How to Make Time for Creative Piano Activities in Your Lessons - Creative Music Education
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How to Make Time for Creative Piano Activities in Your Lessons

By Rosemarie Penner | Classically Trained to Creatively Curious

Jan 23

creative piano activities

It can be easy to get into a rhythm with our studios and leave out creative piano activities in your lessons.

Adding in things like playing by ear, improvisation, and using apps can feel like the ‘fun’ activities that get pushed to the end of lesson, if there’s even time at all.

Not to mention the overwhelming feeling many teachers get when trying to cover too many activities.

What if there was a way to include these creative piano activities in each and every lesson, in a way that made it easy for teachers and productive for students?

Read through to the bottom to grab today’s free download: The 3 Keys to a Comprehensive Piano Lesson Plan

Making time for creative piano activities

Creative teaching doesn’t just happen. It takes time both in preparation and during the lesson.

Yet time is the one thing that many teachers find themselves short on.

Ironically, I became a more creative teacher when I took the lessons I learnt in the actual classroom and applied them to my studio.

Teaching in the classroom, my students weren’t excited when they found out we were starting a unit on market economies.

But when students spent a lesson creating products to market and sell to other groups, well, it was hard to finish the lesson altogether.

So how we can do the same thing with our piano lessons?

The easiest and most time-efficient way for adding creative piano activities to lessons is to scaffold them.

By building upon each activity it becomes an integral part of a lesson that leads to more and more learning.

creative piano lessons

Read down to the bottom to download Tim Topham’s cheatsheet to a comprehensive piano lesson plan.

Scaffold skills throughout the year

A few years ago, I found that my students were completely overwhelmed by a simple one-page composition activity.

So the next year my annual plan included creative activities throughout the year that built the skills they needed. When we did composition again, my students went beyond the original creative activity to create their own piece from scratch.

The easiest way to add creative activities is to have a focus or units.

I’ve experimented with one and two month units in my studio with a clear winner. Two-month units give enough time for students to really dig into a concept without taking away from too much repertoire time.

There’s also the added benefit that if a student misses a lesson, they can still do well on the studio challenges.

Warm-up activities

I LOVE using creative activities as warm-ups for lessons.

Not only do they get students in ‘lesson’ mode, but they’re an easy way to change things up a little at a time. There’s nothing wrong with getting into a routine (especially for special needs students), but we can’t let that routine become stagnant.

No longer will ‘fun’ activities be relegated to the end of lesson because they have a purpose that leads directly to student repertoire!

In my studio, we scaffold skills throughout the year through units.

We might start with rhythm, but those warm-ups build from week to week.

When we start our next unit, aspects of the rhythm warm-ups will still show up even though we are doing something new.

It’s led to great understanding and application when my students see new repertoire since they have already interacted with the ‘ingredients’ many times before. My students love that there is a path that flows but never feels stagnant since there is always something new to do and learn!

Before we go on…

Here are 2 questions for you to answer before you read any further.

  • What is ONE thing you would like your students to be able to do by the end of June?
  • What skills do they need to master in order to accomplish that goal?

Whatever skills need to be mastered are the units to set up for the rest of this year.

When looking for creative activities online, you have a focus that keeps your time spent on things that are the most beneficial for your students.

Rather than overwhelming them, you feel confident knowing that your students are moving in the direction you’ve set up for them.

Creative warm-ups and activities

Last year was an especially creative one in my studio.

My students are raving about lab time, complain when we finish a favourite warm-up unit and are applying those warm-ups to their pieces, even months after the fact.

And, the best part?

Once the initial planning and creation is done, my weekly planning has been minimal.

Adding creative activities to your studio is not about changing everything at once. It’s about adding one thing at a time so that neither you or your students are overwhelmed.

New activities may take 10-minutes when first introduced, but quickly get down to five minutes once students know what to expect. This leaves plenty of time for applying those concepts to their practice pieces.

