Indonesian Charm

Over the past nine days I have been touring in the Far East. It’s always a pleasure to work with students and teachers in different parts of the world, and fascinating to note the various similarities in teaching styles, despite the cultural differences. I began my trip in Indonesia, a country I visited briefly last year as part of a larger joint Schott Music and G. Henle Verlag book tour.

Indonesia consists of thousands of volcanic islands and is home to hundreds of ethnic groups speaking a variety of different languages (apparently over 700), from Javanese, Malay, Chinese, Arab to Indian and European. The capital city, Jakarta, is situated on the northwest coast of the island of Java: over 10 million residents inhabit this sprawling place. It’s noisy, bustling, humid, vibrant, and certainly not for the faint-hearted. A government health warning should perhaps be issued when sampling some of the food; if hot and spicy isn’t your ‘thing’, you may struggle here. Public transport is limited to say the least, which results in serious daily traffic jams, and a substantial health hazard in the form of pollution. But none of this affected my stay, and I was overwhelmed by the generosity of my hosts and all those with whom I came into contact.

I had been invited to work as one of this year’s ‘Grand Mentors’ for the Cantata for Youth Scheme at the Sekolah Musik Cantata (Cantata Music School) in Kelapa Gading Square, North Jakarta. This school has several large premises across the city, of which the Kelapa Gading branch hosts over 600 weekly students. A range of instruments can be studied alongside music theory, and there are even options to study subjects like classical ballet dancing. Such learning establishments in Indonesia are generally arts based as opposed to solely music.

My task for the week was to work alongside the school’s piano teachers, helping to prepare students for the Sunday concert (see image to the left), and generally suggesting alternative practice ideas as well as offering methods for honing teaching concepts within the school. The Cantata Music School is a Trinity College Examination Centre and a growing number of pupils take these exams every year. Whilst traditional instruments, such as the gamelan, remain popular, there is increasing interest in Western music and Western culture, and, as in the case of other Far Eastern countries, the instant achievement found in certification drives many.

I spent three and a half days working with a complete cross section of diverse students; from elementary through to the associate diploma level. It matters little about where I go to teach in the world, the same elements frequently appear problematic. This may be due to lack of student interest or practice, but, more often than not, it’s sadly due to poor teaching. Becoming a piano teacher in Indonesia is no easy feat. Teachers don’t always have the required opportunities; most haven’t studied to Bachelor degree level, and there seems to be little provision to study Western music at a higher level. Therefore, prospective piano teachers rely on acquiring ABRSM or Trinity College London Grade 8 or diploma exams. Perhaps this may be resolved in coming years, but until that time, it remains for visiting teachers to implement a different approach. And that was my intention.

Students had mostly learned their prepared pieces sufficiently well, but were not always fluent at note-reading or keeping time. These issues were particularly highlighted during the duet playing.

One of the clever concepts of this school, is that they are keen to pair pupils together for duets and also, for trios (6 hands at one keyboard). The Sunday concert featured mostly duet and trio ensembles, and it was heartening that my book of elementary duets and trios, Snapchats (80 days publishing), was used for this purpose.

Snapchats are very short pieces, mostly between 8 and 16 bars in length, for two and three pianists at one piano; they take students from late beginner level to around Grade 4. And they are really beneficial for those just starting to play duets. Several more advanced students also played solo pieces from my new volume, No Words Necessary (Schott Music).

12 Intermediate Piano Pieces for Students from Grade 3 – 6 level, published by Schott Music

Encouraging ensemble work is a marvellous vehicle for overall improvement. I worked with each group (and their teacher), on such aspects as quick note learning, fingering and finger positions, general ensemble, and the importance of rhythm and pulse.

The pulse had been largely side-stepped by the majority of students, which rendered ensemble playing a real challenge. But after some stringent ‘pulse keeping’ in the form of counting out loud (where I found myself either conducting or stamping my foot!), pupils started to place beats more carefully, and were clearly happy to be playing in almost perfect unison alongside their fellow pianists. As a result, the Sunday concert was a resounding success, with some impressive playing (click on the videos below to hear some of the performances, and keep in mind that these children had never played a duet or trio before).

With students and teachers after the concert in Jakarta
With teachers participating in the Play it again workshop, held in Jakarta

My final day in Jakarta was spent working with teachers. I usually offer a teacher’s workshop during my travels. It lasts most of the day and focuses on disparate technical facets. The workshop features a selection of piano exercises, allowing teachers to form a basis for flexible movement with their students; an issue which I perpetually work on with my own students. Teachers responded well to this session, and were asking for more detailed information about flexible, relaxed movement around the keyboard, and therefore a further trip probably beckons at a later date. Many of these exercises are also featured in my course, Play it again (Schott Music).

