Thursday, December 10, 2009

Auckland, New Zealand

Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city and one of the most spectacular cities in the world – lots of volcanoes, lots of beaches and a spectacular harbour. How about this?
As in Whangarei, I was invited to give a workshop by the RMT (Registered Music Teachers) Auckland branch. There are RMT branches all over New Zealand and they do a great job of promoting good piano teaching, as well as putting on events like this!

The large group again consisted of teachers and students and quite a few people came up to play duets and to try some improvisation. I did the same 2-part presentation as in Whangarei and again interest and enthusiasm were in evidence. Here I am in action:
As the picture indicates, the workshop was in a church – there are a number of striking historic churches in Auckland and this one, St Lukes Church in Remuera, is really very attractive, especially on a sunny day. The stained glass and the dark wood make for a very distinctive combination.
One of the most striking aspects of this workshop was that I had answered “tea and cake” when asked what I would like to have available at the half-way point. The organizers had made a fantastic Christmas cake and offered it to the audience (along with lots of other goodies) at the break. What was left of the cake (which was considerable) was ceremonially presented to me to take with me on the rest of my trip. How about that for New Zealand hospitality?

Finally, here’s a picture of what you can tell is a very attentive audience at the Auckland workshop:
Thanks to Liz Calvert of the Auckland RMT for doing such a fantastic job organising this event. I hope to see you all again soon!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Whangarei, New Zealand

Whangarei is the northernmost city in New Zealand and it has a warm and humid subtropical climate. Summers occasionally exceed 30°C, and there is plenty of rain, spread relatively evenly throughout the year. It has a stunning harbour and coastline. Here’s a picture of Whangarei:
I gave a presentation on the 9th December for the Whangarei Registered Music Teachers and the good-sized audience was a nice mixture of teachers and students. Some had come some considerable distance to be there. The by-now-familiar game of two halves consisted of a talk about American Popular Piano (, great New Zealand tea and cakes and then a presentation on Microjazz, featuring both a greatest hits element and tracks from my latest album(s). The audience were both attentive and enthusiastic and I was pleased to have both teachers and students coming up to play and even to improvise.
Here are three very cheerful students from Northland:
The audience certainly “got” what I was talking about and there was lots of interest in the new material – APP of course, but also brand-new books like MicroLatin and MicroRock. And of course the Christmas material, both Concert Collection and New APP Christmas pieces, proved of interest (in spite of the sun blazing outside!)

One special feature of this workshop was the presence of a very gifted 9 year old composer, Joseph Kaptein, who played a very impressive piece of his own at the end of the workshop. New Zealand is still producing them! Here he is at the piano:
Thanks to Dora Harkness, the secretary of the Northland branch of the RMT, for putting this event on and for getting such a good crowd (and on such a nice day!)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

John Perryn Primary School, East Acton, London

Back in 2006 John Perryn Primary School in East Acton was declared to be failing its pupils and faced closure if it didn’t pull its socks up.

The school received an £8.9 million investment from the Government and it is now nothing short of state-of-the-art. Facilities for the wider community were also built, including a 25-place children’s centre and adult learning rooms. Impressively strong consideration was given to the environment throughout the project, with the new school using renewable energy sources for heating and achieving a 53% reduction in carbon emissions. Since the pupils moved in April 2009, the school has been taken off special measures, and only one teacher left during the last summer holidays, compared with the four or five in previous years. The number of pupils has risen to 420 from 350 in April last year, and full capacity of 470 is likely to be reached next year. “We’re over the moon,” says head-teacher Von Smith. “We’ve already had people from Buckinghamshire and Essex councils in to see it. I say to them, if every school you build goes as well as this one did, you’ll be lucky.”

John Perryn Primary School

A cellist I have worked with over many years, Robin Thompson Clarke, has recently started a job at John Perryn Primary School and he asked me to come in for a half day and do some composition-related activities with a group of around 60 students.

Here are some of the group. You can see the huge array of nationalities represented!

