Letting unplanned things happen?

Edward said: Feb 6, 2019
Edward Obermueller
Suzuki Association Member
Violin
Morris Plains, NJ
73 posts

How often do you have an open-ended or improvisational practice session or lesson?

In other words, where the result isn’t pre-programmed and the outcome not a specific expectation (whether technical or musical or other achievement step), but rather exploratory and/or improvisational.

I’m curious about how Suzuki parents and teachers handle spontaneity, invention, and open-ended creation, when it comes to music. I’m continually surprised to find out what students will come up with when I don’t pre-program the outcome.

Is it sort of like planning for spontaneity? Something my wife and I have to do!

Do you have a suggestion or story of how this has looked in your home or studio?

Here’s an article with some specific ways I’ve tried to be more intentional about unplanned outcomes, that might help to get the conversation started: Play More Crazy

Happy practicing,
Edward

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Jennifer Visick said: Feb 9, 2019
Jennifer VisickForum Moderator
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Suzuki Early Childhood Education, Suzuki in the Schools, Violin
1069 posts

Edward, that’s a great blog post. :-)

It immediately makes me think of Alice Kay Kanack’s “Creative Ability Development” method, which is a series of books and games designed to teach musical improvisation in order to inspire creative thinking, very similar to what you’re talking about.

The two benefits you state in your blog post are exactly the reasons why I love teaching improv:

> “1) The brain is more alert when it must pay attention because something is happening in an unpredictable way, and
>
> 2) It decreases fear of making mistakes, which in turn increases fluency and comfort with playing.”

It was taking a class with Alice that first got me to realize that I can (and should) teach improvisation to my students regularly, as part of the private lesson and as part of group classes, as if it were a basic and necessary part of learning music, just like teaching good tone quality or scales or how to hold the bow.

I recommend that anyone interested in learning to think more creatively, and in allowing that space for creative thinking to grow in their students, should try using Alice’s CAD books and go take a class where she’s sharing how to teach with them.

Kurt Meisenbach said: Feb 9, 2019
Kurt Meisenbach
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Violin
Plano, TX
45 posts

Edward, thank you for your question, and Jennifer, thank you for your response. I have looked at the web site address you provided. It is excellent.

I am finishing a book for parents to help them become better practice partners at home. One of the chapters talks about the importance of anticipating and predicting and the positive impact these two activities have on how we learn. I will now add the role of imagination to round out the trio.

Thanks again to both of you for this very useful information.

Susan Beth Barak said: Feb 10, 2019
Susan Beth Barak
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Suzuki Early Childhood Education, Violin
Newmarket, ON
13 posts

I absolutely agree with Edward, Jennifer, and Kurt. Alice Kay Kanack’s CAD should be a requisite companion to Suzuki material. Dr. Suzuki called Alice Kay Kanack “Mozart’s Mother!” You should also check out her book Improvising String Quartets written with Dr Sera Smolen. I am planning to write an article about the importance of regular improv and creative production for submission to the Journal, after I complete some more research in the courses I’m taking at the University of Toronto.

Lori Bolt said: Feb 11, 2019
Lori BoltPiano
San Clemente, CA
261 posts

I enjoy using CAD with my piano students. It’s so user friendly, and sets the students up for success! I use the Musical Improvisation for Children for all ages and Fun Improvisation for Piano for all but the earliest beginners. They love it!

Lori Bolt

Edward said: Mar 6, 2019
Edward Obermueller
Suzuki Association Member
Violin
Morris Plains, NJ
73 posts

Thank you Jennifer for that thoughtful reply, I’ll be sure to look up CAD and report back!

Another addition to this conversation comes in the latest Suzuki journal by Matt Turner, on TAQSIM and the book “Sound Innovations.” There is a free download sample page of improvisational patterning given here: alfred.com/SICWtaqsim.

Happy practicing,
Edward

Free Guide: Mom, Dad, Can I Practice?
Free Game: Leprechaun Practice System --> Works for online teaching!

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Alan Duncan said: Apr 4, 2019
 
Suzuki Association Member
Violin
81 posts

I find improvisation to be tricky, having watched many semi-structured improvisation workshops unfold. Much depends on the personality of the child. Every child can improvise; but not every child can improvise in a group class, on command, in the key requested by the facilitator. My daughter won’t improvise in a group setting to save her life; but has a great time at home. There, we agree on a suitable key and I play something on the piano in a I-IV-V sort of pattern and she plays along and makes up a story to go along with it. But if you did that in a group setting, she’d fold.

