In this conversation with Rebecca of Rebecca’s Piano Keys, we discuss the pros and cons of self-study approaches vs. private lessons, as well as the value of learning how to improvise.

Tell me about your website and what you offer through it.

I created Rebecca’s Piano Keys to provide information, encouragement, and inspiration to adults who are learning piano through self-study.

The website provides information and resources about how to read music, how to learn and practice chords and scales, and how to compose and improvise your own music. Also, general tips for playing and learning piano, suggestions and recommendations for sheet music and other piano accessories, as well as information about piano technique.

If a beginner uses a self-study method, is there a point when taking private lessons becomes worthwhile or even necessary?

Private piano lessons are always worthwhile… if they are available to you. But if private lessons aren’t an option for you, don’t let that stop you from learning piano! If you just want to have fun learning piano as a hobby, you can learn a lot with self-study.

But as with any endeavor in life, you will experience greater success (and faster!) if you learn from an experienced mentor. Private lessons help you learn how to practice effectively, they make learning piano far less overwhelming, they help you experience better results in a shorter time period, and they help you stay motivated over the long-term.

And even for those who are having a lot of success with self-study, there typically comes a point where they hit a wall. Where they can’t seem to improve any further, no matter how much they practice. When you feel you’ve hit this wall, you know it’s time to look for a private teacher.

How does learning to be musically creative help piano students become better musicians?

Where do I even begin? Being musically creative benefits piano students in so many ways! It helps make music more fun. It helps deepen your understanding of music theory. It helps you to recognize patterns more easily when reading music. It helps train your ear. It gives you an outlet for personal expression.

But I think the most important benefit is that it helps you to learn to play more musically.

Music is all about telling stories and communicating emotions. It’s easiest to learn how to play expressively by creating your own music, because it’s your own stories and emotions that you’re expressing through the music. And once you can do that, it’s easier to understand how to play others’ music expressively, so you become a better musician all around.

Tell me more about how (and why) you learned to improvise. Did you learn from a teacher?

I didn’t learn improvisation from a teacher, but I did learn a lot of foundational skills and knowledge about music theory and harmony from teachers, which I then taught myself to use in improvisation.

I was a dedicated piano student for over a decade as a child. But for most of my adult life, I had an on-again, off-again relationship with piano. Then one day (after an “off-again” period), I came across a piano in an airport. I wanted to play, but I had no sheet music with me, and it had been so long since I practiced piano that I had nothing memorized. So I decided to “just make something up” based on some chords and scale tones in the key of C major.

It went very well, and that’s when I absolutely fell in love with improvisation. The freedom to just sit down and play without having to prepare or practice ahead of time. The fun of following the music where it takes me and enjoying all its little twists and turns. There’s nothing else like it!

What types of improvisation do you play and/or teach (e.g. “free” improvisation, soloing over a chord progression on a lead sheet, etc.)?

The way I play and teach improvisation involves an understanding of some basic harmonic and melodic principles that don’t have to be followed as “rules,” but can be used as tools.

For beginners, I’ll start by providing a chord progression and having the student improvise a melody over it, but the ultimate goal is for students to be able to improvise their own melodies and harmonies with minimal pre-planning and without any sheets.

What musical styles of improv do you play/teach (e.g. blues, jazz, rock/pop, classical etc.)?

I’ve never really put much thought into what my style of improvisation would be classified as, but I suppose it would be classical or contemporary classical? Informed by my classical training, but less formal, and perhaps more simple. I love learning complex classical pieces, but when I improvise, I enjoy keeping things more simple. When I think of musicians I’d feel honored to be compared to, I think of Ludovico Einaudi, Yann Tiersen, Yiruma, Philip Glass, etc.

What is the first improv activity you do with older (teen/adult) students?

For students in my studio, the first improv activity I do is a duet.

First, I show the student which notes are “safe” to use to create their own improvised melody while I play a chord progression in the bass. Then, I’ll swap roles and show them a simple chord progression to play in the bass while I improvise the melody. Once they’re comfortable with both roles, I help them put them together and play both parts on their own.

With these duets, it doesn’t take long for students to realize improvisation really isn’t as scary as they thought it was. They realize how simple it can be to create really beautiful music of their own.

For my online readers who want to experiment with improvisation on their own, I offer the Improvisation Rhythm Challenges as a structured introduction to improvisation that sets the self-study learner up for success. These challenges are collections of simple lead sheets that provide a chord progression and a melodic rhythm, while leaving it up to you to choose your own pitches to create your melody.

How do you teach improvising? What resources/books/methods have you used?

I always start with the duet exercise I mentioned earlier. Then, as the student gains experience, I help them understand how to choose chords, create their own chord progressions, shape melodic phrases, incorporate more complex left hand patterns, etc.

The more they practice and experiment with these concepts, the more they develop their own instincts for how to navigate an impromptu improvisation without planning a chord progression in advance.

In private lessons, I usually introduce these concepts through hands-on lessons without any books. I’ll sometimes also send home pages from my Improvisation Rhythm Challenges.

I typically only introduce books about improvisation for students who are really interested in continuing to learn improvisation, and who are already confident playing from standard sheet music. Which book I choose depends on the student, but my favorites are Forrest Kinney’s Pattern Play and Create First! books, and Andrea Dow’s Pop Studies for Piano books.

Do you use backing tracks/accompaniments/rhythm tracks when teaching improv?

I don’t use any pre-recorded backing tracks when teaching improv. I prefer to accompany students myself in duet improvisations because I can customize my accompaniment to match each student’s interests and ability level. I can play faster or slower, I can make my accompaniment more or less complex, I can adjust stylistic elements based on the student’s input, and I can teach the student specific skills and concepts I feel they’re ready to learn.

But most importantly, I can have fun with my students! Duetting with them shows them how easy and fun it is to make music with other musicians, and it helps us build rapport so they trust me and feel comfortable learning with me.

Are there specific principles you emphasize when students are starting to improvise?

Some important concepts I teach include: using scale tones to create melody; question and answer phrases; melodic shaping; diatonic chords; creating chord progressions; simple cadences; harmonic rhythm; and left hand patterns.

A lot of music theory books make these concepts seem much more complicated than they actually are, so I put together the Chords Superpack to introduce the foundations of harmony in a way that is more friendly and easy to understand than traditional music theory books. My hope is to help the average hobbyist musician learn that creating their own music isn’t as hard as they might think!

But the most important principle I emphasize is that there are no rules and no wrong notes in improvisation. The “rules” of music harmony are just a safety net, and “wrong notes” are just plot twists!

How can piano teachers intimidated by teaching creativity (e.g. improvisation, arranging, composition) learn to do so?

Start experimenting at the piano yourself. Do some of your own improvising and composing. Try to arrange your favorite pop song by ear. Get your hands on some of the resources I mentioned earlier and develop your own creative abilities. The more you explore, the more you’ll discover how simple and fun it can be.

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