Month: March 2021

Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate

I’ve always been in awe of musicians who can improvise, arrange or compose music.

Back in the day when I was learning piano, there was a strong emphasis on exams. Most kids who “did” piano followed the same trajectory that I did, where our lessons were mostly dedicated to perfecting exam repertoire and theory. As soon as we finished one grade, it was straight onto the next. There wasn’t much time given to learning anything else.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved my piano teacher and thoroughly enjoyed our lessons together. This learning structure gave me a rock solid foundation for technique and reading, and I wouldn’t be able to teach now if I hadn’t established such strong fundamentals.

Once I hit my teens though, I realised I needed more. I wanted to play music that I loved to listen to. I was all about the Top 40 hits, classic country and pop from the 60s or 70s (thanks Dad) and musical threatre tunes. Honestly, I barely listened to any classical music at all and certainly not the stuff on exam lists (so so wrong. I should have listened to everything).

Luckily I lived near a library that had an amazing collection of sheet music so I could borrow and play as much as my library card limit would allow. This accelerated my sight-reading skills but the flip side was that I became extremely reliant on reading music to play.

I hadn’t developed any skills that would allow me to create or improvise even though I really wanted to. Mostly I wanted to come up with my own arrangements of songs or to accompany myself singing without having to chance upon the sheet music that would be in exactly the right key.

It never occurred to me to ask my piano teacher if she could teach me how to do these things. In my mind, I had kind of assumed that you’re either born with the ability or you’re not.

I have since gone on to learn some of this on my own, but I’ll admit that it doesn’t come as naturally to me as sitting in front of written music and playing. It takes a lot more brain power, but I can do it if I try.

This is why I incorporate aspects of improvisation, story-telling and composition with my students, particularly when they’re first starting out and have an open mind to what ‘learning the piano’ means. I want to open more doors for them, to let them know that in addition to reading and interpreting someone else’s written music, they can also be composers or improvisational artists.

Not all students take to this and I won’t push it too hard if it’s really not for them.

But some students really love this part of their learning. Imagine – permission to literally play on the piano – mucking around with melodies, putting notes together for harmonies to see how they sound, varying rhythms this way and that. They have so much fun doing this!

Start by Copying

There are different ways to introduce students to the ideas of improvising, composing and arranging and this can really depend on the age of the student as to what will resonate the most.

Irrespective of the details, I think what works really well for this is best summed up by jazz musician Clark Terry.

Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate.

Clark Terry

We start everything by copying. It’s how we learn to do anything!

Assimilation happens when we’ve spent so much time copying, the body movements and musical ideas that we’ve played over and over again become internalised. We can call on them and reproduce them easily.

This is when you can start to Innovate. How can you put what you know together in a new and unique way?

This process obviously takes time and practice, but it can be done in snippets during lessons. Once they’ve learnt to play a piece really well and know it upside down and inside out, they can start to take it apart to create something different.

Rote Repertoire by Samantha Coates

One of my favourite ways to bring this whole process to life for my students is by using great patterned repertoire, such as the ones written by Samantha Coates.

For every piece that Samantha writes in her BlitzBook Rote Repertoire series, she creates three different levels. The first level is what I think of as the bare bones theme, giving us a rhythm, a melody and maybe some harmonies. The second and third levels vary the first one in some way, adding complexities to create a richer sounding piece while still remaining true to the original theme.

Creepy March by Samantha Coates

By the time my students have learnt all three levels of a piece (imitating) and have practiced them a lot (assimilating), they know the overall theme really well. Well enough to create their own “Level 4” or what we fondly refer to as their “remix” (innovating).

I am always blown away by what kids can come up with and how creative they can be!

We spend time in lessons experimenting and improvising, and if they really want to take it to the next level they will go home and come back in their next lesson with a fully crafted Level 4 version of the piece.

Recently my student Christian made his way through the three levels of  “Creepy March” from Rote Repertoire and created his own Level 4 version to play.

You can watch Samantha’s Level 3 demonstration first to hear the original, and then watch Christian below to hear how he changed it to make it his own.

It sounds like the original, but is so much more with different rhythmic patterns added in, new melodic phrases and octaves – not to mention his favourite way to end any piece of music. That single lingering bass note.

He did a great job don’t you think?

You never know the potential that kids can reach.

I might very well be playing Christian’s written compositions in the future!



Has Christian’s performance inspired you to try improvising and composing? Let me know in the comments below, and let me know if you enjoyed his version of Creepy March, I’ll be sure to tell him!

Posted by Piano with Po, 0 comments