Students at John Perryn listening to CN

I started by playing the students some pieces (Struttin’ from Microjazz Collection 1 and In the Bag from Microstyles were particularly well received) and got them to keep a beat with each piece, initially one student at a time. We then went onto exploring off-beats, on 2 and 4, but also on 3 and on 4. Finally we began to add rhythms to the beat (and off-beat) to create little purely rhythmic pieces. I got a group of 6 students up and they played simple percussion rhythms while Robin played Desert Air from Big Beats Smooth Grooves with a backing track. One student correctly guessed that the piece was about the desert. The students enjoyed this interactive session and seemed to grasp the concepts very well – the idea of a steady beat, off-beats, rhythms that repeat and rhythms that are an “answer” to a “question”.

After the break, the students were divided into 10 groups of 6 and they worked on pieces, using percussion instruments but also body sounds and glockenspiels! They then all came back together and performed their pieces for the rest of the group. There was a good variety of styles and the concepts they had learned were well embedded.

A return visit could provide an opportunity to develop pieces with more instruments and on specific themes (desert pieces, water pieces, urban pieces with body-popping etc) The willingness to try things out and be creative was wonderful to see.

This was a great opportunity to work with a delightful group of 10 to 12 year olds. I shows that group composition can work as a concept!

CN and students listen to one of the performance

Friday, November 6, 2009

St Veit, Austria

At an altitude of 1500m above sea level, St. Veit is apparently Austria´s highest health resort! 
It’s in a sunny hillside setting (in summer) and has fantastic views of the surrounding valley. 
I flew to Vienna from London, then drove south for over 3 hours to get to St Veit, by which time it was dark, so the charm of the town centre was what I was aware of rather more than the actual setting of the town. Like this:

St Veit, Austria

I was met at the hotel by Cornelia Angelov from Schott Mainz and also by Heiko Kremers from Roland Germany. This was the first joint workshop sponsored by both Schott and Roland Germany and was held in a local church in St Veit. There was a delightful and friendly group of teachers from St Veit, some of whom had heard of Microjazz, some of whom were new to my work. Here are some of the teachers and you can see that they were happy to play as well as to listen:

Teachers playing and listening in St Veit

The first half of the presentation was introducing the teachers to the sounds of Microjazz, which has become a catch-all term for the Microjazz Collections, the Microstyles Collection, the Concert Collections and the Preludes Collections (and latterly MicroSwing, MicroLatin and MicroRock) The teachers seemed to really like the material and could see how it could be easily incorporated into their teaching programmes.

The second part of the presentation was concentrating more on the use of the HPi series of Roland digital pianos. 50 Microjazz pieces are “embedded” into these pianos and you can do all sorts of things with the data. For example:

  • You can listen to a performance of any one of the 50 pieces, recorded (and approved!) by the composer
  • You can record the left or right hand part of your chosen piece, using a built-in metronome (you set the speed) while the “other” hand is played back by the piano. The piano’s software can also rate your recorded performances!
  • You can record one hand or both hands of the piece with a great backing track.
  • You can make your own pieces up to the backing track and record them.

I’m still getting used to how to use the software seamlessly with a student but we had lots of fun playing around with the various combinations (as students will when they use the HPi piano at home)

It was clear that the combination of the Microjazz series, with its pieces that appeal to students and its strong pedagogical elements, and the interactive software built into the Roland HPi series pianos, has great potential. Students will be more inclined to practice, play and record things at home and of course they are building a knowledge base of contemporary popular styles quite effortlessly.

I hope to be doing more work in 2010 with Roland and Schott in the UK, Germany and Austria, using the Microjazz series alongside the HPi pianos. There is good potential for reaching new audiences through this exciting medium.

Thanks to Heiko from Roland Germany and Cornelia from Schott for organising this workshop and special thanks to the local St Veit Roland dealer, who was a great enthusiast for what we are doing (and a big fan of Country Preludes!)

