TTTV005: Balancing the Eye and the Ear – Bradley Sowash & Leila Viss on creativity at the keyboard

By Tim Topham | Podcast

May 10

Creativity is something that is so easily forgotten in piano lessons. In the rush to get students ready for exams, competitions and performances, time spent being creative quickly becomes seen as a luxury that most teachers simply can't afford.

Perhaps you're already thinking:

How can I possibly fit another thing into my lessons? I don't have time as it is! What's the point anyway? Isn't being creative just "mucking around"? I'm not paid to teach students how to muck around! I've got performances to prepare!

That's why I was so excited to invite two pioneers of the current wave of creativity at the keys, Bradley Sowash and Leila Viss to speak with me about this important topic for all piano teachers. 

creative piano teaching

In this podcast, Leila and Bradley dispel many of the myths around creativity. They discuss what "creativity" actually means, how you can fit it into your lessons and what to do, step by step, to get started. They discuss why it's so important and how creativity works in with all other aspects of piano pedagogy.

It's all about balancing the eye and the ear. In today's piano pedagogy, there is often an overarching focus on reading above most other things. But if we only teach reading, we're missing out on much that is fundamental in music making. 

Think about the famous composers whose music you teach your students... how did they write their music? Did they read music to create new music or did they explore, invent and improvise to create their masterpieces? 

Of course the answer is obvious, but how many of you give your own students the skills they need to be able to explore and create at the keyboard?

[Note: You can also watch the video below]

In this episode, you'll learn: 

  • Why teaching creativity is important
  • Simple, straight forward ideas for teaching improvisation
  • How to embellish a melody
  • How to get started with these ideas in a manageable way
  • The best iPad apps for teaching creativity

Top 5 Creative Activities for Newbies​

Find out Bradley's Top 5 creative ideas for new teachers. Note: These are going to sound a bit weird until you listen to the podcast!!

  • Embellish Melody - Repeated Notes, Fill the Gaps, Neighbour Notes
  • Melody Mix-up
  • "When in doubt, pent out!"
  • Remember SCAT: Specify, Compliment, Ask, Turn them Loose
  • Sandwich
Creativity can be many things from noodling around, jamming on a chord progression, to making soundtracks for pretend movies or responding to a mood, but we teach how to do it within the context of a tune - how to apply stock accompaniment styles to the tune, how to get under the hood of a tune to understand what chords and scales will enhance it, how to stretch a 30 second tune into a longer improvised arrangement, how to add intros and outros… basically all of the practical skills a pianist can use in real life playing situations.

Benefits of Creativity for Students

1. Feel more engaged with learning music.

2. “Own” their music because they are encouraged to personalise it.

3. Appreciate playing music as a means for self-expression rather than only as a domain for “right or wrong” notes.

4. Enjoy a wider variety of contemporary styles that appeal to their peer group.

5. Perform with friends in non-traditional settings outside of the concert hall such as coffee houses, talent shows, church, or jazz groups.

6. Maybe even pick their first paid gigs.

7. Become better interpreters of written music. That’s because rather than merely reproducing the notes on the page, creative students can better understand how they came to be there in the first place.

8. Utilize both sides of their brains by reading and improvising.

9. Listen more when since creative music making sensitises the ears.

10. Understand that great music wasn’t always “just there.” Composers and improvisers had to make it up using the same techniques “back then” that creative musicians use today.

Benefits of Creativity for Teachers:

1. Enjoy teaching more engaged students.

2. Replace the antiquated “teacher knows all” philosophy with a new paradigm of shared exploration with their students.

3. Discover that there are “riches in niches” as word gets out there’s an improv teacher in town.

4. Retain students through the quitting years since students who make their own music have more staying power and ownership of their music skills.

5. Demonstrate that music theory is not really theory but actually a set of “practical” tools for making music.

6. Keep current by helping students play contemporary tunes they request. Need more help with this? Check out my PianoFlix Teacher Training Videos.

7. Teach with motivating software, apps, videos, and backing tracks.

8. Enhance group lessons through jam session conventions i.e. “you play the bass line, and you play the harmony, and you play the melody on top.”

9. Watch students make connections between their improvisations and composed music.

10. Learn from their students whose creative explorations stimulate all kinds of questions and discoveries.

Leila's App Recommendations: 

Our favorite camp apps: iRealPro, Decide Now, Jeopardy, Classroom Maestro (see more links below)

Items mentioned in this podcast: 

88 Creative Keys Camp

Through a mix of accessible hands-on techniques and a nuanced understanding of the emotional risks involved, we help skilled readers rediscover their natural inclination to create. This year the intermediate pianist track will explore the specific styles of the Boogie, Blues and Beatles. You'll be tapping your toes, accumulating new licks and finding a groove--all at the same time, of course! What is unique about us is we are a mix of classically trained by the page only working alongside a jazz guru artist/teacher.

The teacher track will focus on how to teach creativity in numerous styles. We will take an in-depth look at Bradley's new book Creative Chords, enjoy some off-the-bench theory fun, do some drumming to use in lessons, explore the latest apps to enhance your creative teaching, and more:

Experience how improvisation can be fun instead of fearful

Learn to play both written and improvised duet parts with your students

Tips to stimulate creativity using the basic music theory you already know

How to teach scales and harmony that students enjoy practicing

Using software, apps and backing tracks to motivate the student

Around the age of 12 – 14, some students get bored with the styles in a traditional reading-only educational approach. Many music teachers rely on non-classical written arrangements to try to keep these students engaged but this doesn’t help them learn to improvise, interpret a lead sheet or chord chart, jam in a praise band, participate in a school jazz band or just enjoy playing by ear at home.

What makes this camp unique is the perspectives of the founders who teach keyboard creativity through two very different lenses. Leila is a classically trained-to-the-page musician who learned to improvise. Bradley is jazz guru who has learned to speak the language of traditional teachers. Using time-tested teaching techniques and recent advances in teaching technology, they have been opening the door to playing "off page" for piano enthusiasts from several states and beyond since 2013.

What does tuition include?

✓ All books and required materials which will be available upon arrival..

✓ Daily continental breakfast, a tasty lunch and beverages.

✓ Faculty time and expenses.

✓ Individual use of keyboards for hands-on learning.

✓ The facility including free parking, bathrooms and learning spaces.

Special offer for Aussie teachers!

Bradley and Leila have kindly offered a $100 discount to any Australian resident who makes the trip to the 88 Creative Keys Camp!! Just mention this on registration and Bradley will sort it out for you!

How to contact Leila and Bradley

88CreativeKeys.com There’s also an email contact form on that site. Be sure to sign up for updates while you are there. Bradley and Leila are also on Facebook and there is an 88 Creative Keys page and we are also both very active in the teacher forums. Learn more at Bradleysowash.com.

What are your thoughts? 

Do you think you could apply some of these ideas in your lessons? Which idea are you going to try out first?

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About the Author

Best-known for his blogging and teaching, Tim is also a well-respected presenter, performer and accompanist based in Melbourne, Australia. You can check him out on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

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