The final two days of my tour were spent in Johor Bahru (Malaysia), where I gave private lessons at the Forte Academy of Music, and at the Cristofori Academy in Singapore, with a three-hour master class at Bechstein Music World.

At the start of my class at Cristofori held at Bechstein Music World in Singapore

Fearless explorers would relish a trip to Indonesia. I learnt much about the traditional music, responses to Western classical music, and the constantly evolving opportunities for Western musicians to perform on the Indonesian stage. I hope music education continues to thrive and, if so, it will be due to the admirable work done by schools like the Sekolah Musik Cantata.

The following videos were recorded at the Tea for Two (or Three) Concert and feature students from the Sekolah Musik Cantata.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Snapchats Duets & Trios

Snapchats was originally a collection of short piano duets which was published a few years ago. This volume has now been republished and updated, with the inclusion of extra duets and some trios too; it’s most definitely bigger and better than ever!

Snapchats are intended for students from late beginner standard to approximately Grade 4 (ABRSM level). There are 19 duets (four hands at one keyboard) and 4 trios (six hands at one keyboard) in this volume, and they are short, succinct pieces for those who want to explore the art of ensemble playing or simply improve sight-reading skills.

Broadly minimalist in style, these pieces are between 8 and 16 bars in length and they offer a wide selection of moods from expressive atmospheric works such as Sutra, Andante, Shanti Shanti and Joyful, to up-beat numbers like Quick Chat, Hopscotch, Samsara and Take Three. It was quite a challenge to write very short engaging pieces, but students and teachers routinely comment on how much they enjoy the brevity these pieces offer, and many end up repeating the piece (some pieces do have repeat signs for this purpose). Both duets and trios become progressively more difficult throughout the book.

I use these duets and trios as the basis for my sight-reading classes. When I work with students (and teachers) in group classes, one element which they all enjoy and which can also be helpful, is to practice reading altogether. In Malaysia last year I had a class of fifteen piano teachers  simultaneously playing the same trio on five pianos!

You might choose to play Snapchats for fun with friends or perform them in a more formal setting at a music festival or recital, and I hope they offer a special and enjoyable experience. You can listen to each piece by clicking on the following sound files below:

Published by 80 days publishing (Christopher Norton’s publishing company), they are available to purchase here.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Teaching Improvisation to Groups Part 2 by Christopher Norton

Today’s guest post has been penned by renowned composer and educationalist Christopher Norton. This is the second post in a series which offers practice ideas and suggestions for those teaching group improvisation (you can read Part 1, here). Christopher’s work has, for many years, involved teaching students how to improvise using his imaginative and very popular music. Over to Chris…


Having looked at right hand chords (with a track) using root position G, first inversion G and second inversion D chords, with a bass pattern added, we can now talk about some simple techniques for right hand improvising on Samba Sand from Connections for Piano 3. Here’s the piece again:

With the track, play this left hand pattern 3 times:

Once this feels comfortable, almost automatic, you are ready to try adding right hand.

With students, I often find they are happier tapping than playing initially, so I would try tapping unaccented quavers (eighth notes!) on the right leg while playing the left hand chords:

Now for the magic moment – miss one eighth note out. For example:

Now we play right hand notes, playing the same rhythm. I suggest starting with G, A, B, C, D, but play around to see which ones sound good where! My first solution:

I’m already using some principles of melodic development – repeating a phrase with one note changed (bars 1 and 2) repeating an idea (bar 3) and having a contrasting idea (bar 4) The tune also joins the left hand rhythmically for the final bar of the phrase.

Now try missing out the 5th eighth note. Tap first:

This suggests different tunes. For example:

Notice I’ve added a low D and an E (so a sixth note) Students often do this – adding new notes – quite naturally (and so do I!). If a tune suggests itself, go for it, whether the notes are the given ones or not.

Now experiment with missing other eighth notes out to create different rhythm patterns. Always tap first, then play. And don’t be worried if slight variations happen spontaneously, while tapping and while playing. The left chord rhythms may also vary spontaneously as well…

Another useful tip: play the left hand chords and try playing right hand rhythm patterns starting on one note. G is the best starting point. Then try 2 notes (G and A) 3 notes (G, A, B) and 4 notes (I like G, A, B, D – when in doubt, keep it pentatonic!)

Here’s an example of a tune which gradually build the number of notes:

This is another principle of melodic development – playing the same rhythm with different notes. And I’ve also done a new rhythm in bar 7 and I have also repeated a pattern higher up (bars 1 and 2, then bars 5 and 6).

In the next lesson, we will look at various other right hand tricks – grace note, chords (ie more than one note at a time), pedal notes, arpeggio figures and changing direction. Lots of fun!

Until next time…

The Connections for Piano series, with tracks, are available from www.80dayspublishing.com.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.