If you’ve ever worked with kids maybe under the age of 10 or so, you know that their attention spans are really short. I mean I’m about to turn 26 and I get pretty bored with just about anything after twenty minutes. So when I’m teaching private lessons I try to make sure I have like, 7 or 8 short activities ready for the younger students. When I can feel them getting particularly bored one of my favorite things to do is to just start improvising on the piano and have them narrate a story. The prompt is usually something like, “If this was in a movie, what would be happening?”

So last summer I was teaching a lesson and I could feel us getting to that point where the student was totally losing interest and I was running out of things to do so I had us try narrating some music. Here’s what she came up with:

“So one night this guy is sleeping in his bed next to his wife. At the same time a giant asteroid hits Mars and breaks into a bunch of pieces and one of those pieces comes hurtling towards Earth. It crashes into this lake next to the guys house and water goes flying everywhere. But only this one guy hears it. So he gets up and is walking very quietly down the stairs because he doesn’t want to wake his wife up, who is a very heavy sleeper. That explains why she didn’t wake up when the asteroid hit the lake. So this guy goes out to inspect the source of the noise and the water and he walks out towards the lake and sees that all the water is gone and there’s a giant asteroid in the center of where the lake used to be. ‘Wow!’ he says. At that very moment ANOTHER asteroid hits this guy and kills him. This time his wife wakes up and she walks out to find him crushed to death beneath this asteroid. So she opens a museum dedicated to these asteroids and it makes her a lot of money and she gets remarried and is much much happier. The end.”

Last week I tried the same activity with another student. I had my Real Book open to Nica’s Dream (which I’m writing an arrangement of for Cheap City right now but that’s another thing) so I started playing it for him.

“Well, Nica’s Dream is… First she dreams of mountains. Big mountains. But scary mountains. That’s Nica’s Dream. I mean, Nica’s dream is always sad. But it’s always happy. That’s Nica’s dream. Now she dreams of trains and clouds and being very quiet. That’s Nica’s dream.”

I really like being in a position where I get to help kids explore their creativity. I like teaching them piano too but I also think it’s a little boring (at least for me) for it to just be, “Okay here’s the one or two songs we’re going to learn this week and that’s it.” I obviously want to teach that stuff too but I also think it’s really important that my students learn pretty quickly that being a musician isn’t necessarily just reading notes off of a page.

The first music I really loved was punk music, so I started a band when I was in middle school. And the first thing that we did was just start writing our own songs, partly because none of us were necessarily good enough to play covers (but we did anyway) and partly because we thought that was the only thing we were supposed to do. And when I started really studying music theory and composition I really thought that everyone in classical music was a composer. My impression was that orchestra musicians were like the cover bands of classical music, and that was just their gig while they work on composing. Which is definitely true for some people, but I had this notion that all musicians must be writing. It wasn’t until I was almost out of high school, which is a little embarrassing, that I realized that I was totally wrong. I think that my first impulse towards becoming a composer was completely misguided, but I like that.

I wonder how the musical landscape would change if composition and / or improv were a standard part of education. I know there are some schools that value this, but I think studying composition outside of a standard theory class is pretty rare. I did my first degree at Hampshire College, and no one walked out of that music department without improvising A LOT. I really value that experience. Right now I’m teaching a group class called “Intro to Piano and Songwriting,” where my students (about 7 of them) get to write their own music in conjunction with learning the basics of piano and music. At least one of them has said to me that they like writing more than they do playing, which is pretty cool for me because I think that’s relatively rare. This student is also in like third grade. Obviously I want them to love playing piano too, but one thing at a time.