Finally here’s a picture of me at one of the pianos, jamming along with a teacher who is playing the other piano, using the built-in software.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Beverley Music Centre, Beverley, Yorkshire, UK

Beverley Music Centre has been serving the musical needs of people in east Yorkshire for over 30 years. The thriving music shop is near the town centre and has a wide range of sheet music as well as musical instruments and CDs . What about this for a
quaint shop front?
Beverley Music Centre

This was a well-organised event and was a good-sized group which included one young (12ish) student, who helped me out with both a duet and some work on APP Preparatory Skills.
Beverley audience members

I also had a non-player up to help out (very impressively) with In the Bag from Microstyles (he’s in the centre of the group photo)The audience were very friendly and attentive and were most interested in both American Popular Piano and in new Microjazz books like MicroLatin and MicroRock. As with other stops on this tour, the improvisation elements were of particular interest and indicate that attitudes to improvisation are changing, even among music teachers!
Beverley teachers (and student)

Thanks to Rosalind Willoughby and the staff of Beverley Music Centre for hosting such a happy occasion.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The King’s School, Grantham, UK

The King’s School in Grantham can trace its lineage back as far as 1329, making it one of the oldest schools in the UK. Isaac Newton and William Cecil are among the many illustrious old boys. Music thrives at King’s. There are unparalleled opportunities for performance, whether it be as a soloist or as part of a small or large ensemble. Over 200 instrumental lessons take place each week and approximately a third of the school learn to play a musical instrument. There’s a big band and a soul band. Justin Dixon, the head of music, invited me to do a workshop on keyboard improvisation. 26 boys took part and quite a few played for me. Here’s the whole group:

King’s School improvisation workshop

I began by playing a bluesy improvised piece from Jazz Preludes, with track, which went down well. Then I asked the boys to listen to 3 snippets of piano improvisation – from Oscar Peterson, Jamie Cullum and Lyle Mays. This got us into a discussion about what the relationship is between what students play and what they listen to and we also touched on what sort of music they might want to improvise.

Then we were straight into improvisation on Intercity Stomp, using Improvise Microjazz as the source material. Various students helped me and did some good improvising very quickly. Here’s me with 2 students hard at work:

Students improvise with CN

I then moved onto A Day in Majorca and I showed the students how you can build up left hand chords, then a right hand solo, using The Easiest Way To Improvise.

Finally, we went onto American Popular Piano, using Spider Blues from Level 3 and Happy Times from Level 6. There were some quite startling results from the students who played and the rest of the group found it informative and, I think, entertaining.


The participants enjoyed trying some freer improvisation, using grace notes, pedal notes, tremolo and other tasty devices. I hope many of them will go away thinking that they can definitely start to improvise and that they have some tools for that purpose as well.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Millers Music Centre, Cambridge, UK

Millers Music Centre is one of the longest established companies in Cambridge and is believed to be the second oldest music shop in Britain. They have a great selection of sheet music as well as a wide range of musical instruments. This was a Saturday morning workshop and we held it in the dining room of a local hostelry. It was a small but enthusiastic group and they still got the full show. Here’s Miller Music Centre’s very enthusiastic sheet music specialist (and this was after the presentation):
Miller Music Centre sheet music man

I did my usual American Popular Piano and Microjazz double presentation. One of the participants works in Hertfordshire and said the same presentation would be of interest to teachers of piano employed by the county. Watch this space! Here he is:
A Royston teacher

He’s holding a copy of MicroRock - this is part of a new series, so far consisting of Microswing, MicroLatin and MicrRock. The pieces in each book start really easy (in 5-finger position) and progress to no more than Grade 3 in difficulty. They have great backing tracks as well.

This was my second visit to Cambridge in 2009 and I hope to be back again in the future to see how people are getting on with all the new material.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Gillian Greig Music, Taunton, UK

Gillian Greig Music was started way back in the 1980s and the owner (Gillian Greig) tells me that I came and did a workshop for her over 20 years ago! We both agreed that we looked pretty much the same now as we did then….

