Create First! Teaching Improvisation from Lesson One 

This week’s guest post features an article by pianist, composer, and educator Forrest Kinney. In his post, Forrest introduces his approach to a creativity-based model for music education in which improvising (or what he prefers to call “creating” or “free play”) is taught alongside traditional approaches from the outset. *** *** *** Create First! Teaching Improvisation from Lesson One  Improvisation. It means many things to many people. To me, it’s a rather clumsy five-syllable word that could easily be the name for some sort of invasive medical procedure. It doesn’t convey the delight that comes from freely creating music, an activity that has enriched and sustained my musical practice for over four decades. I prefer to call it “creating” or “free play.” For hundreds of years, improvisation has been taught in a certain way when it has been taught at all. First, you learn to play a song—melody with accompaniment. Often this means you will learn about chords in the process and how to style them. (I call this activity “arranging” because it can be taught without involving improvisation.) Then, as you play and repeat the tune, you vary it while keeping the harmonic pattern of the accompaniment. And so, you might first play Amazing Grace in the key of G, then embellish the melody, and then perhaps freely create melodies using the notes of a G major scale. This time-honoured approach is undeniably practical. After all, keyboardists in churches and dance bands have been varying tunes for hundreds of years. And this is largely what jazz musicians do today—they learn and play tunes and then freely improvise over the chord progression, the “changes.” However, there are some serious drawbacks to this approach. The main one […]

By |September 24th, 2018|Teaching|2 Comments

On Rhythm: How to Develop a Steady Pulse  

I decided to put together an occasional series on rhythm, in response to readers who say they experience rhythmical issues when they play. There are many factors that may contribute to this problem, and I am going to cover one point at a time. Welcome to the first post in this series, on the importance of setting and maintaining a steady beat. I can’t think of many activities we do at the piano that are not connected to a pulse, therefore establishing and maintaining the pulse should be the first priority in all we do. This demands special attention during our practice when we are stopping and restarting. At the elementary level it’s the job of the teacher to set the pulse in lessons by counting out aloud energetically one or two bars before every scale, before every piece, and before every time a passage is repeated. After a while, the pupil is invited to set their own pulse by counting out aloud before they play. Laborious? A bit, but well worth the effort. In this way the process becomes internalised, and happens as second nature. Clapping to the Metronome How good are you at maintaining a steady beat? In this metronome experiment, continue to clap the beats when the metronome suddenly drops out. Can you maintain the pulse? Find out here… And now for another exercise. Set a metronome to whatever speed you like, and clap so that your claps drown out the sound of the metronome. If you hear the metronome, the chances are that your clap is a bit before or after the beat. Clapping is just one way of responding to the pulse, but notice how in this Dalcroze Eurhythmics class […]

Remembering my Studies with Peter Wallfisch

I had the great privilege to embark on my postgraduate studies with Peter Wallfisch, studying with him from 1980 for two years (but returning on occasion thereafter). During my time with this remarkable man, my playing blossomed and I grew not only as a pianist but also as a musician. I look back on this chapter of my life with gratitude and a tremendous fondness for a teacher I came to love dearly. Last year, when I visited his widow, Anita Lasker, I walked into the studio where I had had my inspiring, magical lessons and  was overcome with emotion as so many wonderful memories flooded back. Peter Wallfisch was born in Breslau in 1924, and had sought refuge from Hitler’s Germany in Jerusalem and Paris before settling in Britain in 1952. His tenure as a professor of piano at the RCM was from 1973 to 1991, during which time he influenced many notable pianists now active in the profession. He was head of a musical dynasty that includes his wife Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, (cellist and founder of the ECO), son Raphael (international concert cellist), daughter-in-law Elisabeth (noted violinist), grandsons Benjamin (composer and conductor) and Simon (cellist and tenor). Peter was a musicians’ musician who is remembered not only a solo pianist but as an ensemble musician. His lineage was the Germanic tradition from Bach right through to Reger and Krenek, but he also championed very many British composers (including Kenneth Leighton, whom he raved about) and other slightly unusual composers (such as Novak). He confessed to having a passion for organ music, and he was not overly keen on Chopin or Rachmaninov. One time I arrived for my lesson and Peter was not in a […]