Of course, it helps that the facilitator reassures the children that the philosophy of “anything goes” prevails in improvisation but, again, so much depends on personality factors of the child. Introverts and perfectionists will struggle with public improvisation. For these kids, I wonder if better understanding of Western harmony—in a structural/theoretical sense, might be paradoxically freeing.

While improvisation implies a certain freedom, the ears are going to seek out certain patterns. I find that as my daughter understands theory and harmony better, she’s able to improvise in even more pleasing ways. It fits with evidence (at least among pianists) that the better sight-readers have higher scores on theory knowledge. A knowledge of how harmony works helps solve the probabilities around “what comes next.”

Corrina Barrett said: Apr 27, 2020
 Violin
Spokane, WA
3 posts

Great topic. Love it. When I was a young violin student, I was very much glued to the notes on the page, could not play by ear or improvise. I have learned to play by ear now, but I still am reluctant to improvise. I force myself to keep trying, and have gotten better. It is definitely a skill I would like my students to acquire, as how can we say people are native speakers of the language of music, if they can only repeat exactly what is on the page?

My second child has taught me so much about how to help students get comfortable improvising. From the time he could bang on a piano, he would spend most of his “practice” time just messing around playing his own thing, and needed many reminders to get around to practicing for his lesson. In this way, he developed so quickly and thoroughly a real “native language” feeling for the piano. Whether playing by ear or improvising he somehow knows just where the note he wants is, I believe in large part due to this self led exploration.

For my violin students, I have started incorporating improvisation from the very beginning. Some of the shyer ones are reluctant at first, but very quickly warm up to it as they find out they can’t get it “wrong”.

Our first improvisation games are “I play you play”, which other teachers call “echo”, but it is not just me playing and they imitate—we take turns. At first, we play only open strings. As they learn fingered notes, I continue for a bit to just do open strings for them to imitate, but they get to challenge me with fingered notes. And I have to close my eyes before trying to play back what they play. They love to try to trick me.

It is kind of a flip: they think the “challenge” is when I play something for them to imitate, and the fun part is when they get to challenge me. But from my perspective, the instructional point of the game is the part where they are having to come up with the notes to play.

Some students will still just want to play something they’ve learned when it is their turn. I encourage them to play something more random, but not too firmly, because at first they have to be comfortable with the game.

Another early improvisation game is inventing your own twinkle rhythm.

I look forward to hearing more ideas in this thread!

Corrina Barrett said: Apr 27, 2020
 Violin
Spokane, WA
3 posts

And also to address the part of your post about being spontaneous with the direction of the lesson, not just improvising in music:

I think it works great, especially with certain students. I have also been amazed how often a student will come up with a new idea for how to practice something, a pattern of repetitions for example. Maybe it is similar to something I might have suggested, but thought they might find too tedious. But when they are the one who comes up with it, they drive ahead with gusto!

If a child notices something about their technique that I’ve been overlooking and prioritizing other things… say they are noticing that they keep hitting other strings… I jump at the chance to switch gears in order to pursue their observation and guide them.

Like Montessori said:
Follow the child!

Also, asking the students lots of questions is great for finding direction in the lesson. Such as, what do you think is the most challenging spot in this piece? What makes this spot challenging? What do you think would be a good way to practice this spot? How could we make practicing this technique into a game?

Of course, I offer lots of answers too, but their answers guide the direction of my answers.

Some students are more comfortable with multiple choice questions at first, such as: Would you like to learn your next piece by ear first or look at the notes?

One pre-teen girl in particular was very indecisive and hated being put on the spot. I actually turned it into a game. My mother in law when tidying up puts all random small toys and objects in a can. There are nuts and bolts, legos, springs, marbles, crayons, and many worthless unidentifiable small objects. I dump five little items out of this can and use them as tokens. Everytime I asked her a question, if she came up with an answer (any answer, not just the “right” answer) a token was moved to her side, if not it moved back to my side. If she had five tokens on her side at the end of the lesson, she got to choose one to keep. I think we only did this three times. After that, she was quite relaxed and cheerful about making choices during the lesson.

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