In the past two months I’ve spent time with almost every one of my students on improvisation. This includes my youngest beginning students, advanced classical musicians, as well as all four piano classes I teach with students ranging from child to senior adult.
Why spend time on improvisation? Music is communication. Improvisation is most free and simple form of musical communication. It is such an important part of our music education. It is a simple concept that enables a student to grow by leaps and bounds. Unfortunately, it is also a neglected teaching concept--perhaps because many teachers don’t feel equipped to teach it. But, it is something any teacher and any student can do!
Last March, I enjoyed a workshop led by Brian Chung at the Music Teacher’s National Convention in Spokane, Washington. Brian Chung is an expert teacher on classical improvisation. He has a wonderful book titled, Improvisation at the Piano.
I’m going to share this short video as an introduction to Brian’s teaching on improvisation and in upcoming posts, I’m going to break this down into a few ideas to try--the same ideas we did in my classes and private lessons so you can try them on your own or in your teaching.
Martha Argerich is among the most inspiring pianists of our era and has given us decades of great performances. Her expressive and lyrical playing sets a high bar for all others playing this instrument. In a New York Philharmonic Orchestra program notes, Ravel was quoted, "The G-major Concerto took two years of work, you know. The opening theme came to me on a train between Oxford and London. But the initial idea is nothing. The work of chiseling then began. We've gone past the days when the composer was thought of as being struck by inspiration, feverishly scribbling down his thoughts on a scrap of paper. Writing music is seventy-five percent an intellectual activity." Perhaps that can be an inspiration to a composer or arranger who hasn't yet found the "muse" for a piece that allows them to quickly expel it to paper, but is slowly working through ideas and crafting their own masterpiece. American jazz was the inspiration behind this piece for Ravel and it is filled with both great excitement and beautiful lyrical themes that Argerich performs masterfully!
Think about a person who can sit down at the piano and just begin to play. They probably don't need music. Maybe, they are even improvising and simply playing from their heart. Isn't that a great image and goal for any pianist? I certainly think so! But, what I think is strange is the fact that most piano teachers do not make that their goal at all in their teaching. Rather than helping the student understand what makes music work, we focus on repertoire lists--checklists of pieces that we've been told they should learn to play. The student may learn some scales and chord patterns, but more times than not, they don't learn to read chord charts let alone improvise and create music.
Piano methods have their place, and the study of great repertoire is very important, but too often, we get lazy as piano teachers and go through our routines, processes and curricula without helping the student understand "why" and help them apply what they are learning as they grow as musicians.
My group piano classes are built on the goal of teaching students to be able to play and enjoy music. It is a practical type of instruction. Doing this in a group with peers allows students to interact and learn from each other perhaps getting new ideas to try for themselves.
A new class has just begun called Piano Fun - Pop Hits. While we will focus on specific popular melodies as a class, the skills the students will be developing can be applied and will be useful for playing any music the student is interested in playing--classical, pop, rock, gospel, blues--and students will be encouraged to discover new things and share them with others in the class.
Sound interesting? A Pop Hits class is starting up this week on Thursday afternoon at 1pm, and there will be other similar classes being launched in the very near future at other times if that time does not work for you. Let me know if you're interested and I'd love to have you in class. Contact me!
We are in week seven of our eight-week recreational music making piano classes. This has been such a great experience. We launched four classes. Three were targeted at adults and one for upper elementary to young teens. Two of the adult classes were scheduled during the afternoon hours.
Glen Gould was a master interpreter of Bach. He had a great talent at understanding and performing the polyphony of Bach's music. Gould brings out clarity of voices. Gould also put a lot of thought into his performances and trying to interpret them as Bah would have played them. They weren't written for the legato sound of the piano and Gould plays the piano in a style reminiscent of the harpsichord or clavichord which these pieces were written. There are a lot of good Bach performances on recording, but Gould's performances remain among the very best.
I grew up as the king of bad fingering. I can remember teachers and adjudicators criticizing my fingering all the way through my younger years. They diligently tried to instill in me good technic and logical fingering. But, the technic and fingering I used worked, so it was a tough sell to get me to unlearn one way and try to do it another. I used proper fingering in the basics such as scales, but everything else was somewhat of a free-for-all.
I think my own problem was made worse from playing jazz and improvising. If I’m improvising a technical lick or phrase, I’m improvising the fingering as well. The fingering usually worked, but wasn’t efficient. It is so easy to allow yourself to practice with and use a bad technic and not even realize the limitations it causes.
When I’m working with a student, I talk less about fingering and more about efficiency of technic. My advanced students know that I could care less what fingering they use unless it is inefficient. Our hands are different. Not only in size, but in what feels natural and is tension-free. While my students know they have flexibility in choosing a fingering that works and is comfortable for them, they know what I’m looking for is efficiency. We talk about avoiding “acrobatics.” Acrobatics cause inefficiency and likely affect the expression of the passage at best and at worst, the accuracy and consistency.
We often have to do acrobatics as we play. Liszt and Rachmaninoff filled their music with acrobatics at times, but not everything is an acrobatic and it is important to recognize when something doesn’t require acrobatics and can be performed efficiently. Just as important, we must do acrobatics consistently and with as much efficiency as possible.