A Practical Theory Lesson

Most of us were probably brought up on the middle C approach to learning the piano, and the first scale we ever learned was C major. We probably got tangled up with the fingering, since there are no black notes there to help us. Chopin taught the B major scale (RH) and D flat major scale (LH) before C major, not only because the fingerings are self-evident, but also because the hand positions are more natural and therefore these scales are the most comfortable. The long fingers (2, 3 and 4) are more suited to the black keys and the short fingers (1 and 5) to the white keys. It is useless to start learning scales on the piano with C major, the easiest to read, and the most difficult for the hand, as it has no pivot. Begin with the one that places the hand at ease with the longer fingers on the black keys, like B major for instance. (Chopin, quoted by Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger) If we begin with B major in the RH and D flat major in the LH, there is virtually no chance of confusion with the fingerings. There are only two white notes in those scales and the thumb takes both of them – there is nowhere else for it to go! While adult minds will want to know the theory behind the construction of the major scale, there is absolutely no need to teach this to a child beginner for them to be able to play their scales. This would be as ludicrous as teaching the rules of grammar to a child who is just learning to speak. We can save theory until later and start teaching the scales using […]

Chess or Checkers?

I have written extensively about the subject of slow practice on this blog and elsewhere. Since slow practice is such a cornerstone of our practice routine I don’t apologise for making a few comments about it again now! Here is Angela Hewitt talking about slow practice. I totally concur that when we practise slowly we can do so with rhythmic integrity, musical expression, good sound and attention to pedalling and texture. This is important! If we think about slow practice as something dull, mechanical and unmusical we risk playing in this way. I’m afraid I cannot agree with Ms. Hewitt’s sentiment that nobody likes doing it! I get the same sort of satisfaction practising slowly as any dedicated craftsman would get from the process of making something beautiful, rather than just the end result. I actually love practising slowly, controlling every finger and every sound I make. Don’t you? It feels to me like a type of meditation, a discipline where I delay the gratification that comes from playing through a piece and make a serious investment in the quality, security and polish of my playing. I think of it as something other than playing actually, a totally different type of activity. In Issue 74 of Pianist Magazine, there is an interview with Steven Osborne. I really like what he has to say about slow practice: The thing that’s helped me learn things faster has actually been practising slowly, and very intently, trying to get it to feel good and taking time before speeding up. Two important things come out of this – doing the slow practice for long enough and having it feel good. I often think of slow practice as digging foundations for a building. The more […]

By |October 11th, 2013|Teaching|6 Comments

Looping – How to Manage Repetition Rhythmically

Piano playing requires extremely sophisticated motor skills and superfine coordination. While we acquire these skills for a new piece or if we are polishing up an old one, a certain amount of repetition is inevitable. As we repeat, we refine and ingrain. When we need to repeat something, it strikes me as preferable to know why we are repeating it. Am I repeating it because it was good and I want to make it a habit, or was there something wrong that needs to be corrected? If the latter, what was not right about the first repetition that I need to do it again? Not just a vague response like “there were some wrong notes” but something more probing, along the lines of “my LH misjudged the leap at the beginning of the bar and that threw me out”, or “I sensed tension in my forearm and noticed the semiquavers became uneven”. I can hear some of you thinking that’s all very well, but young players don’t have the diagnostic skills to figure these things out by themselves during practice. I sometimes ask a younger student to give me a lesson, meaning we reverse roles and I mirror back to them what they did. I admit that sometimes I might exaggerate my point slightly, but I am amazed that most of the time they are able to hear and tell me what wasn’t right. It is absolutely possible to teach them to listen with elephant ears and to teach them by asking questions. The Feedback Loop When we use the feedback loop during practice, we deliberately stop and think before correcting a mistake. “Think ten times and play once” was Liszt’s command, and it remains a […]

By |September 6th, 2013|Teaching|6 Comments

A Tool for Memory Work: Tracking

Memorising a piece takes plenty of time and energy, and requires a strategy more sophisticated than simply closing the score after several weeks of reading it. Some memory work is like buying insurance – you hope you’ll never actually need it! While some pianists memorise easily, others struggle with it and never really feel confident. We’ve all been in that horrible situation where for the life of us we can’t remember what comes next, even though we know we know the piece inside out and backwards. I have written in depth about memorisation – have a look at The Analytic Memory and Tools for Memorisation. Here is a tool for when you have done a certain amount of groundwork memorising a piece, but you want something extra to strengthen and test your memory – I call it tracking. You can use it for any piece, long or short and I guarantee it will work a treat. Mark the Score If you don’t want to mark up your original score, make a copy for the purposes of this exercise. Divide the piece up into meaningful units that you’re going to number like tracks on a CD. The tracks can be as long or as short as you want, but the unit you choose should at least be a phrase. You might prefer a longer section, but here short is good! I have divided up Chopin’s Nocturne in B, op. 32, no. 1 into 12 tracks in all. The score will end up looking something like this (I am showing page 1 only): Practice Suggestions With the marked score away from the piano (preferably over the other side of the room but certainly out of sight), here are some suggestions for […]

