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Creative Chords for the Creative Student

Editor’s Note:
Like many busy teachers, are you catching up with your summer reading, including past issues of Clavier Companion? If so,  would like to provide an additional resource, specifically coordinating with the “New Music Reviews” column. To subscribe to Clavier Companion, click on this link: Clavier Companion Subscription Page
Rebecca Pennington’s plans on using Creative Chords Keyboard Improvisation Method by Bradley Sowash (reviewed in the January/February issue of Clavier Companion) with one of her students:


Creative Chords by Bradley Sowash was mentioned in the January/February 2016 issue of Clavier Companion. In looking through this book, I realized that I have the perfect student who would benefit from this course. I am going to begin working with an adult student who is a busy mother of four little boys. She is a wonderful singer with wonderful musical instincts and has some basic piano skills. Though her training is not in music, she is finding herself working more and more with children, refining and coaching their acting and musical theater skills. As she moves into this path she feels limited by her keyboard skills and wants to improve at the piano so that she provides basic accompaniments for her students and generally augment her own musical understanding. 


Creative Chords really is the perfect method for her. I believe it will begin at a place that is right where she is. She has a rudimentary understanding of music reading and notes. She will be able to read the beginning tunes and exercises. At the same time, there is enough theory background to fill in any holes she may have from gaps in her previous study. 


As a singer, I believe the use of common tunes will appeal to her. The focus on keys and chords will be just what she needs to build her understanding of music theory in a way that is accessible to her quickly. The text has so much information that I know she will be able to do quite a lot on her own. At the same time, it is presented in a way that is easy to understand. 


I also thinking the improvisation aspect will appeal to my student. The “Your Way” sections appear right from the beginning and guide the students to make small changes to embellish the printed arrangements. My student is great at improvising and finding harmonies with her voice so I know this will be fun for her and help her to gain freedom in exploring and improvising at the piano. 


I especially like the “Checklist” section at the end of each chapter. I think this is perfect for an adult (or any older student really) who is motivated to take charge of his/her own learning. There is a review quiz that allows students to see what they know or what they may have missed. 


Of course, this won’t be the only text I am using with my student. I would like for her to play solo pieces, as well as work on technical skills. In the FAQs at the beginning, Mr. Sowash also recommends that it not be the only text used. I do think, however, that it will be a wonderful core part of my student’s study and am glad to have it at my fingertips!

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Repertoire for the beginning adult student

Working with adult beginners can be such a thrill. With dedicated students, it is like watching “time lapse photography” as students progress quickly and enthusiastically.

Last year, I worked with such an adult, Tian. She was finishing up her doctoral work at Princeton University, and had absolutely no experience with the piano or with any instrument. Before she moved back to China, I asked Tian to play some of the pieces we started with at the beginning of her study. Her performances, shown below, illustrate some of my favorite teaching pieces.

I love using rote pieces with adult students, as they provide opportunities to explore a wider range of sounds and promote freedom at the piano right from the start. One of my favorite collections is  Solo Flight – Pearce .  My student  learned “Floating” at her first lesson, and she was able to explore the pedal right away:


Clog Dance, from this same collection, has an opposite mood, and encourages free technique on blocked 5ths:

Another favorite collection I use encourages intervallic reading. I tend to use a combination of rote and reading when introducing the pieces from Be a Star – Costley. I usually start with the lovely “Waking Flowers:”

Be a Star progresses to more difficult, but still patterned, repertoire:


Along with these rote pieces, Tian started in the adult method book Keyboard Musician by Frances Clark.  This book is perfectly suited for students who have had some previous piano background. It moves fairly quickly, and there are many reading drills that put students on the “fast track” to reading fluency. The reason that I used this method with Tian, who had not a bit of musical training, is my assumption that she must be pretty intelligent to have made it to the doctoral program at Princeton. The intellectually sound approach in Keyboard Musician suited this student quite well, and she diligently practiced and was fascinated by learning about the structure of music, American folk tunes, and classical composers. Tian progressed to the early-intermediate level before I had to say goodbye. I’m confident that she is continuing her musical journey today.

For the reader’s convenience, links for purchase of the collections mentioned are provided (all links are “Amazon Affiliate” links, and purchase will benefit the Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy )

How Diabelli Duets Transformed My Adult Piano Student


Starting a new instrument as an older beginner is never easy.  Let’s face it: the things we learn as children come easily to us and stick with us longer.  I still remember many of the pieces that I learned as a child, but have trouble remembering many of the pieces I performed in graduate school.  The same goes for coordination.  It seems that we are just bent for learning new things as children and have to work much harder for every new skill learned as an adult.


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Reader Question: Coordination for adult beginner

Hello, I live in the Los Angeles area and I have a question. I have always wanted to play the piano and have tried with 3 different teachers as an adult. I hit a wall with coordinating my left and right hands to the notes on the two staffs. It’s as though I have to “translate” the notes in my head to the correct place on the piano. It is not an automatic process. It is extremely frustrating that I cannot go beyond this level. Perhaps there is a learning/teaching style that would solve my problem? I would be most grateful for any help you c an provide. Thank you!

First, we must acknowledge that playing hands together can be extremely challenging.  Breaking things down might help:

  •  Consider an intervallic approach to reading, instead of focusing on individual note names.  One such approach can be found in “Keyboard Musician,” by Frances Clark (Summy Birchard, distributed by Alfred Publishing.)
  • Reading problems are best addressed away from the repertoire.  Interval flashcards, note flashcards, and simple sight-playing exercises are examples of ways to boost reading skills.
  • Always study the music before playing hands together. Look for patterns, for example, places where measures repeat, or are very similar.  Mark places where both hands play the same finger.
  • For each new piece, tap and count the rhythm on the keyboard cover.  (the bass clef notes tapped with the left hand, treble with the right hand).  This will help with seeing both clefs simultaneously and help with coordination.
  • Instead of tapping and counting,, you might also tap and say the hands:  “Both right right both.”
  • Try playing the piece on the keyboard cover, moving the appropriate fingers.  This will allow you to focus on one aspect of the piece.
  • Practice coordination exercises in your warm-ups away from the repertoire.  Please see example by clicking on:  2X1 Warm-up
  • If practicing hands separately, always begin with the left hand, to encourage reading from the “bottom to the top.”
  •  Make certain that you start with the appropriate pieces.  Perhaps the repertoire has been “too much too soon?”  Start with very simple pieces.


We hope that these ideas will help you.  Please keep in touch and let us know how these ideas are working!