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.

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