Broadening our Musical Horizons

Last Friday, we had a wonderful opportunity to participate in a workshop for teachers, given by Forrest Kinney.  We met Forrest last year at the PMTA (Pennsylvania Music Teachers Association) conference in Indiana, PA.  We were so impressed and inspired by his way of teaching improvisation that our local chapter, CPMTA, and our own piano teachers group, NPTN, invited him to come here to State College.  He did a 4-hour intensive workshop for teachers on improvisation, and we had 14  participants.

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Improvisation is WAY out of our comfort zone.  I can hardly think of anything in the musical world that strikes more terror in our hearts than the mere idea of trying to improvise.  We are classically trained, and have absolutely no experience or natural talent for improvising on the piano.  But we were determined to face this fear and gain some tools to help ourselves, and our students, become more comfortable with this idea, and have fun with it!

Bonnie and I were the first ones to volunteer to play something with Forrest.  We were afraid if we waited too long, we’d lose our nerve!  But the best part of Forrest Kinney’s method is how quickly he puts his students at ease with exploring the piano through improv.  He does this by playing WITH the student at all times until the student feels confident enough to try it on his or her own.


He starts every student off with a duet.  He gives the student a set of notes to play, then he will start his bass part, and invite the student to jump in when ready.  This takes a lot of pressure off the student.  In the middle photo above, Forrest demonstrates how a student can feel judged, pressured and uncomfortable just by the teacher standing up and watching them.  Playing with the student right from the start fosters the fun feeling of being a part of brand new music that had never been played or thought of before, without undue pressure.  Then, he gives the student the chance to be the bass part, as shown above.

Then, Forrest asked one of our teachers. Cheryl, to teach another participant a pattern, as she would one of her own students.  This was a very fun and educational exercise, showing how teachers can bring their own teaching style and personality into this kind of approach.


Cheryl then switched to the high notes/melody, and had her student play a simple bass part.  After doing this for a minute or two, she suggested that the student start adding a right hand note or two.  All the while, Cheryl plays an improvised melody with her.  Eventually, the student adds more right hand, and Cheryl slowly exits, and the student is playing on her own!  This is a very fun, reassuring way to have students work up to playing improvised melodies by themselves, with a simple bass accompaniment.


And one of the most fun exercises of the day was the Trio.  Forrest teaches 3 students 3 different parts: a bass pattern, a chord-pattern in the middle of the keyboard, and then the set of notes to be used for improvised melody.  This only takes a few minutes, and then the 3 students play together!  Then, it’s easy to switch parts so each student gets to experience each part.


At the beginning of the workshop, Forrest asked each of us what we hoped to get out of this workshop.  For us, it was simple: we wanted to have less fear of improvisation, and gain some tools to help us to give our students these wonderfully fun, free experiences with music!  And we certainly gained that and more from this awesome workshop.  To learn more about Forrest Kinney, go to his new website:

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