Thursday, April 29, 2010

Manitoba/Ontario Tour - Winnipeg MB

Winnipeg was a late addition to the tour, but proved to be a memorable occasion, thanks in no small part to the enthusiasm and organizational abilities of local teacher Terri Myers. Terri and her 2 sons recently became local celebrities, having shed something in the order of 180 lbs between them in three months, as part of a local radio promotion called (ain’t it sweet!) Winnipeg’s Biggest Loser ( Here is a picture of the extremely svelte Winnipeg organizer (that’s her on the right!):
The students in Winnipeg were well prepared and very enthusiastic and we all had a great time, particularly with the improvisation sessions. Here’s a picture of one of the Improv groups playing:The first day saw both Improv sessions and master classes and ended with a lovely wine-and-cheese party at the beautiful home of our hosts Art and Leona Defehr ( Given that there were a large number of musicians present, of course there was music making (and improvisation!) on the spur of the moment – as can be seen in this picture of the organizer, Terri Myers, together with our host Art Defehr and composer Zane Zalis (, with me playing a little night music.
Here I am playing a breakfast duet with our gracious hostess Leona Defehr (my eyes closed in a combination of bliss and jet-lag):
The second day again offered Improv sessions and master classes. On the whole, there were lots of really outstanding performances in Winnipeg, and the lunchtime Gala Concert had a palpable air of excitement about it, partly because I had to get to the airport for a 3.30 pm flight! Here are the improvisers on stage during the Gala Concert:
And a student performer in action – many students came to the piano smiling and got up from their performance still smiling. Wonderful!
Comments from Winnipeg:

From Ryan (Level 3 student): “I found it very fun by being up on stage for the Improv class because I like the way that Christopher Norton taught me. In the Master class I learned not to tilt my hand but keep it straight. I really enjoyed the whole workshop. It was a lot of fun!”

From Nancy (parent of a participating student): “The Christopher Norton workshops were a wonderful experience for both myself and Gordon...he was a little nervous at first but as soon as he got started with Mr. Norton he fit right in and had a great learning experience. It is so nice that this opportunity was made available to my will be two great days that he will always remember. He still is playing songs from the repertoire book and listening to the CD.”

From Suzanne (Teacher): “I was a little apprehensive signing up a student for the workshop as I wasn’t sure what to expect. I wasn’t disappointed. Christopher Norton has certainly inspired the imagination of many students. I went away from the workshop filled with new ideas and a much better understanding of improvisation. He has found the key in keeping piano students motivated while keeping the fun in playing. The gala concert was wonderful and showcased so much talent. The students are inspired and feel so accomplished!”

From Terri, the local organizer: “In summary, the tour to Winnipeg was phenomenal! THANK YOU SO MUCH!”

Monday, April 26, 2010

Ontario/Manitoba Tour - Huntsville ON

Huntsville, Ontario is located two hours north of Toronto in beautiful “cottage country”. It’s a vibrant waterfront community of 18,000 residents. The primary commercial centre for northern Muskoka, it boasts great shopping, restaurants, pubs, world-class golf and live entertainment (including, on this occasion, yours truly). We were given a taste of warm Muskoka hospitality on the Sunday evening preceding the tour at the Lake House of Frances and Gunars Balodis, en route to our first stop in Hunstville.

This most enjoyable one-day event was organized by Frank Berg, who is not only an excellent local teacher, but also acts as an area coordinator for Music for Young Children (, one of Canada’s most striking educational music success stories. The event comprised improvisation sessions, master classes and a final Gala Concert. Below you can see me in action with one of the improvisation groups. On the left of the picture is local organizer Frank Berg, with his daughter Sophie on his lap. You should be able to spot him because of his distinctive yellow MYC shoes!
The format I used this time was different from my 2009 Ontario tour, which consisted of master classes and a Gala Concert. Using both Repertoire pieces and Improvisation Etudes from the American Popular Piano series ( which the students had practiced in the months leading up to the tour, I got the student keyboard groups (typically 8-12 players) to play the original piece, without and then with the backing track. I then guided the group step by step towards simple improvisation, starting with a clapped beat, then a clapped rhythm (both to the track). Next I got all of the group to play the rhythm they had just clapped using the key note of the piece, before asking each individual student to create a 2-note melody in the same rhythm, then a 3-note melody, leading up to using all of the notes suggested in the Improvisation Etude book. This was immediately making everybody listen to themselves, as it became clear that certain notes (at certain times) sounded particularly good with the track.

