How Fun Piano Practice Ideas Start With Improvisation

Practice time.  It’s either the bane or joy of each teacher & student’s existence.  In my studio, I always am looking for fun piano practice ideas so between lessons is a joy … not a struggle.  Otherwise, I know it won’t happen.

Practice excuses

How many times has a student or parent told you that practice didn’t happen because there wasn’t time?  Or, they weren’t sure what to do?  Or [fill in the blank]?

Your're student's face when you don't use fun piano practice ideas.

There are ways to reduce this with:

  • Repertoire your student loves
  • Variety in what students do
  • Teaching how to practice during lessons
  • Guiding parents in setting up practice routines at home

But, anyone who has tried to lose weight will tell you this.  Knowing Häagen-Dazs non-dairy chocolate salted fudge truffle “ice cream” (I refuse to call it “frozen dessert”) has no nutritional value pales in comparison to the decadent balance of slightly bitter chocolate, salt & sweetness that creates a moment to be savoured.  Not that this was a highly specific example in any way.

Practice time can feel like focusing on nutritional value.  Important, but there are other things that become more important at the moment.  

We need to create the Häagen-Dazs version of practice time.  Not an easy task.

Empathizing with parents

Part of the problem with practicing an instrument is it can seem like it will take for-ev-er.  We know that once students start, all the things we did to reduce practice excuses will kick in.  But, how do we get our students to the piano to start with?  Typically we ask the parents to step in.

As a parent myself, I don’t want to spend the hours from when my kids get home to when they go to bed making sure they get everything done.  When our twins were younger, we practiced morning & afternoon routines so things went smoothly (for the most part) & they could become independent.  Now that we have tween twins (so much fun to say!), they have checklists to go through independently.  I’m all about finding efficient ways to support my kids in taking ownership of their day.  And, that means choosing my battles.

When parents say they forgot, they choose not to fight.  Give them fun piano practice ideas to help!

And as frustrating as that is for us as teachers, we need to respect that parents may not want to spend the few hours they get with their child moving them from task to task.

We need to make things easy for families with fun piano practice ideas.

How substitution is the key to practice

Back in 2018, there was a Columbia University study into who were the better musicians when it came to musical substitution.  Improvisers or classically-trained musicians?  

“It turns out that the degree to which we can predict how musicians respond to different types of musical substitution has nothing to do with how much they practice, but the way they practice.”

Paul Sajda

Paul Sajda, the study’s senior author, explained that musicians who regularly improvised were able to make musical substitutions faster.  

Practice is about substitution!

Practicing an instrument is all about making musical substitutions.  Should I play:

  • Closer to the quiet or louder end of the mezzo-forte spectrum?
  • With my fingertips or finger pads to create a specific mood?
  • With slight rubato or really embrace it in this section?

This doesn’t even begin to cover the myriad of ways to change our playing to create an interpretation of a piece.

Improvising is one of the most efficient ways to practice. And, thankfully it’s a fun piano practice idea to boot.

Why Improvise?

Lots of reasons.  It trains your students to:

  • Listen carefully
  • See, hear & understand the patterns that are integral to the music
  • Make split section decisions
  • Be open to the options & possibilities available

In performance, it gives your student the tools to adapt in the moment when a few notes are badly out of tune, the keyboard moves when you press a pedal, or the felts have muffled the piano’s sound.  All of which I experienced when I was younger.

It also makes practice more fun & enjoyable.  And, that means students will be heading to the piano on their own!

A homework tale

Over the years, we have seen many different approaches to teaching.  And, we have seen our children’s interest in homework also ebb & flow.

Scenario 1: 

Some teachers had our children complete worksheets.  Those years were tough.  It was frustrating as a parent to spend that limited time making sure they were completed.  It felt like repetitive busywork & didn’t seem to have any real-life application.

Scenario 2: 

Some teachers had our children explore ideas & topics that interested them.  Those years were easy.  Our kids would come home & say, “I have to start on my homework right after snack.  I need to …”  Through these projects, our kids learnt video editing, programming, & so much more.  We can easily see how they can apply these skills to the real world.  And, there was no need to set up homework time because our kids wanted to do the work.

Improvisation takes our students’ practice time from scenario 1 to scenario 2.  And that means you have both student and parent on board!

Using a structured approach

You can use a structured approach to improvisation that guides & inspires students each week. This structured approach could be through a studio-side set of activities or activities students do with the music they’re already learning. Both are fantastic options!

The main key though … make it (almost) impossible for your student to fail. Part of this is doing activities during lesson time. The other part is having resources ready for students during the week that don’t require parent involvement.

Here are “8 Tips To Get Students Moving & Improvising On The Piano” … with a sneak peek into how this looks in my studio.

2 Fun piano practice ideas

Whether you are looking for a song-centric or a practice warm-up approach, it influences the types of resources you purchase or create.

Song-centric approach

One of the ways to improvise during practice is to give students simple ideas on how to change the way they play.  Using a simple PDF with eye-catching visuals, students choose which approach will help them reach their weekly practice goals!

Get your copy of “5 Ways: Practice Strategies” for fun ideas in practicing songs.

5 Ways: Playful Piano Practice Strategies

Practice warm-up approach

We love warm-ups in my studio & I’m guessing it’s similar for you. The best part is these can easily be done at home without any help from parents!

A great way to warm-up is to get moving (to build a steady internal tempo) then improvise with a backing or accompaniment track. This works for “I’ve never touched a piano before” students through to intermediate students. That’s because movement & improvisation together creates a powerhouse combination of skills. But, it’s easy enough that students can’t help but succeed!

For a comprehensive resource , get your copy of “Creating Beats On The Move“. With 40 weeks of piano warm-ups & backing tracks, your planning will only take minutes. This approach follows scenario 2 (from above) & has student explore at their level.

Creating Beats on the Move: Piano Warm-Ups

What’s the difference?

5 Ways: Practice Strategies” are strictly PDFs to give to your students. You work with your students to interpret those activities in a way that works for them. They’re fun, interactive & give students plenty of options to laugh & have fun during practice time.

Creating Beats On The Move” is a complete approach to improvisation & playing with accompaniment tracks. The ‘Teacher Handbook’ guides you through each warm-up & movement (including pictures & video support). The ‘Student Edition’ PDF book is set up for every level of student & is easily shared in your studio. And, you get 40 original backing tracks that match up with each of the improvisation activities in the series. There is a LOT of support to make sure your planning is as short as possible … while making the activities adaptable for your entire studio. (I’m a fan of being able to use resources for my entire studio. What about you?)

Both resources & approaches have worked fantastic with my students. So, it’s really about what you are wanting out of the resource.

Do you include improvisation as part of your students’ weekly practice?

NOTE: This article was originally published on September 30, 2020 & has since been updated with more ideas & tips for you!

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