Below are some short, creative activities you can use in your studio to reach the goals you wrote down earlier. Each activity has students approaching the same pattern or concept in different ways each lesson.

Rhythm and improvisation activity

This activity has students interacting with a simple rhythm in multiple ways so it gets into their long-term memory. When they see it in their music, it’s already a friend.

  • Set a steady pulse by swaying with your student.
  • Using Kodály words (i.e tah, ti-ti) and clapping, have student repeat back a rhythm. Be sure to use both words & action to solidify the rhythm!
  • Student plays one-note rhythm on the piano. Have student improvise using two-note melody. Work up to five-note improvisation using the learnt rhythm.
  • During the week, student creates new melodies with the rhythm. You could have students add new words to the rhythm instead of just practicing with Kodály words.
  • Next week, have student write out rhythm from memory. Bonus points if student can notate one of their improvised melodies as well!

Categories: ear training, rhythm, improvisation, notation on a staff

Lyrical Picture Rhythms

One of my little guys LOVES dinosaurs and fish. Wunderkeys characters are fun, but they aren’t dinosaurs or fish.

So, I made Dino and Fish Rhymes for him. These don’t have to be Ed Sheeran worthy lyrics. Trust me.

Your little one’s face will light up that their teacher brought something just for them (and possibly run away with the sheet to show mommy or daddy, but hey it’s all good)!

  • Make a rhythm in picture form. (i.e. small dino for quarter notes, medium dino for half notes, and  giant dino for whole notes).
  • Add simple lyrics that match the rhythm. Use Google to find 1, 2, or 4-syllable words if you get stuck.
  • Once your little ones have gotten used to you creating lyrics, have them create lyrics for the rhythms!
  • Give them a sheet with the picture rhythms & ask a family member to brainstorm words with them.
  • Make a simple staff (2 lines only, no clef). Write out the rhythm so it can be played on any 3-black keys.
  • Or, have student improvise just like the “Rhythm Warm-Ups” above with just black keys. Teacher or student writes out melody on simple staff.

Categories: rhythm (visual comparing note lengths), improvisation, introduction to reading the staff, intervallic and directional reading

Singing Chords

Learning chords and their inversions can be difficult for students at first. Singing the notes before playing helps students hear if they are playing the correct notes when they play.

Chords and accompaniment patterns have moved more into the right hand for pop music. It only makes sense to have students practice these in both hands so all genres are accessible.

Use Solfege (with moveable ‘do’) to teach and sing chords. Try out different wording once the student knows the chord.

  • Introduce chords away from the piano through echo singing. Start with a different note each time so students learn chords have a particular sound regardless of the key.
  • Have student find the chord on the piano. Give the tonic note (‘Do’). Encourage student to sing as they play chord.
  • Transpose to a new key. This is the new Do. Encourage students to continue singing as they play.
  • For chord progressions, write out using Roman numerals so it is easier to transpose & see the relationship between the chords.
  • For more advanced students, have them improvise a melody over the chord progression using a scale from their practice or repertoire.

Categories: technique, ear training, transposition, improvisation

Playing Scales with Flair

Most students are not fans of playing their scales. But, what if their scales sound like a song?

My students are loving how musical their scales sound using this method. And, they love how much easier it is to see both scales and chords in their repertoire.

  • Teach 1-octave HS scale first. Students learn quickly that creative fingering will just lead to headaches later.
  • Draw I, IV, V7 chords on keyboards below the written-out scale.
  • Have student play scale in one hand and I-IV-V7 chord progression in opposite hand. Usually it works best to repeat each scale note to a simple rhythm. This gives students time to ‘find’ the next chord in the progression while keeping a steady pulse.
  • Have student improvise with different dynamics, articulations, rhythms, etc.
  • Always play scale and chord in each hand. If you start with RH scale/LH chords, play LH scale/RH chords the next repetition.
  • For more advanced students, use a LH accompaniment pattern while playing the scale. Be sure to switch the accompaniment pattern to the RH so each hand gets practice!

