Review: Creative Chords, Bk 1 by Bradley Sowash

A couple of weeks ago, I shared that I’m very excited to be going to the 88 Creative Keys educators conference with Bradley Sowash and Leila Viss in July. What neither of them knows is that my decision to go was strongly influenced by my recent purchase of Bradley’s book, Creative Chords, Bk. 1. I’ve felt for a while now that I wanted to do more with improvisation in my studio, but my efforts were haphazard and catch-as-catch-can. The students weren’t progressing toward a goal, and I wasn’t really teaching a skill so much as throwing out a fun activity to take up the last few minutes of a lesson. I don’t want to downplay the value of that fun activity, (in fact, I wrote about how valuable I think it is a couple of posts ago) but I found in Creative Chords a method that is exactly what I needed – a well-planned pathway to concrete skills that is appealing and paced just right.

Skills Taught in Creative Chords

  • Recognition of triads, triad inversions, primary chords, and the function of those chords in a musical composition – i.e., where does the V chord want to go?
  • How to embellish melodies and create your own personal variations.
  • How to read and improvise with chord symbols on a lead sheet.
  • How to play your own improvised accompaniments in a variety of styles.
  • How to use music theory knowledge as a way to be a more creative musician.

How Does It Work?

Creative Chords is perfect for a mid to late elementary student. Using familiar folk tune melodies (this isn’t a jazz method), Sowash sets the stage for students to approach existing music with a creative attitude. He applies the acronym P.L.A.Y.  (Prepare, Learn, Add, Your Way) to each piece and gives specific instructions for each step. Students create their own accompaniments and learn to embellish the melodies. This gives the student permission to treat the existing music as a malleable work of art – not as something to be preserved intact in every detail. I think this is a great approach to musicianship in general, not just a method for improvising, and it’s an approach that has been neglected in traditional teaching. I’ve heard myself say to students, “Sure, you can create your own ending to this method book piece, but I wouldn’t let you do that to Mozart.” Now, I’m rethinking that. We wouldn’t have Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations or Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Paginini if Beethoven and Brahms had considered the works of the masters to be inviolable. We would have very little Baroque music, for that matter, since the composers of the Baroque period so frequently borrowed and adapted from others. When we limit ourselves to teaching students how to “recite” music without also giving them license to use those pieces as springboards for their own creative ideas, we might also be burdening them with the unattainable ideal of always being 100% original if they dare to compose or improvise. We would have a very small canon of great music literature if the great composers never fiddled around with other composers’ material. (Just for fun:  Theft or inspiration?  What Robin Thicke Has In Common With Bach And Mahler.)

By the end of the book, students play a simple folk tune in 3 different keys, applying an improvised accompaniment using chord symbols, and embellishing the melody to make it their own. But, that is the simplest possible way to describe what the student has accomplished. Over the course of completing Book 1, students will gain an experiential (rather than merely academic) understanding of the importance of chord inversions. They’ll learn the pattern of whole and half steps in a scale and why this produces the key signature. They’ll gain an aural understanding of tonality by playing a tune in 3 keys. Unit 3 includes a great exercise that is now my go-to method for introducing 2-octave scales and helps students connect the learning of scales with literature. Students improvise scale passages over primary chords, learning from experience which scale tones sound good or resolve to something good and simultaneously improving their ear and their muscle memory for playing pleasing sounds. They will also begin to intuit which of the primary chords will sound best under a melody note.  In short, this method is a very comprehensive approach to musicianship. Considering that it also includes technical “workouts” and a bunch of theory information about chords and scales, dynamics, symbols such as ritardando, a tempo, fermata, articulations, and phrasing, it could be used as a primary method for the student who mainly wants to pursue a creative track.

Elements I Love

-The optional duets for the teacher are written as a bass line with chord symbols.

-Chord indications include both Roman numerals and jazz style chord symbols.

-Great verbal and graphic explanations that anticipate common student problems.  For instance, rhythms are mapped out in “rhythm boxes” that show exactly how the rhythm is distributed throughout the measure – super helpful for students who struggle with dotted quarters.

-A review at the end of each unit that includes a checklist of topics covered and review questions to assess the students mastery of concepts.

-An amazing amount of additional material in the form of videos, documents, worksheets, and backing tracks are provided free for a year after purchase at the Kjos website Interactive Practice Studio. You can even create recordings of yourself improvising along with the backing tracks, and then email the recording to others.

-Well-designed page layouts that are not overly cluttered.

-Adorable illustrations! I laughed out loud at this one while reading through the book in my dentist’s waiting room!

I am very excited about using Creative Chords with my students, and I’m eagerly looking forward to Book 2.  Even more than that, I’m looking forward to learning more about all of these things at the 88 Creative Keys conference in Denver this summer. If you haven’t added this conference to your summer plans, I hope you’ll consider it!

*I received no compensation for this review.

1 thought on “Review: Creative Chords, Bk 1 by Bradley Sowash”

  1. I just received my copy of Creative Chords in the mail, and I couldn't agree more with your rave review. I am beyond excited about using book with students at a summer camp I am planning, and/or starting some of my students in fall, with their regular lessons. I am panting to see Book 2!

    I am envious of your getting to go to the Creative Keys camp this summer — too much else going on in my life (moving, putting on our state MTA conference) for me to even consider it — though I did, briefly. Have a wonderful time, and I look forward to hearing many full reports here on your blog, after you return home!


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