What happened to improvisation in classical piano music?

Guest post by Phil Best

The great piano composers were all fluent improvisers. Bach, Mozart, Chopin and so many others are reported to have improvised to audiences regularly. Beethoven’s improvisation duel against Daniel Steibelt, which he won to become the most lauded improviser in Vienna, proves this point whilst it also demonstrates how many virtuoso pianists of the time were skilled improvisers. So when did improvisation cease to be part of the job description for classical pianists, and why?

First of all, I’d like to consider different forms of improvisation. The piano composers of the past were masters of real-time composition and this is a very particular kind of improvisation. Some people today might hear those words and conjure up notions of free, atonal, arrhythmic music. Perhaps the idea of creating complex rhythmic and tonal music that makes perfect sense over many minutes, without some kind of pre-existing framework seems impossible and atonality appears to be the only outcome of attempting such a thing. Another possible form of improvising is the simple, rather post-minimal and free-form explorations that many amateur pianists do these days – you can hear many examples on YouTube and often to great effect. The fact that this kind of activity is making piano improvisation something accessible and truly self-expressive is wonderful. But Beethoven’s or Chopin’s improvisations would have been far more complex and involved. Of course, jazz musicians do improvise but often around a framework of a song structure, with an outline of harmonic and rhythmic unfolding to guide them. When jazz pianists, such as Keith Jarrett do compose in real time, the results can be pretty spectacular. But what about classical pianists?

Well, there is a handful of famous classical pianists who improvise in public. The wonderful Gabriela Montero is an example of a well-known pianist who regularly improvises, usually creating a pastiche of a great composer’s style and Robert Levin is renowned for making improvisation an integral part of Mozart’s piano music, improvising cadenzas on the spot and fleshing out the barebones writing that is often encountered in slow movements. But this is still not quite the same thing as a pianist-composer creating new music in real time.

I believe this points to one underlying reason for the waning of classical piano improvisation in classical concert halls. Composers began to inhabit a distinct realm, quite separate from that of performing. Perhaps the increasing prevalence of atonality in composition or simply the fashion for hyper-intellectualism that was sweeping through the arts generally made the combined role of composer-pianist less valid. Rachmaninov really had two hats as many artists of the early part of the century did and he famously spoke of feeling uncomfortable at times when performing his own works. Later on, composers who were also great pianists, such as Andre Previn, have crossed into jazz in order to showcase their improvisation skills, once jazz had gained its status as an intellectual equal to classical music. I believe that improvising classical music on the spot may have appeared to cheapen its new brand as a very high status, intellectual activity that was not jazz. This branding also affected the way pianists sounded when they played classical pieces, in my opinion. Natural rhythm and phrasing were replaced by something altogether drier or more mannered-sounding. To play Chopin or Mozart without the perceived rigour of interpretative analysis, simply playing the melodies, harmonies and rhythms with full-blooded, natural expression was left to amateurs or perhaps the highly commercialised artist, Liberace. In this climate, attention turned towards a very different skill set from fluent musicianship: scholarship was regarded as the core of classical music studies, with interpretation, theory and historical or authentic performance knowledge being the key skills.

This competitive world of the classical piano virtuoso was of course dominated by recordings, which could well be another very important reason why improvisation was no longer part of the job of a classical pianist. In their new role as master interpreters of historic music, pianists in the last century had to battle it out for supremacy not only in the great concert halls of the world but also in the pages of music journals such as the Gramophone magazine. Highly regarded music critics would rate interpretations as being more or less worthy of esteem and of course purchase. I remember how my father and uncle would strive to acquire the most definitive interpretations of certain piano works. All of this is a million miles away from the idea of spontaneous music creation. It is much more difficult to offer any authoritative critique of the worthiness of music that just appeared instantly without the hours of careful scholarly study that has become expected!

Perhaps Beethoven’s dual was more like “Vienna’s Got Talent” than the modern idea of a classical concert, but somehow, I seriously doubt that! The dumbing down of classical music to the level of light entertainment seems like a modern phenomenon to me, and a knee-jerk reaction to the ivory tower quality that classical music sadly can appear to have. I imagine that classical music, before the 20th century, was intelligent entertainment for the educated classes and my hope is that it is moving steadily back into that realm once again. If so, I can see no valid reason why classical musicians who have fluent musical skills should not take to the stage and create music spontaneously. The immediacy and excitement of a live improvisation appealed enormously to Beethoven’s, Bach’s, Mozart’s and Chopin’s audiences and I think it can hold the same appeal today.


