For parents: An easy summer project for your children

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I would guess most of you are taking the summer off from your piano lessons and if you are parents, are giving your children the summer off. I think that is a healthy thing. I let my children take the summer off except for Kelsey on violin. Her teacher seems to think that taking a few months off would be devastating. ¬†While I suspect he is exaggerating, I let him get his way partly because he is a great teacher and partly because I really don’t know enough about violin to have a reason to think him wrong.

That being said, the summer gives your child a few months to learn some things they probably aren’t learning in their piano lessons and I want to give you a few thoughts on a fun, simple project to get them started in improvising and playing by ear. I do this with my children. If you are an adult, you can assign yourself this project too.

First, pick out a song that is very familiar and easy. Ideally, the song has a diatonic melody and can be played using just I, IV, and V chords. If you are not very musical and what I just said makes no sense to you, here is a simple way to pick a song: look through the hymnal for songs that do not have many accidentals. On the first song, look for ones that don’t have any.

Now, tell your child that you want her to learn the song in three steps:
1) Learn to play the melody flawlessly by ear (no printed music allowed).
2) Learn to add the I, IV, and V chords to the song by just playing them as block chords in the left hand with the melody in the right hand.
3) Learn to fancy up the song by experimenting with different textures with those chords. Examples would be arpeggiating the chords, moving them to the right hand and playing the melody in the left hand, playing the chords with different rhythms, etc.

Do the first few songs in the key of C and then move them to F and G. If they handle those keys well, you can try some harder keys. If they are handling things very well, you can start giving them some songs that require more than I, IV, and V chords (in other words, songs with a secondary dominant or two).

Your child can probably learn a song a week like this with no problem with 15 minutes of practice a day. If you think about it, you are essentially giving them an opportunity to start arranging at an early age, and after a few months, you will be amazed at what they can do.