Here is Gillian:
Gillian Greig

This was, like Truro, a small group, but there are always interesting people to meet and new connections to be made. One of the most interesting was another composer, Jonathan Lee, who is making a fine career in music and is definitely someone to watch. He and his sister were there and were very attentive and supportive.
The Lees

Once again, American popular Piano was presented and I was pleased to see some teenagers in the audience, one of whom played some ensembles with me (beautifully) and also did some great improvisation on The Girl on the Beach. It’s always good to see students as well as teachers at these events.
Students in Taunton

The second half was once again dedicated to all things Microjazz and Rock preludes and Microrock proved particular favourites . These 2 workshops in the west (Cornwall on the 11th, Somerset on the 12th) were intimate but very enjoyable events and I’m sure I’ll see more of some of the participants before long.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

City Music, Truro, UK

This was another workshop for private music teachers; I was pleased to find it immediately became an unofficial get-together for local teachers, some who hadn’t seen each other for some time, others who were meeting for the first time. The first three ladies to arrive were happy to get acquainted or get re-acquainted - they were surprised to find that they all taught other instruments besides piano – violin, recorder and clarinet…

Three Truro teachers

People were coming and going somewhat during this workshop – some came before teaching (or picking up their own children) others came after teaching. I had to ask people to summarise what they had just heard for the next person! As in Reading, it was a game of two halves – American Popular Piano in the first half, Microjazz and other B & H materials in the second half.
It was a glorious day – not a cloud in the sky – and I was able to enjoy wandering around Truro in the morning, including an uncalled-for but somehow necessary stop at Rowes Cornish pasty shop for, erm, a pasty. Here’s a picture I took of Truro Cathedral to show what a lovely day it was:

Truro Cathedral

The staff at City Music (who were great) and the teachers said it had been a very disappointing summer weather-wise and this was about the best day I could have picked to see Truro. Good to know..

Once again, teachers were very complimentary about the APP repertoire and very intrigued by the improvisation methodology. I used examples from three different Levels and I think began to sway the doubters!

The Microjazz-and-related-materials part of the presentation was notable for various things:

  1. Everyone knew Inter-city stomp!
  2. Joy to the world (Concert Collection 1) was a great hit
  3. The Preludes were new to the teachers – they were interested to hear that there are “concert” pieces in the repertoire

One teacher was keen on organising an in-service day for keyboard teachers. And there was an interest in my music for ensemble – Flexensembles and Microjazz for Ensemble..

There was also interest from the shop, a Roland dealer, in a return visit to talk about the Roland HPi-6 piano and the embedded Microjazz pieces in it. So I may yet get to have another of those pasties…

Another Truro teacher

This was once again a happy (and sunny) occasion and City Music are to be commended for arranging it – it was the first workshop for their sheet music manager. They said that they would like me to come back again, preferably when the weather is much worse (ie any time!)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Score Store, Wokingham at Leighton Park School, Reading, UK

This was a workshop specifically for private piano teachers and we were lucky to be able to use the concert hall (and Steinway grand) at Leighton Park School, a Quaker independent school set in rolling parkland not far from the centre of Reading ( Every teacher present was already familiar with my name and with Microjazz and other Boosey & Hawkes’ materials; none of them had come across American Popular Piano before. They had some initial questions about the series, for example:
Q: Why is the term “American” in the series’ name?
A: We have used a range of popular styles in APP with which America has become strongly identified
Q: How would you persuade a parent that 4 books per Level is a justifiable investment?
A: We hope that the usefulness of all the elements in APP across an entire year will prove to be in fact very good value for money!
Here are the some of the teachers who came to the workshop:
Teachers at the Reading workshop

I began by playing some APP pieces – I find that if people like the pieces right away, you’re in with more of a chance!
CN plays..

I then went on to give an overview of the present state of piano teaching and the difficulties faced by teachers trying to compete for students’ attention in the face of homework, sport, computer games and other activities perceived as more “cool” than piano-playing. There was some lively discussion about why students give up at various stages and we touched on the fact that students often play a range of music on the piano but listen to a completely different range of music back at home.. I then explained that APP is designed to use music in styles familiar to the student, but without sacrificing the fundamentals of good piano playing, sight-reading and ear-training.

I then moved through the Repertoire books, illustrating the 3 main categories – lyrical pieces, rhythmic pieces and ensembles – with some help from the audience as well as video clips of student performances. Here’s one of the teachers who was brave enough to come up and play for the group:
A teacher helps to demonstrate APP.

The teachers liked the Repertoire books, especially the fact that there are Ensembles, with teacher accompaniment and backing track, at every Level. But it was the Etudes books that really got their attention – a way of teaching improvisation that virtually anyone can feel comfortable with. I had a teacher improvising – she was actually quite an experienced improviser already, but she found the way APP keeps things very simple and ordered very useful. And the group agreed that the range of styles and the use of “authentic” left-hand voicings (generally in inversion) was both stimulating musically and applicable right away with students.