Phil Best is a pianist, composer, teacher and singer based in London. His artist website is https://philbestmusic.com and his teaching website https://playpianofluently.com.

 

EPTA launches a new piano teachers’ course

The European Piano Teachers’ Association (EPTA) has announced the launch of a new piano teachers’ course as part of its 40th-anniversary celebrations in 2019. The course, headed by Murray McLachlan, Chair of EPTA and head of keyboard at Chethams School in Manchester, takes place over 6 separate CPD training days in 2019 and will cover aspects such as basic foundations of technique, posture, hand position and finger independence, first principles to first lessons, mindfulness and the psychology of piano technique, repertoire, teaching different age groups, child protection, running a successful piano studio (including management of parent/teacher/student relationships), teaching students with special needs, improvisation and composition, and encouraging artistry, individuality and creativity in piano playing. Based on the outline which I have seen, this new course offers candidates a course which is rigorous, intelligently organised, extensive and sequential.

EPTA has recently forged a more formal collaboration with the ABRSM and this new course offers, in part, useful preparation for those who wish to take an ABRSM teaching diploma. The ABRSM affilitation will also almost certainly encourage take up of this new course, given the reputation of the ABRSM. However, my initial impression is that this course will offer anyone keen to extend their teaching skills a solid grounding, and not just in piano-specific instrumental teaching.

In addition, EPTA is launching its own bespoke diplomas: Cert.EPTA, Dip.EPTA and LEPTA. While these will roughly align with the ABRSM’s equivalent teaching diplomas and the Certificate of Music Education (CME), candidates will have the opportunity to explore a more individual route to becoming a robust teacher at each of these three levels.

There will also be an element of personal choice to be focused upon within the exam, and this should encourage candidates to have an element of freedom from which to reveal an even deeper awareness and familiarity. Topics from which candidates will be free to choose are likely to include memorising, Alexander Technique, app-based teaching, improvisation, mindfulness, the subtleties of pedalling, how to teach analysis, style and interpretation, choosing repertoire appropriately, how to build a foundation of technique, how how to avoid tension and to listen attentively, how to prepare pupils for an exam, how to encourage pupils to practise and how to sustain inspiration over the longer term.

(source: EPTA)

Candidates will be encouraged to explore the repertoire and syllabuses of the three major exam boards – ABRSM, TCL and LCM – to demonstrate the skills needed to teach at each level and to reflect the fact that members of EPTA use all three exam boards (and others) in the course of their teaching. First entries for these new diplomas is likely to be Summer or Autumn 2019.

Of course having letters after your name does not necessarily confer the status of “teacher” and experience is also crucial, together with a willingness to engage in CPD, formally or informally, to improve one’s skills. In the past, I have been troubled by both the lack of regulation in the profession and the number of teachers I have encountered who seem to lack the basic business/entrepreneurial skills in order to run a teaching practice properly and professionally. This has contributed to an image problem in piano teaching, that it is the realm of the hobbyist or the little old lady with cats and a cardigan. (In fact, most of the teachers whom I regard as trusted colleagues do not conform to this image at all, but it is an image which prevails amongst those outside the profession – read more here).

I like to hope that EPTA’s new course and its affilitation with the ABRSM will encourage a change of view of piano teaching in the UK and will also help to produce flexible, open-minded and above all well-qualified teachers who are “fit for purpose” in the 21st-century.


The ABRSM-EPTA PIANO TEACHERS’ COURSE takes place at Chethams School on January 27, Febraury 24, March 31, June 2, June 30, July 21 2019 from 10am-5pm

Admission: £100 for each day, £50 for music students at conservatoires/universities. Early bird discount to £500 if booked by 1 January for all six days

For reservations and further information, please contact the EPTA Administrator:

admin@epta-uk.org / 07510 379286 or 08456 581054 (calls charged at 4p/min plus your phone co charge)

 

The power of “yet”

Those of us who teach and play ourselves understand that music requires commitment in the form of consistent, focused practising. This does not mean a snatched half-hour here or there or a blitz the night before the weekly piano lesson, but regular engagement with the instrument and its literature (at least 5 days out of 7 for noticeable progress to be achieved).

As pianists, much of our “work” (practising) is done alone, for some in almost monk-like seclusion. This separateness enables us to focus fully on the task in hand, without distraction. Most of us who chose the piano as our instrument actively enjoy the solitariness (I know I do), but equally this time spent alone can trigger self-doubt and negative criticism from within. Looking at what others are doing, what repertoire they are learning, is toxic too: comparing oneself to others sets up further negative thoughts and can lead to lack of confidence and motivation.

