Friday, May 1, 2009

Kingston Ontario Workshop

Kingston, Ontario is a very attractive town at the eastern end of Lake Ontario – birthplace of Bryan Adams and of the first Canadian Idol winner, Ryan Malcolm! The interest in a series of master classes from Christopher Norton (er, me…) was such that classes commenced on the Thursday night, followed by a very full day on the Friday. The organiser of this event was Debbie Beckman ( a young and extremely well organised teacher who is part of the Music for Young Children organisation ( MYC hosted very successful events for me in Canada in 2008.

Behind Debbie you can see her husband and three (of her four) delightful children.

Master classes are basically piano lessons done in public – students first choose a piece of mine – from Microjazz (lots of performances of Stairway!), from the Connections series ( and from American Popular Piano ( I listen to the student’s performance and then, as appropriate, make suggestions, sometimes technical, sometimes musical, to make their performance more assured, to make them feel more relaxed when they play in public and to suggest ways to make the style of the piece sound more “authentic”. Parents are in the audience (as well as teachers) and I try to incorporate them in various ways during the master class. For example, if a student is struggling to keep a steady beat, I will get the audience to provide a simplified drum beat, using feet and hands (they love this!) If a student isn’t phrasing a melody properly, I may get the audience to sing the melody back to me correctly phrased. These devices prove very effective as ways to make the student listen to what they are playing and to really feel the beat. I might get a student to clap a beat for me while I play the piece and then I clap for them while they play. In all sorts of ways, an immediate improvement in the performance of their piece can be heard by the audience, but more significantly, an overall improvement in listening and playing can also be seen and heard. I generally get the student to play the piece again once we have worked on aspects that need attention and I often jam along. One eight year old boy stopped playing when I joined in and said (loudly enough for the audience to hear) “what are you doing?!”

At 4 pm on the Friday, there was a one hour improvisation session with teachers – this featured some simple (and fun) improvisation on Intercity Stomp (from Microjazz) and some easy-to-follow improvisation using American Popular Piano Preparatory Level and Level 1. The teachers found it all stimulating and thought it would be easy to apply back in their teaching studios.

During the day, I selected students who I thought had played particularly well (or even students who have improved significantly during the master classes) and we included these students in the evening Gala Concert. Parents (and grandparents) came to this and the Gala Concerts always take on a life of their own. The performers have been looking forward to playing to a much bigger audience and the audience are in turn swept along by the precision, enthusiasm and brio of the young performers. I play as well – pieces form the upper Levels of American Popular Piano, from Connections 7 and 8 and from Rock Preludes and Latin Preludes - and the combined effect is that piano playing is there to be enjoyed and shared. The Gala is a wonderful summing up of the day’s activities and it is by turns moving, breathtaking and even amusing. Some performers finish with a knowing look at me or the audience, realising that their performance has really hit the mark.

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