Teaching Improvisation to Groups by Christopher Norton

My guest writer today is renowned New Zealand born composer and music educator Christopher Norton. Christopher is well-known for his Microjazz series;  a collection of jazz piano books for students of all levels which has sold well over a million copies worldwide. More recently, he has written Micromusicals for schools, and he continues to compose music in many different styles and genres. In the first of a short series of posts for my blog, Christopher sheds some light on teaching improvisation to groups. Over to Christopher…


I’ve just come back from a 2-day Keyboard Kamp (like the spelling? – I’m in North America now!) with young students from all over Canada. My brief was to teach improvisation in groups, ranging in age from around 7 years old to teenagers as old as 16. I had to decide in advance which material to use and how to use it, all without any music in front of the students (who were also sharing keyboards!) That was my choice – I have learnt that relying on students reading music can prove awkward, because in most groups music-reading ability is variable, to say the least.

I used 2 main series, Connections for Piano and American Popular Piano and used a variety of approaches. The first piece was from Connections 3 – Samba Sand. The tune employs the same three chords, three times:

Connections for Piano has backing tracks and I use these all the time when doing improv. But the first thing I did was teach 3 chord shapes, played with right hand initially, but not too low or too high on the keyboard. The chords were:

I taught each chord, one at a time, by saying the names of the notes from the bottom note – “B, D, G” was the first chord. Once everyone could play the chord comfortably, I named it “chord 1” and proceeded to spell out the next chord – “C, E, G” (‘chord 2’) The group seemed relieved to find they were playing a chord of C major!) Finally chord 3 – A, D, F#. I did quiz the group about what they thought the chords might be, then explained very quickly about the broad concept of inversions. If you haven’t noticed already, there is a first inversion of G, a root position C and a second inversion of D.

Now, with a backing track (available with all Connections for Piano pieces) I got them to play the chords, with me shouting out helpfully, in advance, what the next chord was going to be. This was taxing enough for the students, especially when the 8th bar of each phrase was a specific rhythm on chord 1:

Once the students have the chords feeling semi-automatic (with the track) they can start the improvisational aspect – chord rhythms. I suggest some repeated rhythm patterns, like:

Trying different rhythm patterns over a specific chord pattern is sufficiently taxing for a group, while still being fun.

The next thing to try is a left hand bass line, using the original piece as a template (for the teacher – the students still do it by ear). So I say, “when I say G you play this pattern”:

They learn that, then I say “if that is G, what is C?”. They hopefully find C, E, G. Then D, which has an F# (D, F#, A) Then through the chord sequence, with the track, with me shouting “G!”, “C!” etc. just before they are due to play the chord.  The whole sequence:

G / / / |C / / / | G / / / |D / / / |

G / / / |C / / / | G / D / |

(And repeat x2)

The next step is to play the 3-note chords in the right hand and the bass line in the left hand, with a variety of rhythm patterns in the right hand, including off-beat crotchets and even off-beat quavers! Reggae and ska sorted.

The next article will talk about right hand improvisation. But chord rhythms and a bass line, and using chord numbers as well as names, is a great start!

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 two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.


 

Composing: An underrated tool in teacher’s toolkits, by Jenni Pinnock

My guest writer today is British composer and teacher Jenni Pinnock, who is based in Cambridgeshire. Jenni is a busy composer and her works have been performed worldwide. She also runs a private teaching practice, and here, she offers teachers and students a few inspired ideas for incorporating composition into lessons. Over to Jenni…


“There is nothing greater than the joy of composing something oneself and then listening to it.” – Clara Schumann

The above quote is a highly divisive one. For those that aren’t fans of composing it can seem like a rather daunting prospect. Some musicians will admit to dabbling it and maybe even enjoying it. Others go wide-eyed in fear and recant the difficulties of composing pieces for their GCSEs, A levels or even degrees.  To instrumental teachers the idea of encouraging others to compose can seem equally daunting, or even pointless. I’ve approached instrumental teachers before who have talked about how much they hated composing – why should their students like it? Why when they should be working on new notes, expanding their repertoire and taking exams would composition be of benefit to them? It may come as a surprise to some, but composition can actually be a very useful tool to integrate into lessons, especially for certain students.

