From intervals and chords to improvisation

It is beneficial to practise the basics of music in different ways at the piano. We will start with chords and intervals that will constitute finger exercises aimed at improving the perception of the keyboard.

The object of playing intervals is to introduce the pupils to musical phenomena and certain fundamental units, to develop the “musical ear” as well as the interaction between ear, hand and eye, and, moreover, to provide tools for understanding structures and material for improvisation and composition.

Usually beginning the introduction with the second, we go through all the intervals, one at a time, employing several finger pairs, at first only on the white keys. The hands are practised separately and together, in parallel and contrary movement. When the fingers begin to comply and engage the right notes at the right moment, the playing mode may be varied. We play the intervals with different articulations: staccato, marcato and tenuto, including legato where possible. Later we “link” the intervals, which here means playing them in sequence, beginning the next interval on the second note of the previous one. Linked intervals are also practised with two-note slurs, successively, in different tempi and rhythms. In the performance of slurs, the wrist plunges on the first note, and “at the bottom” the weight is transferred to the second note, on which the hand is lightened and lifts, wrist first.

We normally start interval playing on the white keys, as this is the easiest option for beginners. Pupils can count the number of white keys between the interval notes, which helps the hand to learn to recognise distances. We focus on aural and tactile feedback: trying to perceive the interval’s sound and character, to gauge the grip of the hand and the resonance in the body. Little by little, we distinguish between minor and major, perfect and augmented intervals and observe their positions on the keyboard. The next step is to identify the practised intervals in the pieces we are working on.

When we are sufficiently familiar with the intervals, we start to improvise on them, usually focussing on one at a time. In this way we discover the individual character and timbre of each of them. One of the pupils’ favourite tasks is to play thirds on the white keys, in “piles”, both hands together, i.e. as four-note chords that clearly appeal to their ear for harmony. The cords may also be played in “waves”, i.e. broken. In this case, the technical challenge is mastering the legato interplay between the hands. Another big favourite is the tritone, which makes for a splendid horror piece.

The transition from intervals to chords is a smooth one. The various chords are learnt in the same way as the intervals. Initially triads are played on the white keys by building chords on each degree, as an introduction to the chords of the major scale. Major, minor and diminished triads are identified from the start, and the pupils gradually learn to build chords on different roots.

As the piano is a harmonic instrument, even young pianists would do well to grasp the functions of chords at the outset. As soon as children manage to play simple tunes, we try to provide harmony. I accompany them myself at first, but encourage them to harmonise and accompany short tunes as soon as they are able. They learn to pick out familiar children’s songs by ear. For the accompaniments, we start by learning the tonic and the dominant, followed by the subdominant. With small children, I use the chord-function terminology that is familiar from their music-training groups: strawberry (I), blueberry (V) and cloudberry (IV), which are easier to memorise than the abstract terms. Many of the children I work with have learnt the basic functions in the kantele groups they join before taking up piano lessons, and it is therefore natural to continue with the familiar terminology. Having mastered easy accompaniment, they are in a position to learn a large repertoire of children’s songs. They get quite excited when they realise that they can play familiar songs by ear, and even harmonise them.

Playing cadences is connected with the understanding of harmony. Having mastered the harmonising, pupils gradually learn to identify the cadences, which in my opinion is the natural way to understand what they are and what they do. The detached cadences included in the level standards remain abstract to many children, who tend to memorise them by heart without grasping the connection to the actual sound of the music. As an alternative, pupils are given the task of harmonising a familiar song, played in different keys.

Learning harmonies is part of improvisation. Various harmonic accompaniments and melodies can be improvised and transposed to different keys by means of secondary dominants. The children may also compose melodies, harmonise them and thus gradually produce pieces of their own. Harmonising is closely related to the discipline of free accompaniment.

Does this subject interest you?

Read more (research results with source references). Junttu 2010 pp. 185-189

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