Creating Music

Opening the door to creative musical expression

Surviving YouTube: Playing Smart with Music Instruction Videos

Posted by Pamela Szalay on February 23, 2013

YouTubeYouTube is giving many aspiring pianists the ability to learn popular songs by rote. Without a doubt, many beginning students learn easily through imitation. When a song is learned this way, I believe it should be celebrated! An accurate, fluid performance is an accomplishment.

However, I heartily believe that the learning should not stop there. A budding musician who is successfully learning songs by rote is in a perfect position to deepen  understanding and speed progress. Here are a few ideas for looking a little closer at the songs you play. Feel free to ask a musical friend or mentor to help you with any of these steps.

  1. Identify the key and meter of the song.
  2. Learn the names of the chords. Then, create a chord chart or find one online in the same key.
  3. Break down the song into smaller chunks. Identify the sections such as the introduction, verse, chorus, bridge, and any other unique moments.
  4. Look for chord patterns. Perhaps there are four chords that repeat over and over during the verse.
  5. Determine the role of the piano part in the song. Is it mostly a chordal accompaniment or are there fills, too?
  6. Test your understanding by re-arranging the song. Play the sections in a different order, for example, or repeat a line of the song.
  7. When you are secure with the key, meter and chord patterns of the song, try some rhythmic, melodic or harmonic improvisation. For example, throw in a surprise accent. Play a chord in a different inversion. Create your own fill.
  8. Record yourself playing the song, in its original form and with your variations. Listening back will make you more aware of what you do well and what might need further improvement. It would be helpful to get feedback from others you trust as well.

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Guidelines for creativity

Posted by Pamela Szalay on January 19, 2013

Nothing is sacred 2Successful composing and improvising stems as much from the right attitude as it is does from applying knowledge. In the previous article, I shared some musical improvisation tips for those interested in experimenting with creative musical expression. If you typically rely on written scores, I suggested starting your experiment by improvising various endings to a familiar song. However, those techniques may not work well at all if you don’t approach the activities with the right attitude.

The guidelines below can be extremely helpful in freeing your creative musical self to start behaving like a composer. Again, it all starts with giving yourself permission to be creative, just like all great composers of the past have done.

As you read each guideline you might want to consider how it will affect your approach for a specific creative task, such as improvising a new ending for a song.

Recognize that nothing is sacred. Once you decide that it’s ok to depart from the composer’s score, whether it’s Beethoven or Jim Brickman or a jazz transcription, you free yourself to the world of creative musical expression. Consider the score in front of you as your inspiration.

Creativity takes time. Accept that you may try twenty or thirty ideas before arriving at something you really like or seems truly unique. This doesn’t happen in two minutes! Sometimes musicians experience the thrill of an idea suddenly popping up in their mind, but often that occurs after they have spent time playing and tinkering and rehearsing. Which leads me to my next guideline….

Be playful. Go ahead and let yourself get a little silly. Or random. Or “off the wall”. Try out wacky ideas, or crazy combinations. The outcome may really surprise you! Yes, musicians can be really serious sometimes but remember that playfulness contributes to creativity.

Flow first, judge later. Although you may think your inner critic is the secret to your success, constantly finding flaws in your ideas could stop the flow of ideas altogether. You can be picky later, but first you need to get out all the ideas you can, whether they are from your own head or inspired by other things and people.

Dig deep. Most likely, the golden nugget you seek (my metaphor for an amazing musical idea) is not going to be your first idea. You might have to discover it, uncover it, or even recover it. Think of tunneling down a winding passage way in search of gold. You will get dirty, sweaty and tired. Yes, my friend: this is work.

There are no “mistakes”. For this activity you are in a workshop, not a concert.  As you try different variations, some will work and some won’t. It’s no big deal. Learning what not to do is a valuable part of the process.

Trust yourself. With time, effort and an attitude that welcomes the creative process, you will be able to craft a new idea that is fits the task at hand. Believe you are creative, because you are.

Posted in Composition, Improvisation, Music Instruction | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Giving yourself permission to be creative

Posted by Pamela Szalay on December 29, 2012


There are many talented musicians and students who have learned to play an instrument “by the book” and who are rarely, if ever, encouraged to improvise. If you are interested in being more creative with your music but are not sure how to begin, I have some ideas to get you started below.

