Finding Joy in Piano

It’s been a long time since I’ve written about piano, taught piano, or as a matter of fact, even played piano. But it took another blogger to write a post that inspired me to post again.

Elissa Milne (pianist, writer, teacher and composer) has written a piano teacher’s manifesto. In the manifesto she lays out the purpose for piano lessons. It is what frames her teaching, her expectations and her composing for students.  Every item on the list is spot-on and I find myself wishing I had a copy of this years ago to hand out to parents and students and to hang on the wall as a reminder to myself.

Elissa talks about the “cool stuff” students can learn to do at the piano and then moves on to talk about the emotional benefits of piano lessons. You learn to understand yourself better, as well as other people. You begin to understand your place in history. You engage your brain in a way unlike the way you do with any other activity. Perhaps most importantly, you play for the joy you feel when you’re able to share an effortless performance with an engaged audience.

So, in the spirit of finding the joy in piano once again, maybe it’s time to resurrect this blog. Just maybe.


Improvising basics

I like to write. Tell me to sit and write anything I want to and I’m hamstrung. But give me a writing prompt and I dive right in.  I feel the same way about free piano improvisation. If I sit at the piano and play anything I want to how will I know if it’s any good? What am I supposed to be listening for? And as a teacher, how can I teach students to improvise over a chord progression if I’m not clear on exactly how to do it myself?

I came across this video by Dave Spicer from Brisbane, Australia. He is the director of the School of Music Online and has an easy to follow explanation of how to improvise a right hand melody over a chord in the left hand using resolution/tension notes and passing, circling and extended tension notes.  Several light bulbs went on all at once for me while I was watching this! Classical, jazz, rock, whatever the style…this is what melody and harmony all boils down to.

Now, instead of a writing prompt, I’ll just take a chord. Any chord.

Gosh, I can’t wait to adapt this for my students who are all learning major, minor, various seventh chords!

Matt and Kim

Some Matt and Kim for a Friday night. Why? Well yesterday I came up the sidewalk to my house and heard my daughter playing the piano. These days she doesn’t play the piano unless she’s truly motivated. Well she’d learned this piece partly by ear and partly from a YouTube tutorial. It sounded great. A catchy tune and don’t you love that the keyboard is tossed around and taken everywhere?

Piano Play

Last weekend I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Ron Bishop, Professor of Culture and Communication at Drexel University, speak to prospective Drexel students and their parents. He spoke about his research for his new book, When Play Was Play: Why Pick-Up Games Matter. He spoke about his research and the stories he collected from people who remembered hanging out with their friends, playing ball in the streets, and inventing their own games such as “Tennocky” a tennis-hockey hybrid. He also talked about how the new generation of high school and college students have grown up with a full schedule of organized activities, leaving them no room for unorganized play or  just getting together with friends to have fun, the truly “creative” activities.

Unfortunately, there’s no going back to “the good old days” when people hung out on the front porch until it got dark and kids ran around the yard playing kick the can and gathering fireflies in glass jars. If you don’t believe me,  just take a look at the students in this documentary.

But there are some ways that we can encourage creative play in the context of structured piano lessons.

  • Teach five-finger patterns, chords and scales in all keys until it is second nature.
  • Every couple of weeks pull out the fake books for fun.
  • Match up friends to play duets together.
  • Encourage your students to sing.
  • Throw an impromptu piano party – everybody brings something to play.
  • Throw a listening party. Listen and discuss.
  • Recycle music books.  Have the students trade method books and then skip through the book and only play what works!
  • Learn a piece by watching a YouTube video.

Maybe someday (when the electricity is out, or the network is down) you and your friends will gather around the piano. Who’s going to be ready to play?

Classical Piano Today

I remember a conversation I had with Karl Ulrich Schnabel back in the late 80’s about the future of classical music. A friend and I were at his New York apartment for a coaching for our duo-piano team. As we were leaving we started talking about the state of the arts and I remember he was very optimistic. He said not to worry about the future of classical music. He was convinced that there would be a rebirth. Perhaps classical music would take on a new look and feel, but he was confident there would be a new appreciation for classical music in the early 21st century.

Turns out he was right.

One example from the classical piano world is James Rhodes new album, Bullets and Lullabies, due to be released tomorrow in the UK and on December 28th here in the U.S.

…when he starts to play, it’s an intensely classical programme with not a whiff of a crossover number. No wonder Warner Bros. Records have just snapped him up as their first ever classical musician. It’s proper classical music, but in an overwhelmingly accessible package that screams mass market youth appeal. (read more of the review here)

Another example are the recent live broadcasts of both the Van Cliburn Competition (2009) and the Chopin International Competition (2010) which generated an outpouring of blog posts, chats, and Twitter and Facebook comments from musicians and non-musicians from around the world. Whether or not you are a fan of these competitions the fact that these performances are available to everyone (with a connection to the Internet) is more evidence of a new interest in classical piano performance.

Oh, let’s not forget and we also had Chopin2010!

Recommended reading:  Greg Sandow’s “Rebirth: The Future of Classical Music” for insight on this new era in the music world. And Kyle MacMillan’s recent article, Classical Music Is Going New Places.