Consistent and efficient fingering takes advantage of the wonderful skill each of our brains is equipped to do and that is muscle memory. It is that wonderful phenomena of learning a passage properly and never really thinking about it again--the hands just do their thing.
Why such bad fingering? Let’s change the question. Why not use the most efficient and effective way to play a technical passage and enable our muscle memory to help us learn things and be able to play them over and over accurately and expressively?
Alexander Scriabin wrote this beautiful short piece when he was only 16 years old. The piece is filled with deep emotion and a gypsy-like expressive and weeping melody. Another performance that makes Evgeny Kissin one of my favorite pianists.
Last week, our new RMM program was given a nice article in a regional newspaper. The article was well-written and gave a great description of our program, but the headline bothered me a lot. "In the Key of Fun" read the headline with a subtitle "...aiming at a wider audience by making [piano lessons] fun."
It left me with the question, "So traditional piano lessons aren't fun?"
I'm sure I used the word "fun" in the interview and am therefore the reason for that headline, but I also remember using the word "joy" many times, yet that wasn't highlighted in the story. Why is it that we crave "fun" but are mistaking a momentary emotion like "fun" or "happy" be what we are looking for when deep inside, we crave release, freedom, relaxation, all of which I feel are better encapsulated in the simple word, "joy."
Recreational Music Making has some distinctives that I am going to highlight today.
Musical expression is one of these and the greatest benefit of musical expression is a general sense of accomplishment. This improves life, builds self-esteem, increases confidence, and gives us joy.
A 2003 study by Barry Bittman, MD that was published in Focus on Caregiving showed that patients who participated in an RMM program were able to decrease the need for doctor visits due to stress. A 1998 study by Frederick Tims, Chair of Music Therapy at Michigan State University showed that elderly participants in RMM programs had increased levels of human growth hormone. Masatada Wachi published a study in the Medical Science Monitor 2007 showing workers who participated in RMM programs had less burnout. RMM has enabled companies to have less employee turnover and has proven to be an excellent team building exercise.
Those of us who are musicians understand this "joy" and this "fun." We know it is much deeper than just fun, but it helps to see actual studies that show specific benefits and improvements in those participating in a Recreational Music Making program.
That is one of the primary reasons that as we launch this new program, three of the four sessions are for adults. We know the benefit is there and hope this new class contributes to the better wellness of people in our community.
Today’s blog is unique for me in that rather than a post where I can write based on my own and my students’ experiences, I am writing on a subject I am at the beginning of my discovery and experimentation. My hope in writing in these early stages will help me to learn more from these early experiences and to encourage others to make discoveries and share them as they may help me develop my own classes to be more effective and enjoyable.
Today, I will focus on three questions:
The National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) Foundation website (nammfoundation.org) shares several great reasons for studying and teaching music. It has been scientifically proven that studying and playing music is a benefit to people of all ages. Babies, toddlers, school-aged, working adults, and seniors have all shown a wide variety of benefits to playing and being immersed in music at their own level.
Playing an instrument enables children to do better in school and life and teens find music as their “social glue.” Adults find playing music reduces levels of stress and becomes an emotional outlet. Seniors find music making enables them to better manage diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson and they see their own self-esteem increase.
RMM is more about the experience of music-making than the outcome. Classes focus on individual process without the pressure of performance in front of others. As part of a class, even the smallest contribution adds to the whole and this experience is enjoyable and rewarding.
RMM is simply another way to learn music. It isn’t a better or a lesser way. It has a different way of reaching the same goal: to better our lives by playing music. Students who have taken traditional piano lessons for some time but are “hitting the wall” and ready to quit may find RMM just what they need to reignite their passion. Adults who always wished they could play--some who have taken lessons before and others who have never taken--should find RMM classes a great way to experience playing the piano and making music. Some RMM students may continue on semester after semester for years and others may transfer to traditional piano lessons or even using RMM as a start to another instrument altogether. RMM works together with traditional piano lessons and provides additional ways for a person to get all of the benefits of playing an instrument.
RMM can be for virtually anyone. Classes are taken together in a classroom with several electric pianos. The pressure is low and the enjoyment is high. The commitment is short 8-week mini-semesters. While having a piano or keyboard at home would be a benefit and allow the student to play and have this enjoyment at home, having an instrument to practice on is not required--in fact, practicing on one’s own is not required. This is a big distinction from traditional piano lessons.
Texas news author and columnist Dayle Shockley wrote, “Music is a gift that lasts a lifetime. While not everyone possesses the natural talent for playing well, the way I see it, a little music is better than no music at all.”
Oh my! 2019!! I am looking forward to a great new year of blogging about things that inspire me with piano playing, teaching, and listening to others. I hope you had a great season of holidays as we wrapped up 2018. My personal November and December flew by like a whirlwind as in addition to celebrating Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years and all the performances that season entails, I was married on New Year’s weekend! It was a wonderfully fun time, but kept me from writing.
With the new year, I am very excited to get back at it and have a number of articles in mind regarding piano teaching, practicing, and accompanying. Three topics that I am digging into and learning about and will begin the year with are:
A lot of great ideas and discussions ahead, but to start the year, I will share this great video of what is easily one of the most popular and recognizable piano concertos: The Grieg Piano Concerto! This is often one of the first piano concertos a pianist plays and is played beautifully and expressively in this video by Khatia Buniatishvili. Enjoy this performance and watch for new posts this January!