When I returned to the piano after a 20-year absence, I wanted to play EVERYTHING. Of course this was a ridiculous pipe dream, but my appetite for repertoire focused my attention and motivated me to practise diligently and enjoyably virtually every day. But when I co-founded the London Piano Meetup Group and started meeting other pianists, I rubbed pianistic shoulders with people whom I perceived as “better” than me – because they were playing repertoire which I believed I could not play. This depressed me and the mantra “I can’t play that” began to haunt my practising and my participation in the Meetup group’s regular performance platforms. I grew increasingly envious of, and irritated by the people who knocked off Ravel’s Jeux d’eau or Grainger’s Molly on the Shore with apparent ease, not to mention countless other pieces which I aspired to play…..

But hindsight and experience have taught me the power of “yet” – that simple three-letter word which can turn a negative phrase into something positive and affirming:

“I can’t play that – yet

“Yet” turns the task into a challenge and is the spur to set to and practise, to strive, to master.

“Yet” makes that Beethoven Sonata or Rachmaninov Étude-Tableau achievable, with practise.

“Yet” turns the seemingly impossible into the possible

“Yet” is a declaration of intent

 

Technique without tears

technique |tekˈnēk|
noun
a way of carrying out a particular task, esp. the execution or performance of an artistic work or a scientific procedure.
• skill or ability in a particular field
• a skillful or efficient way of doing or achieving something

Technique lies at the foundation of piano playing, and good technique can serve the beginner student right through to advanced level. However, it should never be the “be all and end all”. Rather, it should serve the music – to create when required, for example, the lightest staccato, the most cantabile melodic line, a bubbling Alberti bass, sprightly trills and tremolandos, the most fluid legato.

Everything you do, sounds. All your movements, both intended and unintended, have their effect on the sound you produce

– Alan Fraser, pianist & pedagogue

Pianists are often praised for having “fine technique” or “superb technique”: this can range from obvious things such as physical agility/velocity and stamina to more esoteric, “hidden” aspects such as arm weight, wrist rotation, and alignment. These days, with a tendency amongst younger pianists to place technique above all else, piano “technique” has come to mean sheer physical capability, speed and sound production (usually too loud!) without a true understanding of how a particular technique specifically relates to the music, and the effects the composer has in mind.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is staccato, of which there are different kinds:

  • Arm staccato gives equal measure to each note and is particularly useful for a crisp, short or bouncy sound. Involve the forearm and keep the wrist soft. Avoid pure wrist staccato as this pulls up the fingers and creates tension. Aim for a free drop of the arm and then bounce off the keyboard on the rebound.
  • Jeu Perlé literally “pearly playing”, this is particularly useful for semi-quaver passage work in Mozart and the like, also in Debussy, where such passages should be played quickly, lightly and clearly, and where too much obvious articulation would create dryness. It is a type of staccato playing that creates the tiniest sense of separation between each note (like the knots between the pearls in a necklace), and requires small movements and a close attack.
  • Finger staccato/flicking staccato Possibly the hardest staccato technique to perfect, this requires the fingers to flick off the keys and back towards the palm of the hand. Beware of tension in the hand and wrist when practising this technique, and employ the alignment of arm and wrists to fingers.

A pianist who has fully studied, understood and absorbed the composer’s intentions and instructions in the score, will know what kind of staccato technique to employ for a particular genre, section or passage.

When starting out with any new aspect of technique, whether teaching it or doing it for yourself, it helps to enlarge the movement and to practice it away from the piano. Don’t practice technique in isolation, but rather understand how it should be employed in your music and then make a technical exercise out of a small passage or section from that music. Doing exercises like those by Czerny or Hanon are, in my view, less worthwhile than a technical exercise you have devised yourself to practice a particular aspect of your repertoire; it is also more interesting! Above all, any technical exercise – from simple scale patterns to an intricate etude – should be played musically.


Debussy – Jardins sous la pluie (Arrau)

Mozart – Piano Sonata K311, 1st movt (Uchida)

Joanna and the Piano – Gavin Thomson

Written in the present tense with all the breathless stream of consciousness of a bright, excitable 10 year old girl, Joanna and the Piano is part time-travelling fantasy, part comment on modern family life.

When her father is made redundant, Joanna is forced to leave the city home and friends she loves to start a new life in an Elizabethan country house. While waiting for the WiFi to be installed, she and her father discover a beautiful Bösendorfer grand piano. Released from storage, the piano is installed in the living room for Joanna to play, and almost as soon as her fingers touch the keys, the mysterious Herr Mozhoven (get it?!) appears at the front door to give Joanna piano lessons.

