Nine-year-old Julian rushes into the studio and goes straight to the piano. His hands drop onto the keys and all kinds of sound combinations emerge from the instrument – I imagine falling snow, sleds racing to the bottom of the hill, a sudden crash… This is the way our lessons begin, with a free period of creating at the keyboard. Sometimes a certain phrase emerges that Julian especially likes and he will want to play it over and over again. It will be written into his notebook of ideas, and possibly develop into one of his original pieces.

Earlier in the week, nine-year-old Ian showed me a two-hand accompaniment he’d come up with. Since the phrase could be repeated up to 20 times, I showed him how to notate it once and write the symbol for a 20 bar repeat. In the right-hand part, he wrote the instructions: Improvise using the notes ABCDEF. A simple but effective way to notate a piece.

We get good ideas all the time. The trick is to write them down before we forget them. Another alternative is to record our ideas on a digital recorder or cell phone recorder. Sometimes our ideas come when we sit and noodle around on the piano or other instrument. If we find a phrase or chord progression that we like, we can jot it down any way that we’re able. Young children can simply use the letter names of notes; older students can put notes on the staff, approximating rhythms the best they can. The important thing is to preserve our ideas so that we can revisit them later.

It does take a certain amount of courage for some of us to sit at the piano and just play – with no idea of what’s going to come out. We can take our cue from children, who are on a journey of discovery, not trying to prove anything. I notice that my students allow themselves to become fascinated with sound – and it’s that fascination that leads them to their best ideas. You might be thinking, “I can’t do this. I’m not a composer.” I’d like to suggest that we don’t have to turn this playful activity into an identity.

Simply collect combinations of sounds as one might collect specimens of beautiful stones. Here’s a notebook filled with your ideas. Turn each one over in your hands to admire and enjoy. If there’s anything more to do, you’ll know what it is.