The Adult Amateur

Some adults play the piano for pleasure, it is a thread that goes through their lives from childhood to old age and what a wonderful joy, solace, outlet for self expression and source of inspiration this is (actually, this list could go on and on). Others start when they retire, and I have seen some beautiful results from people who are suddenly able to devote time and energy to this new discipline. As we all know, playing the piano can be a lonely activity and yet for many adults getting up and playing in front of others is a daunting prospect. Fingers can turn to jelly as weeks of careful preparation appear to come to naught under the effects of a powerful drug secreted by our own body – adrenalin. When we are confronted with a threatening situation the nervous system releases adrenalin into the blood stream, and this produces most of the symptoms associated with stage fright: shallow and quick breathing, increased heart rate, trembling, and nervousness.  While these responses may be appropriate if we were facing a valid threat to survival, none of these effects helps with piano performance at optimal levels. At the end of our performance (if we make it that far!), we may be left feeling disappointed, dejected and even humiliated. It can be a terrifying experience to submit oneself to this experience and while it is true that performing is not for everyone there are things that we can do to improve the situation.   Unfortunately, the nervous system doesn’t distinguish between real threats and perceived threats. If the mind perceives the threat as large enough, even though a rational analysis would say otherwise, our system starts pumping the adrenalin. Adrenalin affects professional […]

Back Up!

In an effort to assist students with their learning, I will often ask for the beginning and the end of the piece in a lesson. Or perhaps even work on the last movement a bit before embarking on the first (I have written about this in a previous post so I won’t repeat myself here). If I didn’t do this the beginnings would always tend to be better than the endings, because they have received more time, attention and repetition. I would like to offer a couple of thoughts for backwards practice that I think will help to shift problems as well as provide a bit of variety in the practice routine. Practising Backwards – Phrase by Phrase I was very happy to hear Simone Dinnerstein talk about this type of practice in a radio interview she gave on Performance Today (listen from 6:40, although the whole interview is interesting). I have been doing this for years, and can attest to its enormous value. The purpose of this is to strengthen memory by training us to break the habit of knowing the music only in sequence. If we know a piece only in relation to the phrase or section that has come before it, we are at serious risk of a breakdown if we lose our place in performance. Practising like this means we know our piece literally backwards as well as forwards! Play the last phrase (or section) of a the piece. Go back to the phrase (or section) before that, and now play the two phrases in sequence. Repeat this process until you reach the beginning. Our natural tendency to start at the beginning means we are often more comfortable with beginnings than endings. An added bonus of this […]

“But it Takes Me Ages to Learn a New Piece!”

One of the saddest things about our exam culture is spending the best part of a year on three pieces and a bunch of scales, polishing every little detail until perfect. A couple of weeks after the exam, the student has nothing to play because they have forgotten their old pieces and won’t be ready with the new ones for a while yet. This structure means they often have very poor reading skills and are ill-equipped as practical musicians. It is hard to fathom is that a supposedly advanced piano student with years of lessons behind them would not be able to get up and play Happy Birthday by ear at a party, or to read at sight simple accompaniments when called upon to do so. A very distinguished colleague who taught high-level conservatory students would only ever hear a piece once or twice. Even first year students had to bring something new each week, and while the pressure was often quite intense every single one of them developed the skills to assimilate music very quickly. They had to! Apart from playing extremely well, the best of them became excellent sight readers capable of working out complex scores within a few days. They were flexible and marketable pianists with a large repertoire, just what you want from a conservatory education. Quick Studies Not every one of our students would be able to handle this sort of pressure of course, and don’t get me wrong – spending weeks and months polishing and refining certain pieces is absolutely imperative! There is no way we can develop pianistic excellence and finesse without this. To redress the balance between the type of painstaking and time-consuming practise involved in perfecting a piece and the […]

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