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 (www.mtac.org) 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 (www.nvmusicgroup.com) 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.