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.


Generic Composing Challenge

Continuing our theme of composing activities, here is a composing challenge that I use with multiple levels of students. I have sometimes given this out on the first or second lesson. I’ve also given it out for much more advanced students. The real difference is what elements you tell them they must include in their song. Do they need a certain form? Key signature? Intervals? Chords? Articulation? The most beginning students are told only that they need to think about speed, hand position, and dynamics. There’s no limit on how complicated you can get with the more advanced students.



Silly Composition

Piano blogs are full of composition exercises for kids, but most of them include lyrics that are so inane, I’m too embarrassed to use them with my students. My kids are capable of appreciating a slightly higher level of literary quality. Silly is good. Clever is good. Insipid is bad.

For our earliest composition attempts, I give the kids a choice of texts. They are all very short so as not to overwhelm anyone. 

I also offer The Catsup Bottle and The Duck by Ogden Nash. He’s a great poet for this. He’s brief. He’s witty. He’s brilliant. Unfortunately, he’s also under copyright. So I have not included the texts of these poems, but they’re quick to create yourself. You can find the text of the “The Catsup Bottle” here and the text of “The Duck” here. I use only the first half of “The Duck.”

(The graphics come from and

Method 1:
The kids write in finger numbers in the circles above the words. (We don’t worry about rhythm. They improv that.) If they are up for a challenge have them add a chord in the left hand.

This method is the easiest for kids who aren’t totally confident with note names yet. It’s also really great for kids who are learning different key signatures or positions because then you can have them transpose it into all the keys or positions they know.

Method 2:
The kids write in note names. This is better for reviewing those note names, but not as good for transposing.


*** This post originally appeared on my older site here.