Let me explain. I’m not suggesting you should take up entire lessons composing (though you may want to!), but it can be a highly effective part of a teaching toolkit. My degrees are in composition, but as many composers do, I teach alongside writing music. I first began using composition as part of my teaching process when working in a special school in London. An autistic student I was working closely with was amazing at improvising, but lacked confidence when it came to using weaker fingers and notation. Through writing and ‘formalising’ some of her improvisations we improved their notation reading (through writing!), got them using all fingers and confidence sky rocketed. All these factors improved their playing tenfold.  When I started my own teaching practice, I was already spending the majority of my time working as a composer, and incorporating composition into teaching seemed natural. It’s worth remembering that as formally trained adults with the history of musical composition on our shoulders we may fuss and worry over every note, wondering how our music will fit into the contemporary world and analysing every note. Students don’t have this fear: They’re writing for them, and for the joy of music. In fact, it can be far more freeing than playing normal pieces, with no rights or wrongs – ultimate freedom to play around and create something that’s theirs!

With younger students and beginners, I find the idea of composing can free them up from the constraints of notation, which can be a source of anxiety or simply involve a lot of brain power! They can play around with their instrument, find patterns and listen to what they’re creating. The process of recording their pieces (even just bits of them!) in a written form can help you identify how they feel most comfortable reading at that stage (note names, fingerings, stave notation) and help you identify weak areas to zone in on later. Some can benefit from writing graphic scores and assigning symbols to notation patterns they know rather than worry about writing it all on a stave, while for others the process of cementing their music on staves makes it feel more ‘real’ whilst simultaneously boosting their notation comprehension skills. Composing can happen with one note or dozens of them – it can be integrated at any stage.

Assigning a composition task to help get to grips with a technical exercise can also be useful for more established students. You can assign something with the challenge of including a current exercises (e.g. a mini chromatic scale or a certain hand position, incorporating alternative fingerings or specific interval jumps), writing in a particular scale or mode or using a particular technique. As musicians we know we often develop a skill faster by processing it in lots of different ways, and the creativity of composition is a way of doing just that.

How do you know if your student will be open to the idea of composing? Well, the easiest way is to ask, or naturally flow into it during the course of a lesson. Rarely do I find I say “Right, let’s start writing a piece” to a student, or present a formal brief – it just happens naturally. I often find that students spend time playing around with favourite phrases or patterns on their instrument while I’m writing notes or switching pieces – this can be an excellent way of getting into it. What do they like about that phrase? Can they play it in another octave? What does it make them think of? How could they follow it, or accompany it? Often when I then suggest expanding it into a few bars (2 or 4 to start with!) they’re often keen on the ‘fun’ homework task – and it goes from there. One particular favourite of mine is to ask piano students to write a piece incorporating whatever their current left hand challenge is, such as fully formed chords, broken chords or Alberti bass. Students sometimes find these tricky to master when it comes to putting both hands together,  but if I suggest them writing a simple tune over the top of it often they practice so much that the left hand becomes second nature.

Some of my instrumental students have recently taken the jump from writing their own mini pieces to submitting compositions into competitions or using them as their third exam piece (where allowed). That’s a phase where you might want to seek support from a composer, but you can use pieces they’ve learnt as references – or introduce pieces they could use as inspiration (for example, exploring different genres, styles, or structures).

The most important thing to remember when introducing composing to students is to remember that, initially at least, nothing is wrong. Self expression is key, and whether there are parallel fifths or constantly changing time signatures, a graphic score or fully realised notation, none of that matters. What matters is that it’s theirs, and has encouraged their musicality to grow and be explored in different ways while helping to develop or cement some technical elements of their performing or theory knowledge too. Make sure students take ownership of their pieces – try to get them to title them, and where possible record them too – even just on a phone or tablet so it can be shared and stored.

As teachers, we all have a toolkit of techniques we use. We have our favourite tutor books, favourite study pieces, improv structures and exercises that we pull out at various times depending on students’ preferences and requirements. Composing can be a useful tool in that collection. It won’t be right for all students, but for some it could be that shining light that helps them unleash their creative potential and connect both to their instrument and the wider musical world.

 www.jennipinnock.com


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.


 

Cadenza International Summer Music School

When the academic year ends Summer schools begin, and they now appear to be more popular than ever. Students have so many options to choose from that it must be a challenge deciphering which might offer the most inspirational learning experience. I will be spending two weeks in Shropshire this year (from July 22nd – 5th August) at Moreton Hall enjoying PIANO WEEK, hosted and organised by pianist Samantha Ward. But if you would prefer to stay nearer London, the Cadenza International Summer Music School might be an excellent choice.

Artistic director and pianist, John Thwaites is at the helm, and the school is now in its twenty-sixth year. Based at the Purcell School, near Watford, just outside London, this friendly course provides a very generous array of private lessons, chamber music opportunities and coaching sessions.

