Sparking the imagination in music lessons

“A good teacher can inspire hope, ignite the imagination, and instill a love of learning.”

Brad Henry

Hands up if your imagination was a huge part of growing up!

As a child I remember making dens in the garden with friends and hiding from dragons, or dressing up with clothes from mum’s wardrobe and pretending to be characters in an adventure story. Fast forward to today and children are no different.

In my early years of school two teachers stand out in my memory. Mrs Flowers was lovely and one of my favourite teachers. If we were learning a topic she would turn it into a story filled with fun and interesting characters. Us kids would sit there, crossed legged on the floor, completely captivated.

If learning was something you could see visually, there would be sparks flying everywhere! Everyone was engaged and animated as Mrs Flowers came up with fun activities to consolidate what we were studying.

Mrs Jones, on the other hand, was the total opposite. We would file into her classroom apprehensively and sit at the desk taking notes (I’ll admit I was a bit scared of her!). She stood at the front of the classroom pretty much reading out facts.

Guess which class I learnt the most in!

Wouldn’t it be great if we could harness our students’ imagination in music lessons? It can be such a valuable tool in the learning process.

One of the ways I do this is through the use of composition and often start this right from the very first lesson. Even if a student has only learnt their finger numbers and is playing on the black keys we can still compose a tune!

I often get students to think of their own title and sometimes make silly suggestions to get them started, like “The Greedy Dinosaur Loves Pizza!” or “Henry the Dog Stole My Shoes!”. We write the tune on a blank piece of paper using numbers (I love it when they bring it back the following week covered in pictures and colour!) and they get so engaged in the activity.

If the tune is about a bear we play it on the lowest black keys or if it is about a fairy, on the highest keys. The music might tell a story about a boat floating up and down on the waves so we use the sustaining pedal to make it sound more “wavy”!

Just like in Mrs Flowers class, the sparks of creativity and imagination fly everywhere! Furthermore, learning is even more potent because students have invested in the music. They take ownership of the activity through the use of their imagination.

This is one of the reasons I created my popular mystery adventures such as “Who Ate My Cake”. I wanted to make something where students can get really involved and engaged in their own learning. Something story based where they are immersed in a fantasy world that sparks imagination.

When my own students are learning a piece like “Secrets of the Suits of Armor”, for example, they really get engrossed in the storytelling. We come across these tall imposing guardians in the corridor of Cherrywood Castle (using the accompanying online game) but one of them is hiding something!

Playing the music, students can imagine the suits of armor marching up and down the castle, keeping watch over the King and his family. It opens with a loud and bold dynamic when the leader suddenly tells his men to “halt” as they stand to attention. Thinking about the story behind it can really bring the music to life.

Similarly, in a piece like “Sleepy Snake Charming” (part of my musical adventure mystery “The Lost Diamond”), we leave the sunshine of the bright forest and enter a cave searching for clues. Going down a ladder further into the cave we find an interesting looking box. Unfortunately there is a snake dozing on top of it!

Students learn the music and unlock the hidden code found in the sheet music to gently move the snake out of the way and see what clues can be found in the box. When playing the piece we have to play with a “piano” dynamic so the snake doesn’t get scared and imagine the music gently swirling around the cave.

Using the imagination in ways like this doesn’t have to be reserved for younger students. Recently I was teaching a higher grade piano student who was playing the notes but not really connecting with the music or her imagination. To encourage her to play more expressively and move beyond the dots on the page we came up with a whole backstory to the piece. The difference afterwards was quite remarkable.

I’d love to hear the ways in which imagination plays a role in your own music lessons.

Who Ate My Cake

The Mystery of the Lost Diamond

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