Once the students were all comfortable with inventing their own melodies to a set rhythm, I got each player to make up their own melody, using any of the notes already played (in any order). They were free to use either the set rhythm or rhythms of their own – and most began to choose their own. Each player was immediately asked to repeat whatever melody they had just played, which proved surprisingly difficult at first, as most beginner improvisers don’t pay much attention to what they are actually playing! Once everyone had done this successfully, I got them to repeat their melody with a slight variation (eg the final note changed) and we were immediately on our way to coherent melodic structures. With the track constantly playing, the students got more and more confident and we ended up with question and answer melodies as well as free-form melodies being invented by every player. I then suggested using grace notes, tremolo, 2 note chords and other devices that helped to make their improvisations sound more idiomatic.

Everyone went away better able to play with a track, to play with an ensemble and to do simple but effective improvisation using a variety of melodic structures. Most of the students said that they would be happy to continue exploring improv back at home.

Older students practiced left hand chords from the Etudes with the track and began to feel how great it can feel to improvise with their right hand while playing left hand chords.

It was effective working with group improvisation and Huntsville was the first place that I got to try out this new format.

The master classes were held on the same day and it was very good to be able to work with individual students who had become familiar faces and names (and personalities!) during the earlier group improvisation sessions.

Here’s one of the Huntsville students during a master class:
You can read a number of observations about master classes in my report on Toronto, the final stop on this tour.

The Gala Concert was a very happy occasion – the most assured students played, often with me, while some group improvisation was also demonstrated. The parents and teachers in attendance felt that lots of good things had already come out of the day’s work and seemed optimistic that the long-term effects would be very positive.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Hertfordshire County Music Service

Herts County Music Service is the largest county music service in the UK and this was billed as a talk on my life as a composer. The title I gave the presentation was “From Microjazz to Ringtones” and I began by talking about my early days as a composer and performer in New Zealand, with video and audio snippets from my Trio for 2 violins and piano and Quintet for 4 violins and piano. I then described how life as a high school music teacher in New Zealand (fortunately) coincided with a developing interest in popular music, although the first publications of mine to appear after I came to the UK in 1977 were all Christmas books! Microjazz followed shortly after (in 1983) and its success has enabled me to continue to work in a variety of music-related spheres – recording, midi file production, background music albums, tv music and ringtones! I described the range of other Boosey & Hawkes publications as well – Microstyles, Essential Guides, Preludes, Concert Collections, Big Beats, The Easiest Way To Improvise and the new editions of Microjazz with audio files (about to come out)
Here are some of the teachers listening to me perform pieces from one of the above series:
This was all interesting to the teachers and they could tell that some of the areas I work in are potential areas of future work for their students. Most of them had also used Microjazz pieces at some stage – one teacher there even claimed that Microjazz was the reason she was still in the music profession!

But the second part of the presentation was where the audience’s interest was really piqued – I introduced American Popular Piano and demonstrated, with the help of a teacher (who claimed not to be an improviser) how this revolutionary series can teach modern popular styles through reading music, but can also lead to improvisation, using an easy-to-follow, step-by-step approach that can be applied to a variety of situations. I showed video clips of Canadian children working on improvisation in groups and clips of young children playing with other players, including their teachers of course, as well as with tracks. Here is my Herts student-for-the-day at work:
The teachers were very interested in both the materials (right across the board) and even more in the methodology that might allow the music to be used in more free-ranging ways and there was keen interest in the display of books:
The books positively glow don’t they!

This was a very positive occasion and many teachers came to speak to me afterwards - there is definitely an interest in a return visit from me, to work with string, woodwind and brass players as well as with keyboard groups.

Thanks to Tom Stewart for putting this event on and to Herts County Music Service.