens their ear. Of course, you should do the same thing, too! As you and your student listen to the music you are making together, the repeated pitches create a sense of a flowing musical line. This can lead into a discussion of how to create melodies that aesthetically please you both.
Call-and-response can also be used in this same context as well. Start by having your student mimic your playing. Again, if the student is new to this kind of playing, keep it simple at the beginning by only using two or three pitches and basic rhythms. Many students enjoy trying to “trick” their teacher, too, so give them an opportunity to be the leader in call-and-response as well.
Lastly, try asking your more advanced students to take a look at a melodic theme from one of their pieces. What are the musical characteristics that define this theme? Try using these as a springboard for improvisation. If a theme has specific rhythms, try engaging in a musical conversation using those rhythms alone. Specific pitches can work, too. A melody’s intervals can also serve as inspiration for improvisation. To extend this idea even further, you can ask your student to write an alternate melodic theme that would still be able to work with the rest of their music.
By engaging in creative activities that are directly linked to the music your student is working on, you can add some spice to your private teaching and strengthen your student’s musical understanding and aural skills. Creating can also give your student some added musical self-esteem, too! And lastly, remember that improvisation is not just for jazz. Any genre and, of course, any student can benefit from this kind of musical work!
Want more great music education content?
Keep in touch with Leading Notes by following us on social media or subscribing to our newsletter!