Shapes (for improv or composition)

Most of my students love doing improv, but I find that the ability to create a good melody is very unevenly distributed among them. Some of them create great melodies just on instinct, and I don’t need to do much but encourage. Others stare at me blankly, repeat a broken C major chord over and over, or play an endless succession of one-fingered quarter notes that seem to be chosen at random. Regardless of their ability level, this exercise can help them think outside the box and create more interesting melodies.

What You Need:

  • Piano Music (Whatever piece the student is currently working on is fine.)
  • Blank paper
  • Writing Utensil
  • Cards with various curves on them. I use a set I drew by hand in about 5 minutes, but you could also print and cut up these.

What to Do:

  • With the student, take a look at the piano music. Use the blank paper to draw the shape of the melody in the first phrase. Explain it as you go: “See how the second note goes up from the first? I’m going up on my paper. Then it stays there for three beats, so I’m going to draw a straight line. Then it jumps down to a lower note.”
  • Have the student draw the melody of the second phrase.
  • Whenever the student has got the idea, go back to the piano. Have the student pick one of the cards and create a melody based on that shape. It does not matter which way is up on the card: you can create different melodies depending on which way you hold it. Some of my kids needed me to do the first card to get them the idea. Some of them also needed several tries to get it right.
  • After you’ve done several shapes individually, you can string them together to create a song. The student shouldn’t be doing any left hand accompaniment at this point, but you can do some as a duet part.
  • If you’re doing this as improv, you’re done. If you’re doing it as a composition, you can then help your student write out the melody they’ve just created.

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