For the fun of it: 7 mid-summer projects for pianists

Whether it’s the memory of school holidays or family vacations, there’s something about summer that invites us to take a break from our disciplines and routines and explore something new.  And why not?  Summer is the best time to throw off a few responsibilities and risk being an inexperienced (and possibly inept) beginner just for the fun of it.  Yes, just for the fun of it!  No need to become an expert, no big goals to reach or exams to take—just creative, imaginative learning, at our own pace, and in our own way.  

This is a short list of suggestions and one that I hope will encourage you to find project ideas of your own.  It’s summer.  Kick off your shoes, open the window, and approach the piano with the playful abandonment of a child.  

Learn to improvise
Have no idea how to add notes to a written score?  Want to improvise an accompaniment to a melody but can’t do so musically?  Always wanted to play by ear and don’t know where to start? The late Forrest Kinney’s series Pattern Play books was written for you.  In clear, easy to follow lessons, Kinney gives practical and musical tips for nervous improvisors of all ages and abilities.  

Try composing something
Don’t know where to start?  Put your hands on the keys and try crafting a few melodies.  Need more direction?  Consult Forrest Kinney’s Pattern Play series of books (see above).  Have a good start but need more individual direction?  Consider taking a few online composition lessons with a living composer.  

Explore music by composers of African descent
I started No Dead Guys in response to a student who asked me why she was always playing music by “dead white guys.”  Eager to expand your ear and your repertoire by playing music by composers of color?  The excellent series of books Piano Music of Africa and the African Diaspora is a good place to begin.  Edited by pianist William Chapman Nyaho, this graded series offers a wide-ranging selection of compositional styles at all levels, from advanced beginner to advanced player.  

Adopt a “composer of the summer” and learn as much of their repertoire as possible
One of my pianist friends is spending her summer with Debussy.  Another is playing as much Schumann as she can get her into her hands.  Got a passion for the music of a particular composer?  Use this summer to play, listen to, read about, and become an informal expert on their music.  

Work on your “dream piece” 
You know which one I mean.  It’s the piece you wanted to play years ago, the one you say you’ll get around to learning “someday.”  Well, why not today?  If it’s a big piece, commit to learning one movement or section.  Don’t wait until “someday” becomes “too late”. 

Polish your “set list” of favorite pieces
This is an idea I borrowed wholesale from Andrew Eales of Pianodao. Many of us have spent our lives learning great music but have few of these pieces memorized and ready to play when we’re invited to perform something for someone.  Eales suggests making a list of these pieces, polishing and memorizing them, and then maintaining them by practicing this list a couple of times a week.  

Lose yourself in a great book
Two of the greatest passions of my live have been playing the piano and escaping into a good book.  This list of good reads, compiled by VAN Magazine, contains most of my all-time favorites.  These are the books to read on a shady porch, cool drink close at hand.  


Hi Rhonda, former student Tami Witt. Because of the pandemic we had to livestream our masses at my church, and couldn't use our regular music because we didn't have the proper licensing. We used a lot of public domain hymns, but I ended up writing a complete set of mass parts from the Gloria to the Lamb of God. I've composed somethings throughout the years, but....! Not only that but I ended up composing a mass in C sharp minor of all things. It was based on my vocal range. I will be brave and polish up my favorite pieces, many of which you taught me. And I'll work on finishing Gershwin's Preludes and Bach's Italian Concerto. So nice to see and hear you play. Hope you are doing well. So thankful for the techniques and philosophies of music you imparted to your students.
Rhonda Rizzo said…
Tami! I'm thrilled to hear from you, and am extremely impressed that you're now composing. I was just thinking about you two days ago when I played through the middle movement of the Italian Concerto. Whenever I visit that piece, I hear your beautiful playing.
So glad you got out of downtown Portland before this spring and summer what with the rioting and marches. Somehow I missed the whole moving to Wisconsin thing, but good for you. And, if you do miss the beach, there's plenty of lakes to visit. Take care!