Another question came up – there was an ABRSM examiner there and she asked how the APP material (and approach) related to the ABRSM jazz syllabus. I said that there were inevitably overlaps (particularly blues pieces) but that the overall range of styles in APP is very different from the ABRSM syllabus – much more popular music than jazz style-wise. APP also progresses much more steadily from one Level to the next than any UK syllabus. I feel that APP is a good way of getting students (particularly at an absolute beginner level) comfortable with improvisation, so it is a useful way of preparing to work on more specifically jazz material.

We had a break at this point and the teachers looked at the books supplied by Score Store. Here are some enthusiastic teachers perusing the materials:
Teachers looking at the books

In Part 2, I did a quick overview of the Boosey & Hawkes’ materials, obviously referring to Microjazz (some teachers were new to the Microjazz Trios, for 6 hands) but also to Microstyles, the Concert Collections, the Easiest Way To Improvise, the Essential Guides, the Preludes Collections and the new Microswing, MicroLatin and MicroRock books. I played quite a few pieces, some with tracks and was able to get the teachers roughly up to speed with what I’ve written since 1983!

This was a very friendly and positive group and I’d like to thank both Score Store Wokingham ( and Leighton Park School for hosting the event so well. I hope the teachers who bought APP sets to try out with their students will come back to the websites ( and and let us know how they are getting on!

Some final pictures:
The range of books ...

Monday, September 7, 2009

Workshop at Chetham's School of Music, Manchester

Report on Christopher Norton workshop at Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester, UK, August 25th 2009

With 290 or so students aged 8 - 18, Chetham’s is the largest specialist Music School in the UK and the only Music School based in the North of England. The annual Summer School for pianists is now in its ninth year. There is no other summer school that manages to cater for adult amateurs, promising children and observers! All are welcome on the course - concert pianists, international young artists preparing for top competitions, and professional music teachers. I was invited to do a presentation at the 2009 Summer School and, as I expected, I addressed an interesting mix of students, teachers and yes, observers! Here’s a cross-section of the audience:

One person I spoke to was from Phoenix. Arizona (second row up) another was not a specialist music teacher but interested in getting a Venezuelan-style scheme youth music scheme going in London. There were also a couple of teachers who played in a piano duo. And lots of students, perhaps happy to do something a little less intense than the practicing and performing they had been doing the rest of the time!

I soon realized that some of the audience didn't know who I was, let alone anything about Microjazz, so I began by giving a mini-historical overview, including my own classical piano background in New Zealand and how Microjazz came to be, so to speak. I played various pieces from Microjazz, Microstyles, the Concert Collection and Preludes and as always included some fun audience participation. Here’s one of my “students”, still looking cheerful after coming up on stage with me

Then I got onto American Popular Piano and went through the basics of this unique piano course. This always requires some audience participation, an entertaining element (particularly for the observers) Here’s a student who helped me out on the improvisation front:

This really was a flying visit, as I had to get back to Leeds to celebrate my elder daughter’s engagement (see the picture at the top!) The mix of audience that Chetham’s Summer School creates is great – students who are looking for new repertoire, teachers who want to hear something fresh on the pedagogical front and amateurs who are just interested in the whole process of piano playing and teaching. It was a privilege to be a part of this year's Summer School.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

NCKP 2009 in Chicago IL

NCKP ( stands for the National Conference of Keyboard Pedagogy. It’s a bi-annual conference that brings together academics, private music teachers and music industry professionals from across the US and Canada. The 2009 delegate list reads like a virtual “Who’s Who” of keyboard music education in America. I was at NCKP representing Novus Via Music and I both co-presented a session on American Popular Piano ( and also worked in the conference exhibit hall with many of the delegates, showing them the music but also guiding their first steps at improvising.

The interest in American Popular Piano proved to be amazingly strong and our showcase proved, even at 8.00 am, to be the biggest draw of the conference. There was a palpable buzz about our company and our ever-expanding product line, underlined by the fact that we sold out of books!