First, let me remind you that the composers whose music you have read and performed over the years were able to compose it because they were willing to take risks, try out new combinations, and meddle with established norms. They gave themselves permission to be creative. You are no different! You can be musically adventurous. You can play around with new combinations. You can create.

Let’s start with something safe – the last note of a song you already know how to play. For example, if the last note of The Star Spangled Banner is Bb, or “do” in the key of Bb, what are some things you can do to change things up?

  1. Play a different note of the Bb chord –D or F.
  2. Repeat the note in a different octave – or several!
  3. Insert a rest before the last note.
  4. Hold the last note longer or make it staccato.
  5. Play the note more than once, in any rhythm combination that feels right. Try several variations!
  6. Experiment with different articulations.
  7. Combine 2 or more of the above variations.

For a keyboard or other harmonic instrument, if the last notes form a Bb major block chord you could start playing around with these basic variations.

  1. Break up the chord into an arpeggio.
  2. Play the chord using a different voicing: Take out the fifth, play the third in a different octave.
  3. Insert a rest before the chord.
  4. Play the chord twice in any rhythm you choose.
  5. Repeat the chord in a different octave.
  6. Experiment with different articulations.
  7. Try two or more of the above simultaneously.
  8. Try two or more of the above in various orders.

More advanced musicians may want to manipulate the final phrase of the song rather than just the last notes.

Of course, you won’t love everything you come up with, but if you give yourself enough room to play it can be a matter of minutes before you generate something that surprises you. The main thing is to try. Composing and improvising can be fun and liberating. Go ahead and try it today!

Coming up in my next article: Having the attitude of a composer

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Stepping into musical composition: the limited tone row

Posted by Pamela Szalay on December 8, 2012


Looking for a way to introduce composition into music lessons? Creating a melody using a limited set of pitches is a great way to start. While the label “tone row” often suggests using 12 tones, this activity is focused on a smaller set of 4 to 7 tones which are arranged in a sequence and used to compose a melody, guided by just a few rules. This activity encourages creativity within constraints and works for beginners and more experienced musicians. As a matter of fact, it can even be used with students who do not yet read music.

For music-readers:


manuscript paper, pencil, music notation flashcards (optional)


1. Select four to seven flashcards and arrange them in a sequence (the teacher can do this ahead of time, or the student can select the cards randomly). Write the desired sequence on paper.

2. The student composes a melody using the sequence, using whatever rhythm, expression or style is desired.The composition should be committed to paper, but written in pencil for easy editing.

3. Each tone must be used in order, although a tone can be repeated before moving on to the next tone. When the end of the sequence is reached, the sequence beings again with the first note.

4. The sequence can be repeated multiple times, and can be treated differently each time.

5. The sequence should have a definite ending.

Depending on the outcome and the needs of the student, the melody could be further developed, harmonized, etc. Also, for additional mileage with this activity, start by using pitches that reinforce a recent note-reading or theory lesson

Alternate approach for non-music readers:Image

If the student is quite young and not yet reading music, use letter names instead of music notation. The focus should be selecting the sequence itself, rather than composing from a sequence. This will develop the ear while also introducing them to the compositional process. When the student is satisfied with the sequence, have the student write down the sequence on paper to preserve it.

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Your musical idea awaiting to be discovered

Posted by Pamela Szalay on November 16, 2012

“I wake up in the morning with an idea, then cut away everything that ain’t that idea.”

– attributed to “Bernie chainsaw artist” and tweeted by Scott Mueller@HandknitWebs

Clearly, a composer is working in a different medium than a chainsaw artist, but this quote got me thinking. What kind of focus is this describing? What kind of commitment? As a musician, if I wake up with music in my head I go to the piano to try and re-create it. I feel like it’s a creative and positive experience of constructing something.  But I have never thought of taking an approach of removing the antithesis of my musical idea.  It’s like saying “all the world is music, and within it is my idea. If I just peel away what doesn’t look like my idea, then the art will reveal itself!

This approach to composing is a philosophical shift for me, one that I will consider the next morning I wake up and hear music.