The course runs from July 13th – 20th and tuition is offered for piano, violin, viola and ‘cello. Students can enjoy a minimum of three individual lessons on their first study instrument during the week, plus chamber music coaching as well as concert and performance platforms. Everyone plays in at least one chamber group which is coached not less than every second day. Repertoire plans can be made in advance, especially for pianists. Groups and partnerships apparently evolve flexibly during the week; the coaching timetable is arranged in two-day cycles. All levels and abilities are encouraged and there is a wide age range from youngsters through to teenagers, as well as undergraduates, postgraduates, professional and amateur pianists.

Teaching faculty:

Piano: John Thwaites, Julian Jacobson, Fali Pavri, William Fong, Pascal Nemirovsk and Victor Sangiorgio

Violin: Krysia Osostowicz, Daniel Rowland, Leland Chen, Maciej Rakowski

Viola: Robin Ireland

Cello: Adrian Brendel, Alexander Baillie, Pierre Doumenge, Louise Hopkins, Ursula Smith

You can find out more information about the Cadenza International Summer Music School, here. Click below to download the brochure:

Cadenza International Summer Music School Full Brochure


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.


 

 

Intervals – training or teaching?

In my second guest post of this new series, George Bevan (an organist, choirmaster and Director of Music at Monkton Combe School), pictured below, writes about his experiences whilst teaching intervals, and offers some suggestions for effectively tutoring this important skill. I hope this may be useful for all who teach instrumental music exams. Over to George…


It is not uncommon for students to be sent my way, usually a few weeks before an impending grade exam, to go through some aural tests. So this morning I found myself exploring grade 4 Trinity tests, which include identifying intervals – my favourite! As with many of the aural tests set for exams, I find that there can be several different approaches and that these generally fall into two categories: those which just work, and those which actually deepen the musical instinct of our students.

Those which just work

The age-old technique is to associate each interval with a well-known tune ie. a perfect fourth sounds like the beginning of Away in a manger. This was how my piano teacher taught me to recognise intervals as a child. It’s okay I guess, but since I was a chorister at the same time, it always struck me as a little strange to be imagining the opening of Away in a manger in the middle of a Palestrina mass – yes it works, but on so many levels surely that can’t be right?!!

At least the student has to match up in their head what they hear with their ears. [Anders Ericsson would call this a mental representation; Paul Harris would call it making connections.] But aside from this, I can’t see any merit at all to this approach. If you just want your student to get the answers right for the exam, then this method works. But why is this skill being tested? Trinity say it’s to develop your skills in recognising intervals. I’m afraid that doesn’t answer the question.

Those which actually deepen the musical instinct of the student

There are so many more connections which can be made here, all of which are going to develop our students’ understanding and skills, and ultimately their musicianship.

Let’s consider the nature of each interval, starting with seconds. Instantly we have the scope to introduce or revisit all of these concepts: minor second = same as a semitone; major second = same as a tone; seconds are dissonant.

Thirds are major or minor. It may seem obvious, but even without the fifth of the triad above them, they sound like a regular chord. [Add the perfect fifth above and most students will hear this clearly]. At this point, I play a quick game of ‘second or third?’ Never mind the major/minor-ness of the interval for the moment – it’s simply a question of is it a dissonant sound, or a pleasing one? Insist on an immediate answer. This will develop an instinct to listen for dissonance or consonance. Once they have this, then you can narrow it down to whether it’s major or minor.

Perfect fifth. Is this chord major or minor? Neither! A great opportunity to discuss that all important third in a triad as being responsible for making the chord either major or minor. Without, it sounds hollow, almost like you can put your hand in the empty space in the middle. [Add a third, either major or minor, and then play it without again to illustrate the point.]

Sixths. These are major and minor too. So now we play a variant on the ‘second or third?’ game, but now it’s called ‘small or big?’ and we play it with either thirds or sixths. They all sound major or minor, so now what we’re focusing on is this: are they close together or far apart? Again, insist on an instant answer to develop instinct, this time for spacing. Then refine – major or minor?

And now ‘second, third or sixth?’ Answer straight away – is it small, big or dissonant? And then refine.

Another way of approaching intervals is to sing. Specifically to sing a scale. It’s called a scale for good reason – it’s what we use to measure the size of an interval. But I had a problem this morning with my student – it quickly became apparent that he can’t sing (yet!) I played him a perfect fifth, B flat to F, within his vocal range, and asked him to sing a scale from the bottom to the top. He sang the B flat (pretty badly but near enough). This was followed by four more notes, and he finished sort of close to an E. It certainly didn’t resemble a major scale; I asked him whether he knew what a major scale sounded like, and he replied – perhaps a little doubtfully – that he did. His second effort at singing the scale was even worse. I’m sure he does know what a major scale sounds like, but he couldn’t find that sound for himself in his own head, and he couldn’t reproduce it. From what I know of him, I suspect that this causes him no end of problems. In short, each note that he plays on his instrument is an external entity, and not part of a linear progression running in his head. Surely that can’t be right?