Categories: technique (scales, chords), notation, theory of chords, improvisation

One – Minute Club

I’ve done this primarily to improve note reading, but you could apply this to almost any musical term/symbol.

  • Note-reading: Show student a flashcard. Student names and plays note as quickly as possible. Make it a challenge to improve their own score from the previous week.
  • Symbols/Terms: Ask student to define a musical term. Give 1-minute to find as many instances of the symbol in their method book. Students will be flying through the pages as they scan for the symbol on each page.

Categories: theory, reading on the staff, keyboard geography

Sight-Reading Through Guided Improvisation

I have a tendency of getting tendonitis if I’m stressed or rushing through my computer work or piano playing.

One of the times that I needed to remind my body that it’s best to play relaxed, I grabbed my Dozen a Day book from when I was a little girl. And, it led to one of my student’s favourite activities!

  • Have student show you and verbally name any scales/chords in the sight-reading segment.
  • Student plays the segment.
  • Have student play it again, but change something each time (i.e. repeat note each time it changes direction, play in opposite direction, change articulation/dynamics, add chords to one hand)
  • Play it again, but transpose into a different key – the key they are playing for technique is a great option

Categories: sight-reading, technique, score study, improvisation, transposition

Resource List

I have become a big fan of linking the ear and eye (with a healthy dose of improvisation) as I have seen the incredible results in my studio.

You can listen to “Balancing the Eye and Ear” on the Creative Piano Teaching Podcast for inspiration.

Below is the resource list for all the activities above.

Rhythm Warm-Ups That Get Students Off the Bench: 12-week unit for the whole studio

Canva: online graphic design program, make PDF’s with resized animals so they match your rhythm. Check out my guide to Canva here. 

If You Can Sing Chords, You Can Play Chords: almost 2 months of warm-ups for your studio with a wide variety of chord progressions. Also check out Tim’s 4 Chord Composing course.

The Ultimate Guide to Left Hand Piano Styles and Patterns: Tim has an amazing list of accompaniment patterns for adding even more flair to scales

One-Minute Club: Susan Paradis has both the cards and challenge charts at her site

Dozen a Day by Edna-Mae Burnam: These sight-reading books range from preparatory through level 4.

Free Download

Download Tim Topham’s 3 Keys to a Comprehensive Piano Plan and see just how simple it is to add a splash of creativity to your next piano lesson.

Enter your details below – Inner Circle members you can find this in the Resource Library.

Making Changes a Little at a Time

With so many resources out there, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. That’s why Tim Topham’s Inner Circle community, with easy navigation and organised forums, makes it simple to find the resources you need.

We don’t have to teach the way we were taught. But, teaching creatively doesn’t mean that we have to throw out all our old resources and methods either.

Taking what we already are doing and tweaking it can make all the difference in our studios.

My students often hear how important it is to learn information in multiple ways so we can always access it (regardless if we are having a forgetful day or not). So, we tend to learn concepts aurally, move to visual, and explore it further on the piano through improvisation.

By scaffolding concepts, it’s easy to teach a small part and use different activities, both at the piano and away, to build on that skill each week.

Not only is it faster and more time efficient, but students love the creative activities within lessons and how much easier it is to play their repertoire having these important skills under their fingers.

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About the Author

Rosemarie Penner is an educator, boutique piano studio owner & writer. She has a Bachelor of Education (with a focus on special needs education) and has been teaching for over a decade. One of the main things Rosemarie has learnt is that, as educators, we never really stop learning. When Rosemarie isn’t teaching, writing or researching, she loves to spend time with her family, reading copious amounts of novels, enjoying a cup of tea, or baking vegan goodies! The Unfinished Lesson is her guide to all the skills that take teaching and running a business from overwhelming to fulfilling. She provides creative strategies & smart tech ideas to solve the challenges of running your business while keeping students coming back for more!

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