Posted in Composition | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

When wrong notes work wonders

Posted by Pamela Szalay on November 8, 2012

Last week, I featured a simple activity in polytonality for a beginning pianist (A spooky surprise from a simple transposition). However, the basic premise is one that can serve advanced musicians: playing with musical ideas and being open to new sounds can lead to musical innovation.

For six-year-old Alison, the discovery was that she could make a song sound very different by playing in two keys at the same time. More advanced students may not consider this news, but they may not consider it desirable either. The sound resulting from experiments with polytonality can be perceived as harsh, dissonant and simply wrong. However, those who are willing to persist and experiment might find that playing with polytonality can not only change how you listen to music, but how you arrange, improvise and compose.

As a musician or composer seeking new ways of expressing yourself, one thing that can hold you back is a concept called “premature closure”. Although you may often toy around with musical ideas, you may be quick to judge and discard them, too. In actuality, you could be missing opportunities to develop your sound by rejecting ideas before fully exploring them.

My proposal is that you entertain the “wrong” note a little longer, avoiding premature closure. If you are willing to explore a little further, perhaps mingling in a few other related (or unrelated) ideas, you might push your way towards something not only different, but refreshing.

Fans of Dave Brubeck, a legendary pianist and composer who brought polytonality to jazz, would argue that his polytonal technique made music dreamy rather than dissonant. Apparently, he became quite accustomed to playing with his hands in keys a minor 3rd apart. Go ahead and listen to this excerpt of a live radio broadcast where Brubeck naturally moves from one to two keys: Polytonal Blues

To me, Brubeck’s technique is an anecdote for musical boredom and well-worn habits. While there is, of course, more to the art of using polytonality that just moving your right hand, it is important to recognize that our attitude about what is “right” can determine how far we will travel down an unfamiliar musical pathway. If we can tolerate some “wrong” notes, and entertain some strange sounds in our ears for a while so that we might understand them better, then I believe we are taking solid steps towards maximizing our creative potential.

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A spooky surprise from a simple transposition

Posted by Pamela Szalay on October 30, 2012

I love the way kids are naturally creative. Alison, a new student of mine who is just 6 years old, had taken about three lessons when she stumbled upon a spooky way of playing the song “Hot Cross Buns”, simply by following her own curiosity.

Alison was willing to share her budding skills as a composer and pianist on the video below. The result is a model for a very short but fun activity to do with young beginners which will help them explore music and composition.

The story behind the “Spooky Transposition”

Alison initially learned the song “Hot Cross Buns” on the three black keys and did very well. I decided to show her how the song could be transposed to C-D-E, and she made the change easily. At the end that lesson, I suggested that she continue playing the song at home with just one hand at a time. I also mentioned she could try it hands together when she felt ready.

The following week she proudly announced that she could now play the song with both hands! I was delighted, of course, and watched with anticipation as she sat at the piano.

To my surprise, she performed the song hands together but in two different keys! Her right hand was in F# major and her left hand in C major. Naturally, because the transposition was an augmented fourth, the result was dissonant and spooky. Noticing the unusual sound, Alison decided that the song should be called “Spooky Hot Cross Buns”.

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Getting Your Child to Practice: Sensible Tips for Parents

Posted by Pamela Szalay on September 11, 2012

Your child is taking music lessons, but it seems like she never practices. You think, “why am I paying for all of this?” Before you give up, here are some ideas for supporting your children toward a positive, productive musical adventure.

Call it play instead of practice. Asking, “Why don’t you play that new song for me?” is more inviting than “Why haven’t you practiced yet?” The word “practice” conjures up notions of routine work, while the word “play” suggests exploring, creating and experimenting.

Have a sensible routine. After school, many things compete for your child’s time and attention: sports, friends, and video games as well as family, homework and school events. If after-school hours are tight, maybe the best time to “play” music each day is in the morning before school or on weekends. Do what works for your family.

Remember that a little time is better than no time. Even if there are only five or ten minutes available, there can be time to play a few songs or scales. Keeping the instrument and music books set up in a convenient spot can make a quick rehearsal possible.

