Taking the Untraditional Plunge and Oozing Creativity


263460_1934126004312_2113099_nIf you missed Kristi Negri's previous post, please click here and read all about how her summer vacation transformed her approach to teaching. Below, Kristi generously shares her strategic steps she took to integrate creativity into her studio on her return home.  

When I first got home from Dallas, I wrote a letter to my piano parents. I wanted to get them oriented and open to the changes I was going to make while reassuring them that the traditional trajectory was not going away. For most of my students, the summer composition camps, elementary guided improv at lessons and such would stay familiar, but I wanted the parents ready to hear drum tracks booming out of their computers while their kids played at home (boy, did that help my kids who were having troubles grasping pulse!) I wanted parents to view the pop work we did, not as a break or just a little bit of piano candy to keep their child interested, but as a rigorous discipline of its own. I wanted to set them up to understanding that my view of their child going through my studio would mean that they would have to sign on at some point to a focused period of off-the-page music making!

I will never be able to teach off-the-page music making as a jazz master can. It would be silly for me to try it, and, besides, I love my more traditional work; that’s what I’m good at. I needed to design something that was going to work in my studio, the way I teach with my skill set. Small groups felt like the answer. They would be fun, inspiring, social, and that kid energy could be the engine that made it all hum.

In my letter, I informed the parents that after a student has successfully completed the Kristi quotesequivalent of Piano Adventures 3B  theory (3A at an absolute minimum) he or she is encouraged – in fact will be required at some point –to participate in a group class called Chords, Creativity, and Collaboration. Note to teachers: I stress the theory preparation. For the way I structured my group, they need to have their theory to that level down cold and they need their major scales in their hands with correct fingering.  Fortunately for me, I had a group of students who were just at the point of preparation for what I wanted to do.

KN head shotI sent out invitations to four students’ parents (hoping to get three) to give their kids the opportunity to join the inaugural group class. They would need to try it for at least three months, but if it went well, we’d continue through the school year if they chose. During that time, they could continue with private lessons (we switched to ½ hour to save money, and most went to every other week with the private lessons.) Some could only afford the group, so they stopped the private lessons for the time they were in group. The parents got pretty excited and, in fact, although I had initially intended to have only one trial group, but I guess my post-Dallas letter was pretty convincing ; I ended up with two groups of three each!

Pattern Play and That’s Jazz form the core of the first three months work, but I pull my material and ideas from many places. Thank goodness for blogs like Leila’s! Each student has those two books at the first level, a notebook with dividers for weekly assignment sheets, note paper, a section for their digitally licensed copies of music for chord work, and pages of blank music manuscript paper.  I plan carefully so that concepts are introduced and reinforced appropriately, but the experience of the class probably appears pretty chaotic. There is a lot of variation during each one-hour class and from week-to-week.

The two groups started in September. One reluctant participant dropped out after three weeks. (She hadn’t realized there would be so much to practice involved (!) plus she really likes the traditional work.) The remaining two students in that group went through December and are deferring another round of the course to next summer or next school year. They are, however, asking for, and getting, more of the creative work in their private lessons.

The second group of three (11 and 12 year-olds) is going absolutely gangbusters! They are begging that the group not stop in June, and I think their parents feel the same. The first few weeks, we laid a solid groundwork for improvisation and began intense work on chords, lead sheets, and ideas for arranging. Now we are focusing on the skills for collaboration by doing duets and six-hands work. After three weeks of duets, they loved the time we spent listing and discussing the skills one needs to be able to collaborate musically and were eager to more consciously apply them. All fun despite the fact that they are working hard. All inter-related. We’ll eventually spiral back to improvisation and chords and keep integrating new ideas from each area into the whole.

It must be noted that my students are amazing people, and so much of the energy and imagination has to be credited to them. Still, finally, something is really clicking in my studio with this kind of music-making. Again, without trying to describe weekly topics or specific activities, here are some things you’d see if you were a fly on the wall:

  • Noise. Lots of noise. Three people playing at once. (I have two pianos.) Lots of laughing. Lots of loud kid voices. Lots of me trying to talk above the din.
  • Kids getting comfortable with making mistakes, and just going for it.
  • Lots of positive reinforcement from one another and itchiness to jump in and try what they see happening.
  • Sharing of ideas and students teaching students.
  • An obvious mix of strengths and weakness. It is so easy to make each student see what they bring uniquely to the group. I see each looking at the others with respect for their skills and I see their pride in themselves for their own strengths.
  • On fire piano practice at home.
  • Eagerness from all of them to be first to show something they’ve worked on or to try something new.
  • Hunger for understanding structures and theories. This is not a misprint! A few years ago when I showed them at their private lessons how Minuet in G uses I IV V chords… well okay. Shrug. When I handed out the list from Wikipedia of pop songs that use I IV V and vi chords, there was grabbing for handouts and jostling for bench positions!
  • Games we made up, like Inversions Olympics and Play the Pentatonic Challenge… yup, they like ‘em. They now think the circle of fifths is amazing. It’s as if I had never explained it before. Same goes for so much theory. It’s applied in ways they care about.
  • Unsolicited arrangements, compositions, questions, and ideas coming from the students.
  • A growing amount of music “in their hands” that has grown in complexity and sophistication with surprising rapidity.
  • Ease of playing off-the-page. Joy. Friendships. Music making.

My annual piano party (recital) is quickly approaching. From the groups, we will feature the six-hand Beethoven’s 5th, a duet from That’s Jazz  with extra improv tossed in, a traditional duet, an arrangement of a pop song done completely by a student, a mash-up one of my students did of four songs that use I IV V vi chords, and a free-improv based on Forrest Kinney’s Persia complete with the sound effects demonstrated at the Institute. I’m guessing that after hearing this I’ll have some motivated students in my studio eager to power through their theory books so they can get into next fall’s groups.CandC2015

I don’t for a moment think that the way I’m doing this is for everyone. It’s an adaptation to my strengths and weaknesses, but I can’t encourage you enough to take the plunge somehow. The rate of change I’ve seen is beyond what I could have imagined. The information we traditional-types need is out there for us now. We just need to start where we are, learn what we need, and go for it!

I have plenty yet to share with my group students, but there are ways in which they’ve already left me in the dust. Now that’s magic. Thanks Forrest, Bradley and the others for showing me how. Not a bad summer vacation, eh?

Isn't Kristi's excitement contagious? Got the bug to add creativity to your lessons? Then it's time to make your way to Denver and join Bradley Sowash and me for our third annual 88 Creative Keys Camp. Registration is now open, there's an early bird discount AND you can save even more if you bring a friend. Learn more here.


If the Denver dates don't work for you, consider NCKP 2015 (National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy.) For the FIRST time, the conference will include a Creative Pianist Track. Learn more here.