The strong interest in evidence at NCKP is partly because Scott McBride Smith and I have been doing lots of promotional work around North America (see previous blogs) But I also felt that North American music teachers are ready for something fresh and are also as a group starting to pay more than lip-service to improvising as a component of their teaching programmes. I worked with quite a number of teachers on how the APP approach to improvisation works and they were all very keen to take the books home and try them out right away. Here I am with a very happy Amy Immerman (from Ohio)

The stand at the exhibit was a hive of activity much of the time – here’s a picture of Scott McBride Smith (he’s the tall one!) deep in conversation with a teacher while other people peruse the (diminishing) stocks.

Shortly after this photo was taken, Scott flew off to Oregon to present American Popular Piano at the Oregon Music Teachers Association. Here is a testimonial from one of the teachers in Oregon:
"I am a classically trained jazz/improv pianist—a high level professional plus fully certified and licensed as a Music Specialist in Oregon K-12 with Masters Degree in Music Education & piano. I think American Popular Piano is the finest series I have ever seen for the students we have today taking piano for enjoyment, not competitions. I am so sold—I literally RAN to the OMTA vendor booth and bought the first set at this weekend’s OMTA conference and am already filling out order requests for a bunch more."

Jon Michael Iverson was also at NCKP and played ensemble pieces with me. Some of the videos he has created with his students were a great hit during the showcase. You can hear (and see) more of them at Look for The Christopher Norton Project….

We were very fortunate to have Richard and Isaac Holbrook ( assisting us – they are former pupils of Scott McBride Smith and Carolyn Shaak who have both gone on to make careers in music, including helping to run a prestigous summer music camp for gifted students from around the world – iiym ( Here is Isaac with Rosa, a teacher who helped me during the showcase by acting as my student and being instructed on improvisation from APP Etudes Level 1, on stage. A brave girl!

NCKP was a wonderful chance to meet colleagues, see my growing number of American teacher friends (including the organiser of my recent Boston workshop, Kathy Maskell) and feel a dramatic surge of interest in American Popular Piano. This could be the beginning of something big! There were also a number of enquiries about visits to teacher groups and music schools which may well create a whole programme of North American events in 2010.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Summer Sizzle 2009 Ontario Canada

Summer Sizzle is a summer music camp for piano teachers and piano students, held in a lovely small town in southern Ontario, Palmerston. It was the 9th year for Summer Sizzle this year and the biggest attendance yet. There were lectures and seminars for teachers, master classes and one-on-one sessions for students, improvisation workshops and a Keyboard Kamp (spelling deliberate!) for the children, run by a number of very able and enthusiastic musicians. Here are some of the students who took part in Summer Sizzle in 2009:

I was asked to run a series of improvisation sessions, using American Popular Piano Preparatory Etudes right through to Level 7 Etudes. My first session was for absolutely all participants and it was great fun – I got lots of students to come and try improv ideas out, with me and with tracks and I also got the whole group to do things. It set the tone for subsequent sessions, which were for smaller groups of students. Here’s one of my students, jamming away and concentrating hard!

I started the improv sessions with individual students but finally worked my way to having 8 students on 4 keyboards, all taking turns to solo but often keeping chords or riffs going under the other soloists.

Yup, that’s me in shorts..

Scott McBride Smith meanwhile was supervising master classes – students were asked to prepare pieces by er, me and he imparted his amazing teaching wisdom both to the players and to the onlookers. Here he is with a student:

The best 15 students were chosen (by Scott) to play in a Christopher Norton concert on the Monday night and I felt that Scott’s work plus the improvisation sessions meant that something really special happened. The students played with confidence and verve (including some jamming on stage) and the audience was positively electrified by the atmosphere of the event.

As you can see, I jammed along with the students some of the time in the concert, which was unrehearsed but worked wonderfully well most of the time.

I also did a seminar on vertical harmony (the analysis of chords divorced from functional harmony) and I think most teachers found this interesting! My aim was to get teachers enthused about individual chords (and recognizing them as well) all over again.

This was a really special music camp and I hope I might get back there next year. Hopefully we will see some readers there too!