Consider your child’s maturity. While one child might be able to maximize 10 minutes of playing time, another might get very little done in a half-an-hour session. At every age and for every child, the level of focus varies. The best approach is to  encourage quality over quantity! Playing well for a few minutes trumps aimless, half-hearted effort for twenty minutes.

Use a reward system. Help children manage their time by providing special incentives. If a child resists learning new songs, for example, but loves to play familiar songs or have an audience, you can set up a reward system that encourages  him to persist. Set a timer for five to ten minutes where the child must work on new songs. Then the next five to ten minutes let him give a “concert” where he can play any and all of his favorite songs.

Hire the right teacher. If your child is having a very negative experience, it may just be that the teacher, although qualified, is not the right person to teach your child. Don’t hesitate to try a different teacher whose style of teaching more closely matches the way your child learns.

Music lessons available at

Posted in Music Instruction, Parents, Philosophy of Education | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The “One-Note Blues” Gets Students Started with Musical Improvisation

Posted by Pamela Szalay on May 31, 2011

Below are videos of two different students improvising a melody to go along with a 12-bar blues progression in the key of Eb.  This is a great key for learning to improvise over a 12-bar blues pattern:  not only does it sound great,  but even novice players can easily pick out the right notes to play along. Since the black-keys form a pentatonic scale, which works well in the blues, students of all levels of ability can play confidently just by playing any black key. For non-musicians or anyone new to improvisation, this can be a liberating experience!

Regardless of previous experience, I like begin this activity by allowing players to improvise only with a single note,  E-flat. For newcomers, I will often mark the note on the piano keyboard with a sticker or post-it note. I encourage players to experiment with all the ways they can perform that single note: slow, fast, with a swing, with different articulations, or whatever. I call this activity the “One-Note Blues”. It is amazing how many ideas can come from playing that one-note!

Once players have spent time exploring the possibilities of the “One-Note Blues”, I tell them they are ready to add one more black key. In some cases, we quickly move to using all the black keys. Usually, new players are pretty surprised at how good their improvisation sounds. I am glad to say that this activity always brings a lot of smiles, regardless of age!

The two videos below feature this activity. The students’ ages are 10 and 16, and both have been playing the piano for a few years. However, neither student regularly improvises in this genre, and neither was given an opportunity to rehearse before I hit the “record” button on the video recorder. They are truly creating their music in real time.

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Six ways music teachers can encourage creative musical expression

Posted by Pamela Szalay on August 23, 2010

1. Make time for creativity – Learning takes time and so does learning to be creative. Students are not always open to leaving the printed page, especially if their lessons have always been “by the book”. Have patience and offer plenty of praise for their effort (pat yourself on the back, too). Think of including creativity as a long-term goal, not the subject of a single music lesson.

2. Be Playful – Playing is different than practicing! When children play, often they are experimenting, testing scenarios, engaging in “what if?” thinking. This can be done with music as well. Instead of being focused on the final result, let students see what happens to a phrase when played with different rhythms or styles. Let them explore the possibilities or even compose an alternate ending.

3. Focus on sound – Sometimes it’s easy to get into a rut of relying too much on the notes on the page. Encourage students to listen to themselves, to hear the intervals and the rhythmic patterns. You could record them and then let them listen to themselves. Or have them close their eyes and listen as you play an excerpt. Afterward, talk about the sound together. It can be quite challenging to talk about sound at first, but it gets easier through practice.

4. Give students the freedom to make mistakes – Students afraid of failure will not take risks. Yet risk-taking is essential to getting beyond what you know and can do right now. It is important for teachers to provide a sense of “safety” during lessons so that the fear of making mistakes is lessened. I have known teachers who celebrated mistakes because they could use that information to plan the next steps—for them, a mistake is an expected part of the learning process!

5. Set the example – Teachers can lead the way toward creative musical expression by trying new things in the studio, like improvising with students! The goal is not to do it right the first time: it is to discover something new about music, about yourself, about the way you learn!

6. Be open to all kinds of musical expression – Students will often oversome significant barriers to learning when they realize they can be themselves . One way teachers can make students feel safe or special is to ask them about the types of music they enjoy listening to at home. Let them use their i-pod or mp3 player to share one of their favorite songs with you. This can be a great starting point for improvising together

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