Teaching arranging skills to your piano students is a fantastic way to introduce a musically creative activity without the intimidating (for some) prospect of creating musical material from scratch by improvising or composing.
The Benefits of Teaching Arranging Skills
There are so many benefits to teaching arranging skills that this list got much longer than I was expecting!
- Arranging is creative, and creativity is fun and personally nourishing to nearly every piano student.
- Arranging offers an opportunity to have a student learn a song by ear rather than by reading, perhaps for the first time (if you don’t normally teach this). When a student realizes that learning a melody by ear is not as hard as they thought, their musical confidence will grow, along with their relative pitch skills!
- Arranging necessitates notating music, which helps students learn musical notation and improves their reading skills.
- Arranging offers an opportunity to teach students principles of fingering, perhaps for the first time.
- Learning new chords can be highly motivating for students who are working through a method book in which chords are introduced at a snail’s pace.
- Arranging lets you teach students about lead sheets and chord symbols.
- Arranging offers students the opportunity to transpose a song, which offers its own host of benefits.
- Arranging is an opportunity to more deeply explore various aspects of music theory such as harmonic progressions.
- Last, but certainly not least, arranging offers the piano teacher, who may have heard the same song played the same way by dozens (or hundreds!) of students, to hear a fresh version of it.
The procedure I’ll explain will cover two sequential piano lessons, which is optimal for most students.
Beginning Arranging: First Lesson
Once you understand the process, you’ll be able to judge when a student has the basic musical/technical skills necessary to start arranging.
1. Choose an Appropriate Song
Choose a song at an appropriate level, preferably at a slower tempo. Consider using a song in the student’s method book just before they learn it. You can say, “We’re going to do a special creative exercise with one of the songs coming up in your book.”
I will use Greensleeves for the example, which is included in the Faber Adult Piano Adventures series and other methods. I’ve changed it from the Faber version to more closely approximate the original rhythm, and have added chord symbols. I’ve kept it in A minor, for ease of reading. Highly-motivated students, or students who like to sing and would like to arrange it in their tessitura, may want to transpose the song to a different key.
2. Learn the Song By Ear and Notate the Melody
Teach the song one phrase at a time by singing it with the student until they’ve internalized it and can sing each phrase correctly by themselves. Then they sing and work out each phrase on the piano with your help. Then help them notate the phrase, perhaps note heads only at first. If necessary, help them figure out which note heads belong in which measure, before helping them figure out the exact rhythms. Finally, add stems and beams to notate the exact note durations.
3. Discuss Principles Of Fingering and Finger The Melody
Help them finger the melody by discussing relevant principles of fingering; for example, the general principle of choosing a fingering that allows playing as many notes as possible before changing hand position. Of course, there are other principles which the experienced piano teacher will be able to ascertain and explain.
4. Notate the Chord Symbols for the Student
Asking most students to figure out a chord progression by ear is asking a lot. It’s generally easiest to write in the chord symbols above their notated melody, perhaps also notating the chords on a separate sheet in root position. Choose the simplest possible chord progression to leave “harmonic space” for the student to add additional chords later.
To help them master the chord progression, which is important for developing their own ideas for it, have them (1) play the root position chords with LH only, (2) then with both hands, and finally (3) the root position chords with the RH while the LH plays the roots only. Be sure to discuss the optimal range for playing blocked chords – not too low to avoid muddiness, and not too high to avoid interfering with the melody.
5. Learn the Melody and Chords as Notated and Fingered
At this point you can assign their homework for the week: learning to play the melody with root position blocked chords in preparation for the next lesson’s more creative tasks. If a given chord lasts for more than one measure, it’s generally a good idea to have them play the same chord on the first beat of every subsequent measure until the next chord symbol.
Use your judgment as to whether to assign the melody and chords in one week, or the melody the first week with the chords added the following week.
In Part 2 of this series, I’ll discuss several beginning arranging techniques that can be effectively employed with most songs, including adding chords, changing chord inversions, using broken chords, and harmonizing the melody.