Irish Improv

Here is a great improv to do for St. Patrick’s Day, but Irish music is great at any time of year, so there’s no need to limit it to March! Many of my early students have never played in 6/8 time, so this is a great opportunity to talk about time signatures.

Irish ImprovHow to Use:

  • Demonstrate the pattern.
  • Teach it by rote. Repeat until the student is confident.
  • Have the student play the pattern while you make up a melody above it using the notes of the A minor scale.
  • Switch parts.


  • Change the key signature. Any minor scale will work. But you could also try it in major. Does it still sound Irish?
  • Add grace notes to the melody. Irish music is big on grace notes, which many students have never played. They can even use notes outside of the scale (black notes) and quickly slide off them onto the scale notes.
  • Accelerando. Some Irish music starts slow/moderately but at the end gets faster and faster for a dramatic finish. If you do this, add a crescendo as well.
  • Vary the pattern. The pattern doesn’t have to be static. As written the four notes in each measure jump from the lower octave up to the higher octave and then from the higher octave down to the lower octave. You could try it with the same rhythm but jump from low to high and then low to high again. You could also change the quarter notes into to two eighth notes.
  • Instead of making up the melody, try it with a lead sheet.

Gently Falling Snow Improv

Generally, we play with the melody in the treble clef and leave the accompaniment to the bass clef. This improv is a good one to show that it doesn’t have to be like that.

Gently Falling Snow Improv

How to Use:

  • Demonstrate the pattern.
  • Teach it by rote. Advanced students should do it with just the right hand, but even beginners can learn it using two hands. Repeat until the student is confident.
  • Have the student play the pattern while you make up a melody below it using the notes of the C major scale.
  • Switch parts.


  • Change the key signature. The pattern is essentially just a scale, so students who have learned scales should be able to figure it out. Try it in minor for a very different effect.
  • Change the articulation. If you play it staccato, does it still remind you of gently falling snow? Or is it more like hail?
  • Change the octave. Which octave sounds the best?
  • Instead of making up the melody, try it with a lead sheet.

The Treat Game (How to Drill Anything)

Treat Game (How to Drill Anything)

I don’t generally hand out candy at lessons. But for the occasional holiday I will make an exception. This year it was Valentine’s Day, since the kids around here no longer get any candy at school. But there is no reason why this has to be a Valentine’s Day game.

What You Need:

  • Flashcards for whatever you want to drill
    • I did it with cards with the note names on them. Depending on the student’s level, they either had to find the note on the keyboard or on the staff or play a major chord based on that note or play a major scale based on that note.
  • A handful of extra flashcards that say “Be careful! Answer the next one right to earn a treat!”
    • It is important that these cards feel the same as the original flashcards: same size, same paper weight, etc.
    • If you are using pre-made, laminated flashcards, you could even use a whiteboard marker to write it on a few of the cards.
  • An opaque bag or box to hold your flashcards.
  • A bowl of small treats.


  • Shuffle your flashcards (all of them) and place them in the bag or bowl.

How to Play:

  • The student draws a card.
  • If it’s a regular card, they answer the question. If it’s a treat card, keep it in hand, but draw another card and answer that one. If they get it wrong, toss the treat card back in the bag. If they get it right, set the treat card to the side.
  • When all the cards in the box are gone (or you run out of time), count up the number of treat cards you have on the side. Choose that many small treats out of the bowl.


Christmas Sight Reading

Everyone loves Christmas music enough that even sight reading can become bearable. This is not a game, but most of my students found it fun anyway.

What You Need:

  • Books of Christmas music at various levels.
    • I find that choosing a book two levels below where the student is works best.
    • That’s not possible if your student is in the first two levels, but it may still be possible to go to the beginning of the book, or have them sight read just one line or measure while you play the rest. If worst comes to worst, learn it by rote instead of sight reading.


  • None

What to Do:

  • Open up the book and just have them start playing!
  • If they are doing well enough, play a duet part along with them.


Christmas Fortunes (Intervals)

Here is another use of external resource. Today I am indebted to Teach Piano Today for the Christmas Fortune Teller.

I used it more or less as described on their website on the keyboard, but we then moved down to a giant staff on the floor and did it on the staff as well. It is good for students to see the connection between what they do on the piano and what they see on the page.

The only note I would like to make is that the chances or winning are entirely based on luck and there is not an easy way for the teacher to manipulate it to make sure the student wins, which I always like to do. On the plus side, it’s so short, it’s possible to play multiple games in a lesson, so that they have a chance to win even if they lose at first.