May Bells

MaydellsWhy Piano Improvisation?

Piano Improvisation is a valuable tool for motivating movement. It’s essential in teaching Eurhythmics and supports dance movement of all styles. Moreover, learning to improvise develops music skills, awareness and imagination. (It’s also one of the things that scares people away from the Dalcroze method.)

The challenge is to remain fully present in the classroom while at the piano. Whether teaching or accompanying, the pianist is most effective when observing the movement of the group. Leading a class from the piano additionally requires giving directions, providing feedback, varying exercises and thinking of the next steps to come.

A Bouquet of Basics 

For those who aspire to teach from the piano, accompany movement, improvise or compose short studies, here is a set of pieces offering a starting point. May Bells is a set of 12 simple piano miniatures by Fritz Spindler (1817-1905). They’re available on IMSLP, or download here.

Fritz Spindler

Fritz Spindler

May Bells are easy to play, clear in form, and simple to analyze. Each piece forms a useful template for:

  • Rhythmic motive
  • Phrase structure
  • Harmony
  • Form

Exercises to Try

Their simplicity makes May Bells easy to read or to memorize. From there, you can devise variations and construct new music of your own. (Try these with some of your students, as well!)

  • Transposition 

Play a piece in new keys, major and minor. Then experiment with modes and other non diatonic scales, including “exotic” ones. If you’re feeling adventurous, play left and right hands in different keys.

  • Motivic pattern

Consider Spindler’s use of repetition and the ways he varies it. For example, in No. 10, the same melodic cell reoccurs throughout with cadential twists and turns and/or shifts of pitch. Try the same ideas using an original motive, beginning with one hand.

  • Harmonic design

Map the harmonic progressions of one of the pieces. Invent your own piece using the same outline. As suggested above for transposition, try substituting scales and/or chords. For example, sprinkle some seventh chords for color, add suspensions, use a jazz scale, or stack some 4ths for parallel movement.

  • Phrase structure

Harmony, melody and rhythm merge in delineating phrases. In No. 7, for example, The first section has a short-short-long (anapestic) phrase structure, ending on V4/3, then I, then passing through V6/V in a longer return to I.

  • Rhythm and articulation

This variation will help you get up and running playing for movement. Treat each piece as though it were propelling movement, whether walking in shaped phrases, trotting crisp divisions or combining rhythmic steps. For example, practice No. 9 as a quick-reaction exercise, changing meter to 3 or 5. Vary No. 3 to include rhythmic patterns rather than straight divisions, opposing patterns in the left hand, changes of register, etc.


Memorization, playing with variations, and creating your own etudes will help send you on your way to creating music for your teaching. Try to keep it light – no drudgery or judgment required. Play in the spirit of fun, freedom and creative experiment, and see what comes up! Sometimes the most basic starting points, and your own unleashed ability at play, create marvels. Try it and see.