Of course these lessons are not the usual tedious fare of scales and pieces: instead, under Herr Mozhoven’s tutelage, Joanna embarks on a series of time-travelling adventures – to the First and Second World Wars, and to the Victorian and Georgian eras. The piano becomes the agent of these intriguing and exciting adventures.

The narrative is imaginative and fast-paced, mixing creative ideas with delightful fantasy and escapism, and observations on modern family life with insights into bygone times. Joanna is a charming, sympathetic personality, her character well defined and easy to identify with.

Joanna and the Piano is self-published by the author (via Amazon’s CreateSpace platform). It’s a nicely produced though the text could do with a proper copy-edit (this won’t bother kids though) and while I appreciate why the author chose to alternate black and white pages (a nice nod to the piano keyboard), the white text on black paper is not very easy on the reading eye. The text might also benefit from some illustrations. These quibbles aside, this is an enjoyable and exuberant read which will appeal to young readers aged 8-12.

Introducing ‘Piano Teachers’ Hour’ on Twitter

Guest post by Barbara Kennedy
When I made the switch to piano teaching, following a career in administration, one of the biggest surprises was that I missed the face-to-face interaction with colleagues. I had not anticipated just how isolating piano teaching could be. I now see around 35 students (and families) a week and I thought that would be satisfactory. However, although I don’t lack for human connections, it’s not the same as being able to chat with people doing the same job, sharing our joys, frustrations, and advice. 
I’ve been fortunate to find a wonderful group of teachers and musicians on Twitter who have given me a huge amount of support, not just in teaching but also in other areas such as health, gardening, and gin selection. We’ve celebrated birthdays, successes, and achievements, and propped each other up through illness, setbacks, and crises of confidence. 
Social media seems to have become a really useful tool for sharing ideas and support. For me, the options for meeting with other teachers are limited and often result in high expenditure plus loss of income. That’s why I set up Piano Teachers’ Hour on Twitter in 2017. This is a weekly discussion group for piano (and other instrumental) teachers. It provides us with a space to chat about various professional issues, whilst connecting with individuals who work in a similar area. My hope is that it will give support to piano teachers of any length of service who may need advice or are simply interested in a particular area.
The sessions are semi-structured, with topics released prior to each half term. I try to include a mix of issues in each period, and our attendees often provide ideas of what areas to talk about. In April-May 2018, for example, we discussed teaching composing skills, GDPR, the music of Debussy, safeguarding basics, and ran two focus groups for the Music Commission. Previously subjects have ranged from repertoire for various stages or seasons, invoicing, teaching dyslexic students, exam prep, and ‘me time’. 
One obstacle to arranging these virtual meet-ups is finding a suitable time. As the organiser, I’ve plumped for a time that I can make. Mid-day on Wednesday is a nice treat for me. It’s usually my quietest teaching day, so I have time to prepare in the morning. Its also a nice signifier for the middle of the week; not long til the weekend. However, this time doesn’t suit everyone each week and therefore I also summarise the discussions afterwards in a blog post. This is open to anyone, and people can comment on the blog to carry on the discussion. You can visit this blog, and find details of our past and upcoming discussions here: www.pianoteachershour.wordpress.com
If you haven’t attended Piano Teachers’ Hour yet then we would really encourage you to do so. Members of the network tell me that the discussions have been very valuable to their work and enjoyable. I’ve certainly found the sessions useful and they have given me the confidence and techniques to try out new things in lessons (e.g. composing). Whilst social media isn’t an exact substitution for a physical work place, staff room, or conference, it does replicate some of the elements of connection and interaction that keep me, personally, going until the next event. 
Piano Teachers’ Hour runs weekly on Wednesdays at 12:30pm (UK term-time – Oxfordshire based). You can join in by using the hashtag #pianoteachershour and following the Twitter account @pianoteachershr

Barbara Kennedy is a musician offering piano lessons and music theory tuition in Didcot, South Oxfordshire. In addition to Piano Teachers’ Hour, Barbara also runs and develops  music education projects: piano TRACKS which provides a range of tools to help piano teachers support and assess their students.

New ABRSM piano syllabus released

The release of a new exam syllabus is usually a much-anticipated event by piano teachers who are keen to explore new music with their students. The new ABRSM piano syllabus (2019-2020) was released on 7 June. For the sake of transparency I should mention that I contributed to the Teaching Notes for the new syllabus, so my review will be a general overview of the new syllabus rather than a detailed analysis.