Not so long ago I heard an examiner at a training session, outlining the ways in which she had prepared a piano pupil, who couldn’t sing, to score adequately in the aural tests despite his weakness. The one suggestion which she didn’t make was to teach him to sing. Is it a piano teacher’s job to teach their pupil to sing? If necessary then yes, of course it is! The importance of singing is not so much the external sound, but the need to have a mental representation of the sound inside your head. When I play a rising minor sixth, I know what it is going to sound like before it happens because I can hear it. And the proof that I can hear it? – I can sing it.

Being able to sing up and down a scale, in the same way as we might measure centimetres on a ruler, is an invaluable skill in learning to measure accurately. We can get a sense of magnitude in comparing a second with a sixth by singing our way up, step by step. It focuses listening skills, especially if we are insistent that our students sing in tune, and it helps them to create all sorts of aural connections.

Intervals are also harmonic. Understanding how thirds and fifths (and fourths and sixths for that matter) fit in the wider context of chords will immediately make sight-singing so much more straightforward. And if you can sight-sing, instrumental sight-reading is so much easier. Tonic solfa is an incredibly useful tool as well, in as much as it also gives intervals context within the scale. Singing a perfect fifth from doh to soh feels very different from singing from mi to ti – in the case of the latter interval, it is so much easier to aim at the characteristic sound of a leading note than it is to try to summon up Twinkle twinkle little star out of nowhere…. If we are serious about teaching rather than training our students, I can’t see how the name that tune method stands up to any level of scrutiny whatsoever.

In many aspects of instrumental technique, the best method is simply to show our pupils what works; leaving them to work it out for themselves takes too much time. But in developing musicianship, we need to encourage them to explore for themselves at every turn; ironically, just teaching them what works deprives them of so much opportunity for discovery. I cannot stress how important it is to spend time exploring these sorts of things with our pupils – the very things which some teachers say they don’t have time for because they need to cover repertoire, technical work etc. What’s the hurry? Let’s take a little more time, and teach in a way which will serve our pupils well beyond the confines of the exam room.

www.musicatmonkton.com


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.


 

The Kodály Method – a useful way to study music?

In the last blog post I examined the importance and value of the famous Suzuki Method. Today I am continuing my exploration of various music educational systems by highlighting the Kodály Method. Unlike the Suzuki, this Method focuses on studying singing, pitch and musical notation rather than learning an instrument however, these elements are crucial to musical development.

Zoltan Kodály (1882-1967) was an important Hungarian composer and music educator. He worked closely with fellow Hungarian Béla Bartók (one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century) collecting, assimilating and transcribing folk music.

Kodály started developing his own method of musical learning after he became disenchanted with the general level of music education in schools. This system is quite different in approach to the Suzuki Method because it focuses on singing. By interesting children in singing from the outset, Kodály encourages them to develop a sense of pitch and notation before instrumental playing is even introduced.

Kodály’s Method is really very simple. He reasoned that singing was the most natural vehicle to communicate music and indeed it can produce many favourable feelings and emotions in humans potentially having a profound effect on intellectual development.

With this in mind, Kodály introduced three key learning stages which are the unconscious experience, the making conscious and reinforcement. Another explanation for this particular sequence of music study is the preparation, presentation and practice.  Pupils start off by imitating songs and rhymes which are sung in class (or groups) developing more and more sophisticated vocabulary to describe their experiences then finally they learn to recognise the particular written figure that symbolizes each experience. This system draws on many musical elements such as rhythmic movement, rhythm syllables, rhythmic sequence and notation, melodic sequence and hand signs.  Students taught in this way quickly become confident performers and are imbued with secure sense of pitch and pulse.

The musical material for this method is derived mainly from folk music and Kodály’s own compositions. He collected, composed and arranged a large number of pieces for pedagogical use and alongside Bartók (and other musicians), and published six volumes of Hungarian Folk Music which included over a thousand songs for children, many of which feature in his method. The Kodály Method has been proved to significantly improve all areas of musical study as well as academic performance especially in subjects like reading and maths.

 Extract from So You Want To Play The Piano? published by Alfred Music


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.