(Originally posted January, 2007)

What’s in a title? Sometimes, inspiration! Here are a few playful ideas for piano students who enjoy creative play at the piano, or for yourself — whether for your own enjoyment or to add to a lesson for your classes.

Among my antiquarian music collection are pieces with titles that are funny in their quaintness. Some of my students love them not only in spite of their titles, but partially because of them! “A Pleasant Afternoon,” “Prankish Boys,” and “Frolicsome Moment” are a few examples.

“The Charming Shepherdess”1 is another. Julia, a creative nine-year-old, transposed the piece to a minor key, calling it “The Depressed Shepherdess.” I gave her more ideas, and she spontaneously invented “The Hesitant Shepherdess,” “The Angry Shepherdess,” and more. Colleague Maria Franzini was sitting in on that lesson, and added more titles for variation; Julia began inventing her own, as well. We must have come up with 15 different “Shepherdesses” in quick succession.

The piece itself is nothing brilliant, but here it is for the record (with footnote below):

CharmingShepherdessVarying Familiar Melodies

You or your students might also enjoy creating variations from titles of familiar tunes, such as “Three Blind Mice” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

For example, “Three Blind Mice” might become:
– Three Galloping Mice
– Three Enormous Mice
– Three Fighting Mice
– Three Sneaky Mice
– Three Mice and One Cat

“Mary Had a Little Lamb” might be varied to create:
– Mary Had a Little Toy Soldier
– Mary Had a Mooing Cow
– Mary Had a Chugging Train
– Mary Had a Lot of Rests
– Mary Had an Awful Day


Ideas for Classes

Listening and Identifying: You might play such variations for your classes, and have them “guess” or suggest titles. Informally, they might raise hands or call out their titles; you might have them write their titles in a list and then share; or you could create a multiple choice or matching-type worksheet (write your titles; the students write in numbers corresponding to the order in which you played them). This is a good test of your own clarity and creative abilities!

Movement: Of course, it’s also a great idea for the students to add movement to the variations, whether in the process of coming up with titles or after the titles have been agreed upon.

1. Notes from the original: “A pleasing melody, in which many tied notes occur, with steady motion of quarter notes in the bass. Observe that it is quite the same whether the three-pulse tone here represented by a half note spliced out with a tied quarter, is written in this way or simply as a dotted half. The tie is here used to lead to care in the reading.”

“The Charming Shepherdess.” W.S.B. Mathews, Standard Graded Course of Studies for the Pianoforte in Ten Grades, Volume I (Philadelphia: Theodore Presser Co., 1892), p. 14.