Monday, July 6, 2009

MTAC Convention Santa Clara

As it states on its website ( the Music Teachers' Association of California, incorporated in 1897, is a professional organization of approximately 4,500 members. Throughout its 100 year history, MTAC has dedicated its efforts towards the pursuit of excellence in music education.

Each of the more than sixty branches throughout the state - from Humboldt County to San Diego - maintains its own schedule of programs and activities and participates in state wide projects and programs.

The 2009 MTAC convention was in Santa Clara and guess what? The weather was perfect throughout – cloudless skies and a gentle breeze. However, I was kept occupied in the convention centre (or center, for US readers) most of the time. Novus Via Music ( had an impressively large booth in the exhibitors’ area and Scott McBride Smith, Clarke MacIntosh and I were kept very busy talking to teachers about American Popular Piano, particularly the relatively new Levels 6 through 8 (or 6 to 8, for British and Commonwealth readers)

Here’s a photo of Gary Ingle, President of MTNA, the national (USA) Association that represents piano teachers, with Scott McBride Smith, me and Clarke MacIntosh.

Scott, as you can see, is taller than average…

Scott and I did a presentation on American Popular Piano at 8 am on the Sunday morning and it drew a very large audience. The workshops both Scott and I have done in California, often to small teacher groups, have really helped to make more people aware of us and the series. The presentation went very well and there was strong interest evidenced at the Novus Via stand over the following days.

One thing I would like to highlight – a number of teachers came up because they were interested in the radically different approach to the teaching of improvisation as evidenced in the APP Etudes books. I was able to work with some of these teachers, taking them through the original piece, then through Modules within the Etudes, then getting them to improvise more freely, with on-the-fly suggestions from me regarding simple but effective techniques about improvising better. The results were gratifying, to say the least, and it made me aware that teachers need to feel comfortable with improvising before they embark on teaching it themselves!

Here’s a picture of one of my newbie improvisers – a church musician who had never tried improvising in the styles found in Levels 6 -8 and who discovered she had a real flair for it.

I hope to get back to California before too long – apart from Ellen Tryba Chen, whose students I worked with for 2 days prior to MTAC, there was quite a lot of interest in organising improvisation workshops for teachers and students in California. Watch this space!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Improvisation workshops in California

I'm nearly at the end of just over 2 days' work with students of Ellen Tryba Chen, a very enthusiastic teacher based in Saratoga, CA (near San Jose) She got a number of her students to prepare pieces from American Popular Piano Levels 1 to 4, both the pieces from the Repertoire books and the Improv Etudes associated with those same pieces. I have then been wheeled in to hear how the students got on and to suggest other ideas that might make them feel even more enthusiastic about jamming with a track and with each other. It's been a delightful experience. Here's the room we've been working in:
We used a grand piano as well as a keyboard, usually with 4 students in a group. I get all of the students to play the piece together first, with two students playing the original left hand part, the other two playing the original right hand part. We then try out drum patterns that might sound right for the piece, often derived from the teacher accompaniment. The students them "drum" while one of the group plays the piece. With a tapped beat from their foot as well, it's really getting the student used to keeping a beat as well as hearing other rhythmic parts while playing their part.

We then move onto the left hand chords found in the Improv Etude first Module and I suggest, with the backing track, how simple rhythms can already be invented using the left hand chords provided. Each student tries this out.

Then we talk about right hand improvisation "devices" - having identified the notes to use, we can then do various things, including:

1. playing the rhythm of the original melody but choosing our own order of notes
2. theme and variation
3. call and response
4. using silence - rests and long notes

I found that more unusual devices really appealed to the students - grace notes, pedal notes above the melody, melodies in thirds (and fourths and sixths) and additional notes, especially b5, were also seized on with alacrity.
Then we tried extended improvisations, with each student having a solo, accompanied by one or more of the other students playing their own versions of the left hand chords. All with the track of course. The solos are bookended by the theme all played together.

I met one mother of a teenage boy today and she said "this is what he has been looking for since he started piano" It's wonderful to see how much enthusiasm and commitment is in evidence when the students are given a chance to express themselves in this way.

I hope to be doing more workshops on improv - Summer Sizzle in Ontario is another event coming up shortly where I'll be doing more of this kind of activity.