The format of the piano grade exams remains unchanged, with List A focusing on Baroque and early Classical (or similarly idiomatic) repertoire, List B on Romantic or expressive music, and List C “everything else”, from contemporary pieces to jazz and show tunes or popular songs. The classic “usual suspects” are there – Gurlitt, Swinstead, Carroll (and it does depress me to see a dull little piece by Felix Swinstead which I learnt c1972 still appearing in the syllabus), together with pieces by the perennially popular Pam Wedgwood and Christopher Norton. The ABRSM promises a “broader range of styles” in the latest syllabus and it is certainly good to see some contemporary composers represented, including Cheryl Frances-Hoad (Commuterland/Grade 7) and Timothy Salter (Shimmer/Grade 8). Female composers are also somewhat better represented than in previous years. As in previous years, the board promises “a complete refreshment of repertoire” and the ABRSM has sought, as always, to balance the familiar with the lesser-known or more unusual, while maintaining standards across the grades: in practice this approach feels more like a gesture than a real attempt to create a syllabus to suit piano teachers and students in the 21st century. The supporting tests remain unchanged with sight-singing, that part of the aural test that everyone dreads, still intact, though there is talk of a revision to the scales and arpeggio requirements at the next syllabus review.

As usual, the early grades (1-3) tend towards very “child-friendly” pieces to appeal to young pianists. It it almost as if the ABRSM thinks only children learn the piano, and the only concessions to early to intermediate adult learners are Bartok’s haunting Quasi Adagio (Grade 1) and Gillock’s ‘A Memory of Paris’ (Grade 2). ‘Close Every Door’ from Joseph and The Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat by Andrew Lloyd Webber is bound to be popular with students of all ages in this attractive and expressive transcription (Grade 1), as is Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ (Grade 3). More unusual pieces include Bernard Desormieres’ ‘Anatolian 08’ (Grade 4, List C) and Bloch’s ‘Dream’ from Enfantines (Grade 5). For my money, the more imaginative pieces tend to reside in the alternative lists for each grade. As in previous years, the repertoire list for Grade 8 extends to 32 pieces (instead of 18 for the other grades), offering students and teachers a broader range of pieces to create an interesting “mini programme”.

These days the ABRSM appears very concerned to maintain its reputation as the leading international exam board with strong competition now coming from both Trinity College London and the London College of Music (for which the current piano grade syllabus is, in my opinion, the most imaginative and varied of all the boards). Thus, it has sought to remain true to its core strength of offering a syllabus which aims to combine rigour with a selection of music to appeal to a wide range of students around the world (I understand that the “core canon” of works by Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven remains very popular with teachers and students in the Far East and SE Asia), and I think this syllabus is the most successful of recent years.

The format of the exam books remains unchanged from previous years with clear, well-edited music engraving and short accompanying notes for each piece. The music extracts on the accompanying CDs are also better quality than in previous years and offer useful reference for teachers and students. The accompanying Teaching Notes offer guidance on context, technical aspects and performance. Meanwhile, the ABRSM’s Piano Practice Partner app, which allows a learner to play along with real musicians’ performances, exactly as recorded or at a reduced tempo, has now been updated with pieces from the new syllabus. Other supporting materials are available via the ABRSM website. The syllabus overlap period runs to 31 May 2019.

Further information


Postscript:

Following some rather heated discussion online about the new ABRSM syllabus, I’d like to make the following observations:

  • I would urge teachers – and students – to select a syllabus which works for them. Adult students in particular may not wish to submit to sight-reading and aural tests and for this reason I recommend the Recital Grades from London College of Music. As mentioned earlier, the LCM repertoire is, in my opinion, the best across the three main boards, with plenty to appeal to adult learner of all abilities.
  • The graded exams (and for that matter Diplomas) across all three main exam boards are all regulated by OFQAL and accrue exactly the same UCAS/academic points (Grades 6-8).
  • Be aware that there is a lot of snobbery surrounding exam boards: many people consider the ABRSM to be “better” or “the best” for a variety of reasons, and dismiss Trinity and LCM without even examining the syllabuses.
  • An exam syllabus should not be used as an exclusive framework for teaching and teachers should include other repertoire to give students a broader appreciation of music
  • Personally, I favour a flexible approach to learning and teaching – and this includes an exam format – which enables students of all ages and abilities to play to their strengths.

Trinity College London

London College of Music