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.


 

A visit to Holst’s Birthplace Museum…

 Holst Birthplace MuseumThe Music Room in Holst’s Birthplace Museum (photo: www.cheltenhamtownhouse.com)

Cheltenham is one of Britain’s most beautiful towns. Situated on the edge of the Cotswolds, it is architecturally stunning; elegant buildings and manicured gardens abound. So it provides the perfect setting for the birthplace museum of one of Britain’s most important composers; Gustav Holst. Holst was born in the Spa town in 1874 in a property which is resides in Clarence Road (then known as Pittville Terrace). Holst was born into a family of artists and musicians; his father was a musician, teacher and organist of nearby All Saints Church.

Strolling up to the delightful house, there was a sense  of serenity and tranquillity; a feeling which the Holst Birthplace Trust works hard to maintain. The house is immaculately presented and has many fascinating artefacts and manuscripts. In fact, not only is it a slice of a musical history but also Victorian history too.

Originally built in 1832, the Regency-style terraced house was home to Holst and his family for just 7 years. The family vacated after the death of Gustav’s mother. The Museum was opened in 1975 and is one of only two composer’s birthplace museums in the country (the other being Elgar’s Museum in Worcester).

The most ‘musically’ interesting room, is undoubtedly the living room or ‘Music Room’, which by any standards, is large and full of Holst memorabilia. Resplendent with William Morris-designed wall paper, many of Holst’s belongings were bequeathed by the composer’s daughter, Imogen (who was also a composer). The grand piano is the main ‘focal’ point and the instrument on which the composer wrote and ‘tried out’ much of his magnum opus, The Planets. The Collard & Collard piano was clearly a prized possession and is featured alongside his armchair, music stand, piano stool and a painted chest. The many display cabinets were of particular interest to me; they contained personal family items including a picture of Mozart that Holst apparently kept nearby when composing! Scores, press cutting and reference books are all displayed prominently. The contents are taken from the Museum’s archives and change regularly.

A fine bust of the composer (by Maurice Juggins was donated in 2005) and a very eye-catching portrait by Bernard Munns (which was given to Holst by the people of Cheltenham in 1927) are both interesting additions to the Music Room. I loved the concert programmes and poster’s which adorn the walls, mentioning all the great composers, performers and conductors of the time. Holst studied at the Royal College of Music in London where he met his life-long friend and colleague, composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Always a prolific composer (he wrote over 400 works), Holst was also an inspirational teacher, and taught at St. Paul’s Girls School, Reading University, Morley College and Dulwich Girl’s School. I definitely feel empathy here having been a student at the RCM myself and piano professor at Reading University too.

The ‘Regency Room’ on the first floor was thought to be a ‘music lesson’ room; beautifully decorated and furnished, it contains a harp and square piano. Holst’s great-uncle, Theodore von Holst, was an illustrator and painter (he was the first illustrator of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1831/2)) and two of his paintings are displayed in this room. Other rooms of interest include the nursery (complete with wonderful wooden toys and Doll’s House), the basement, and the kitchen which left us with no illusions regarding just how labour intensive household chores were in the Victorian era. The whole house is most certainly a wonderful historical ‘snapshot’ of life in the Nineteenth Century.

Holst was transfixed by astrology, folk song and Indian religions, and whilst his crowning glory is undoubtedly The Planets, he also wrote in many other genres including opera, ballet, concertos, chamber music, and songs, many of which reflect these interests. He died in 1934 and was buried at Chichester Cathedral.

As always when visiting museums and galleries, I couldn’t drag myself away without purchasing something, and the little shop contains an excellent mix of recordings, books and biographical details. So I bought Gustav Holst; A Biography by Imogen Holst and will look forward to reading more about this revered composer. If you find yourself in the vicinity of Cheltenham then don’t miss this lovely homage to Holst’s life and work.

www.holstmuseum.org.uk

Holst’s Birthplace Museum (photo from www.flickr.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.