Improvisation Inspiration – See How Lame I Am!

While looking for something else today, I discovered a fantastic set of videos by Dr. Peter Schubert of McGill University. Using an exercise first conceived of by Mozart to help a piano student who played well but “had no ideas” for creating her own music, Dr. Schubert coaches a student through the creation of his own piece. Supposedly, Mozart presented the student with an opening phrase and said, “See what an ass I am! I’ve started this piece, but I can’t think of anything to come next! Can you add something to this to finish it?” While you might want to change the name of the exercise to something more kid-appropriate, it should be something funny! Off the top of my head, I can imagine calling it “See how lame I am!” Maybe you can think of something better. Incidentally, the existence of the story is evidence that even amateur students were expected to compose and improvise in those days.

In no particular order, here are some factors that I think make Dr. Schubert’s exercise successful:

1. No wrong answers. Dr. Schubert makes a big point of this in one of the videos.
2. It’s playful. They’re laughing and having fun.
3. They’re singing rather than laboriously picking out the notes on the piano. That can come later. Singing is instant.
4. Dr. Schubert is liberal with compliments and encouragement.
5. Rather than trying to manage full chords as accompaniment, they use only one note. This student is clearly already thinking of the harmony and playing a chord root, but with a younger piano student, the accompaniment could be delayed until the melody was worked out.
6. They work on one short phrase at a time.

What other aspects do you see that make this work so well? How could you adapt it to piano students at a variety of levels?

1 thought on “Improvisation Inspiration – See How Lame I Am!”

  1. I was never taught improvisation/composition so only know the basics through music theory practice. It is so exciting to see singing used as this makes it so much easier for the student! And when the student uses the basics of sequence and repetition for his answering phrases, instant success is felt! I plan on using these videos in some of my group lessons this fall-thank you!

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