Improvisation by Design: Susan Staples Bell

My guest writer today is Texan piano teacher and composer, Susan Staples Bell. Susan has taught piano for over 30 years, in various locations all over the world during her husband’s 30-year US Navy career. Though she’s been a creative all her life, the development of the internet and social media has given her a voice where she could widely share her love of music with others. She began publishing her compositions in October 2019. You can find her music on Sheet Music Plus and Susan Staples Bell Take a listen to her music on YouTube and please enjoy a link to a free piece at the end of this article.

My name is Susan Staples Bell, an American Piano Teacher & Composer, living in the San Antonio, Texas area. I suppose my path might be similar to many; when I turned six my Mother began to look for activities that little girls in Texas should try: ballet lessons, girl scouts, riding horses – (see the photo of me with my first horse Shorty); and piano lessons. Early on, it was clear that my talent for the piano was taking root: Music was in my genes. 

Susan & Shorty

My first piano teacher had me participating in Guild Auditions and such, but somewhere along the way, I started to lose interest. My parents presented me with a deal: would I continue with piano lessons in Classical music, if I was allowed to study jazz? I agreed and was introduced to Jazz pianist & teacher, Red Camp, whose lessons included music theory: chord symbols, jazz voicings, different moods & styles, and improvisation. His teaching, personality, and encouragement had a profound influence that shaped my whole musical outlook – to this day, I still play 12th Street Rag the way he taught me by rote!

By the time adolescence kicked in, I reached another milestone most Texan children try – playing in the school band. I was handed a clarinet and told to practice. My band director was also an amazing teacher who inspired me to work hard & excel. But there was something different about him – I noticed he was always busy creating arrangements for our band to play. We all loved these popular tunes; Star Wars was my favourite!

One particular thing that impressed me more than anything else about these two men: I never realized that living people were creating music. My prior experience had been playing piano classics in lessons – like Chopin & Bach, the hymns in church, and the sheet music in band – all of which came in books that looked like they were printed forever ago. 

Until then, I guess I didn’t know where the music came from.

So, with these new ideas of improvisation, arranging, and composing, creeping into my mind, practice time at the piano seemed like the perfect time to try them out. I mean, it’s easy for the mind to wander from the page in front of me, so I started to noodle. “What if I played this line differently? What if I transposed it to another key? How would different chords sound with this melody?” Except, I didn’t ask my 12-year-old self this – I just started doing it.  

Thus, I began my lifelong love of creating music – leading me to study Music Education at Trinity University and Music Composition at UT Austin. I started writing for anyone who would listen: arrangements for my band friends (see the photo of me playing piano with my friend in high school); creating the music I played at church as summer pianist/organist, and later as a director – composing for choirs & handbells, and always, as a piano teacher: my greatest love is helping other teachers by creating music for the piano and their piano students.  

Susan playing piano

After 3 years of publishing, I now have a catalog of over 200 pieces (and growing!) including Solos, (my most popular solo is Funky Gecko, for Early Advanced), pieces for Multiple players: Duets, Trios, Ensembles, and Educational resources.

I enjoy creating Multi Level Piano Ensembles, which are written for Group Piano teachers. My Educational Lead Sheets have been popular as a wonderful supplemental lesson for studies in Improvisation, Ensemble playing, and Music theory aspects. Each one comes with 1-3 pages of information about the scales, chords, and different Left-Hand patterns the pianist might use to create their own arrangement.

From that formative time in Middle School, I have embraced the idea of improvisation as an ideal that can be applied to all areas of life – we encounter unexpected situations which lead us to explore different options; from there we can design a new path: Much like I do when I’m exploring a new composition: I start with a mood or story I would like to describe, then let myself explore new possibilities by noodling – I follow my ear & my fingers, then it leads me to something new, maybe something unexpected. And sometimes, the outcome was much better than the original.

Speaking of a story, my latest composition journey is Castle Tales, a set of six original compositions exploring a wide range of moods from Epic to Tender – created to encourage pianists to achieve musical expression. These descriptive pieces are educational as well as inspiring to play; appealing to tweens, teenagers, and adult pianists. The Collection is designed as a whole – offering contrasting pieces to work on different musical skills, inspired by stories of Medieval life as seen in video games; but each piece stands equally on its own. 

Castle Tales

My free gift to you is an Educational Lead sheet for my tune, Quiet Moments with You. If you’ve never tried improvisation or feel it is intimidating, I hope you will give this one a try. It doesn’t have to sound jazzy – it can sound in any way you like. 

Let me be your guide. If you need a little bit more inspiration, I also have some YouTube video tutorials explaining this piece. If you are wondering how I put all these ideas together, check out the piece on my website.

Download my piece by clicking on the link below:

Quiet Moments With You by Susan Staples Bell


Susan Staples Bell Music

Susan Staples Bell Music at Sheet Music Plus

Youtube tutorials for Quiet Moments Improvisation:

Susan Staples Bell


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Barbara Blakeslee says:

    What a wonderful guest blog! I am a huge fan of Susan Staples Bell’s music.

  2. Thank you so much for the opportunity to share Melanie! I hope your readers gain a little inspiration about improvisation! Thank you again!!

    1. Thank you, Susan, for writing such an inspiring post! 🙂

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