Creative Corner: Ignite Creativity in the First Lesson

Those first lessons with beginners can seem awfully long--all the instructions to give about posture, the keyboard, key names, high, low.... Although I offer young pianists the chance to explore all the concepts by touch, sound, movement, and fun (of course), there is no way to avoid a great deal of talking/explaining. The child may go home with just one piece to play because there is so much to know before "reading" can kick in. Can you imagine how beginning lessons must feel to those eager, tiny fingers? Or, some opt to begin lessons later as teens or adults and of course want to learn quickly and get their hands on the keys and make some music ASAP. Adding some creative and rote assignments can satisfy those hungry minds and fingers. These tasks can provide that necessary "carrot" to keep them coming back for more.

Here are some ideas for encouraging creativity with beginners. You'll notice a description is provided along with a sample assignment (in bold) you might give between lessons.


1) Damper Pedal: Encourage the pianist to play any black keys up or down the keyboard,  add the pedal and it is magically beautiful!

Assignment: Create a piece called: Moonbeams or Waterfall or....

2) Ostinato: Create a pattern of two keys (or more) and repeat over and over, then ask the student to play any black keys (in any order) above, then switch places. Use this time to teach that unique word "ostinato" as you know they will run into more ostinatos as lessons continue. While you play a quarter-note ostinato*, ask the improviser to play any black keys in quarters then, half notes, then whole notes (don't even bother using those terms, just ask them to hold for 1, 2 or 4 beats.)

Assignment: Create a new ostinato every day OR create an ostinato in one hand and play at least one note in the other hand, then switch.

*Hint: if you feel uncomfortable creating an ostinato, locate a black-key accompaniment featured in a method book. Ask the student to create above this pattern. When in doubt--BORROW!


I Like Coffee: The Shaak family is well-known as establishing a piano studio"dynasty" in Denver. Over the years the Shaaks have created a legacy of fine pianists and published piano books. One in particular, Piano Partners Book One, includes a terrific teacher/student arrangement of "I Like Coffee" that all my beginning students learn by rote. The 7 variations or "verses" are a hit with the students as well as at recitals! I've found they enjoy creating their own "verse" as well. Here's a video of this crowd-pleasing duet.

Assignment: After learning one variation by rote at the lesson make sure it is mastered by next lesson. Each lesson, play the new variation and link it to the "old" variation until all are chained together.


1) Copy Cat: Although this is an exercise that could be completed on black keys, I prefer to start this one on white keys, once students know the names of CDE. Ask students to place RH (right hand) fingers 234 on CDE and you, the teacher create a short pattern for them to copy on CDE. Once they can copy with ease, ask them to copy the pattern in the LH (left hand). Then ask them to create something for you to copycat. Be ready, students usually like to craft something quite tricky to stump you!

Assignment: Each day, create a pattern on CDE (or FGAB or CDEFG)  in the RH, then copy in LH, then create a pattern in LH and copy in RH.

2) Question and Answer: It's never too early to talk about melodic conversations as they appear regularly in most repertoire. To help students create Question and Answer phrases, I find a C 5-finger pattern and begin with asking them to copy me. I play a phrase that ends upward. They copy it. I then play another phrase that ends downward back on the home tone and they copy that. I do this again, but add lyrics like: "How are you today?" and "I am fine, thank you." They are then encouraged to ask a question on the keyboard and I answer. Soon we enjoy a pleasant "musical conversation."

Depending on the age of the student, I might ask him/her to move to another white key and build a 5-finger pattern on...G or A or E. With some guidance, pianists begin to discover which ones sound "right" like C Major and which ones sound "different"?  This is a great way to introduce minor without "talking" about it. (I may save this assignment until the C major 5 is mastered for those younger students who need work on  just playing those 5 fingers in a row.)

Assignment: One hand asks a question, the other answers, then switch. Try this beginning on different white keys and decide which ones sound "right" like C major, and which ones sound "wrong" or different.


Yes, the pattern we think we (piano teachers) can't stand to hear one more time is a GOLD MINE for learning opps. Make sure all your pianists know this--how embarrassing for them if they did not, this is a social standard!

Early students may need to break it down some. First play the bass line with the left hand and ask the pianist to sound it out. Guide them by starting on C, down a skip, down a skip up a step. Once they catch on, ask them to play open 5ths on each key in the LH. Then teach the RH, and begin work playing hands together. Next, add the middle note. The time is now ripe to introduce the words "chord" and then "triad"--a chord with 3 pitches (like TRIangle, TRIcycle...). Show students how to play "double double" in each hand with a slight swing. Watch the smile appear on their face once they realize they are playing "Heart and Soul".

Assignment: play this pattern until your family asks you to stop.

I'm not finished, stay tuned for a future blog about the history of, and more ways to explore "Heart and Soul."

Encouraging freedom to create at the first lesson can, no, will spark a life-long urge to create. A spirit of curiosity is crucial. Never pass judgement, but instead, coax pianists to experiment and explore with carefully guided questions. Only nourish (and never crush) the creative soul.

Speaking of creativity, don't forget to purchase Bradley Sowash's books at a 10% discount until November 30th. His That's Jazz Books are staple in my library and charge up creative juices in a jiffy for you or your students. Read more here.

How do you ignite creativity in your early pianists?