By Dr. Julie Knerr

In the previous blog post I wrote about how to use the newly released Piece Cards with the Unit Maps.

I have always thrived on presenting new pieces to students and finding the most interesting and effective ways to present each new piece to each individual student.

However, as we review the pieces on the Unit Maps each week, I have been experimenting with how to keep review pieces exciting by enhancing the pieces through creative repetitions (the Teaching Strategy I like to call, “Fun Repeats).

At the NCKP Conference last week in Lombard, Illinois, creativity in manipulating pieces seemed to be one of the overarching threads of the conference. Forrest Kinney and Elissa Milne both presented lectures on this topic. I had already been thinking in this direction, so I was happy to have my knowledge furthered by these two creative musicians.

Actually, varying review pieces began with the children. When Katie and I started teaching patterned pieces by rote, back in the days of the genesis of Piano Safari, we found that one of the unexpected side benefits is that the children began improvising, changing, and arranging their pieces to create new and exciting music. Having never done this myself as a child (I am very Type A, and my philosophy was always, “If Beethoven wrote it better, why should I compose? I can just read what he wrote.”), I was pleasantly surprised by their creativity and the joy they found in changing the pieces and surprising me with their creations.

My new student who has had four summer lessons was no exception. (I mentioned her in the last blog post.) She came back the second week saying, “I found some new ways to play ‘Hot Cross Buns.'” She had figured out how to transpose it to other keys and had also played it in 3rds with two hands. I taught her Hungry Herbie Hippo on the black keys, and the next week she came back saying, “I figured out how to play this in other ways.” This time she had figured out how to transpose it to F Major, and had also tried it with reversed hands (wow!).

Consistently, the children who begin in Piano Safari will spontaneously create variations like this. We believe this is because they have freedom at the piano that comes from playing pieces by rote, learning patterns they can transfer to their own creations, and having a free technique that allows them to move confidently around the piano.

Here are a list of variations I now have students try in the lesson as we play through their pieces on the Unit Maps. I aim for repetition to model what they should do at home as they practice and build in the idea that “AGAIN” should also be their favorite word (as it is mine!):

  • Transpose (some pieces work better than others)
  • RH
  • LH
  • HT in parallel motion
  • Forte, piano
  • Fast, slow
  • Eyes closed
  • I play the drum. The student plays the piano. Switch parts.
  • Low, middle high registers
  • Refine technique and hand position
  • Refine phrasing and tone

Additional creative variations I gleaned from the NCKP Conference were:

  • Change the notes. For example, if a LH has a blocked 5th bass, trying moving it a whole step and see what it sounds like
  • Changing the character by adding pedal. For a fast piece, see what it would sound like very slowly with pedal.
  • Change articulation
  • Vary the rhythm of an accompaniment pattern
  • Try a major piece in minor, or a minor piece in major
  • Use the piece as a basis for improvisation, and add a section

Elissa Milne noted that as piano teachers, we usually have a model of making every piece perfect as written on the page. That is our end goal. She encouraged us to take some of the pieces and use them as improvisation exercises instead. Every piece should have a purpose, and the purposes do not all have to be the same. Some pieces should be refined for performance, and others can be used as a basis for exploration of sounds by changing the piece.

Of course, not every piece on the Unit Map can be repeated multiple times in every lesson, but when I realize that repeating a short piece 3-5 times with variations is exciting and builds pianistic skills and really only takes 2-3 minutes of the lesson, I allow myself to take the time to repeat pieces. In this way:

  • The lesson becomes filled with playing for the bulk of the lesson time.
  • The student builds confidence through the repetitions and freedom of changing the pieces to explore sounds
  • The student expresses creativity, or for students who are reticent to do so, I suggest the creative changes that allow the student to explore different sounds within safe confines
  • The student becomes used to the idea that repetition is part of piano, and that repetition is fun when we keep seeking new and creative ways to explore the music.
  • The lesson becomes varied, with different pieces having different end goals.

I am so excited about the coming school year, about building the creativity in the students even more!