Has Parenthood Changed My Teaching?

Back in second half of 2006, when I was 14-16 weeks pregnant, Gina Wake (from Hal Leonard Australia) and I did a two or three week tour launching Getting to Grade Four. And then, between weeks 28-31 of my pregnancy (and when Gina was 15-18 weeks along in her pregnancy!), we toured the nation again launching Getting to Preliminary New Mix and Getting to Grade One New Mix. In retrospect we don’t know what we were thinking.

But talking to piano teachers at this cusp moment in my life, this about-to-be-parent phase, meant that teachers who had known me through my seminars since as early as 2000 were sharing this transition with me, celebrating the arrival of motherhood on my resumé and giving me some great advice along the way.

One teacher said to me with quite a twinkle in her eye “I wonder how becoming a parent is going to change your piano teaching…”

“So do I!”, I exclaimed back. I’d always said that people who think that having a baby isn’t going to change their lives are dangerously delusional and/or completely failing to appreciate that the whole point of having a baby is to have your life changed. So the idea that my piano teaching would change as a result of raising a child of my own seemed obvious.

And yet – I’d been teaching since I was 14 years old. I’d already seen my teaching change simply because I’d gained maturity. I’d seen my teaching change because of new ideas I’d been exposed to when undertaking studies in non-musical disciplines (linguistics, semiotics, anthropology, sociology, French, film studies, and so on). I’d seen my teaching change because I’d taught classroom music and experienced first-hand the calibre and conditions of New South Wales high school music education. I’d seen my teaching change because I’d started presenting seminars to other piano teachers. And I’d seen my teaching change because I was composing and publishing music for students to play.

Becoming a parent was just going to be another one of these enrichments that changed my teaching.

When I resumed lessons with my much-reduced number of students and an 8 week-old baby, the biggest change was that I needed to schedule breaks between every lesson to facilitate breast-feeding. And as my son grew a bit older I needed to stop teaching earlier in the evening to facilitate his night-time routines, and I had far less time to organise the administration of my teaching practice.

To be honest, as the first few years of my son’s life passed I was quietly surprised at how little my teaching was changing post-parenthood, organisational rather than qualitative changes.

More notable was how my experience as a piano teacher was shaping my approach to being a mother.

After more than 20 years of piano teaching I had experienced all kinds of different parents: parents who were always two minutes early, parents who were always five minutes late, parents who quibbled over money and parents who arrived at the start of each term with their chequebook open. I’d had parents who didn’t realise there’s any benefit to practice between lessons as well as parents who sat with their children to practice every day, for years, for each child in the family. There were parents who told me they just wanted their child to learn ‘for fun’ and parents who discussed how we should shape the next five to ten years to enable their child to gain a music scholarship or earn a diploma before the end of Year 10. Parents who barely spoke English and parents who thought migrants posed an unfair educational challenge to their children. Parents who were keen to sit in on lessons, parents who used piano lessons for a sleep in the car.

Chief amongst the approaches I’d quietly bemoaned along the years was the parent who uses the piano lesson as a kind of baby-siting, an expensive but enriching weekly event which requires no further engagement on the part of the student or the student’s family between sessions. Why invest the money in lessons each week if you can’t be bothered supporting the practice between lessons, even a little bit?, has been my bordering-on-exasperated thought. Don’t you know how much more your child could be achieving?!

But all of a sudden, I get it.

You’re exhausted. Years of parenting a child who doesn’t seem to need to sleep have finally compounded to deplete you of even the tiniest reserves. It’s a miracle if you can make it through the day without losing it between dinner and bedtime. The piano teacher wants your child to have practiced this week? It’s a feat of extraordinary proportions that the child got fed, for goodness sake, that they’ve turned up to their lesson in clean clothes. But you know that your child loves this 30 or 45 minutes each week, or at least you’re pretty sure they do, and you know that your child is getting quality one-on-one attention from a teacher who is invested in building a long-term learning relationship. AND you know that music is super-fantastic for the brain. Whatever is happening in the lesson is absolutely worth it, because it’s more than you can provide on your own.

I get it.

The piano teacher talks to you about your child’s capacities, potential and achievements based on weekly, focussed experience working with your child. You get to tell the teacher what’s been going on in the life of your family, what’s been making practice or organisation tricky, and the teacher makes some suggestions or sympathises or tells a joke. You know that the teacher wants good things for your child, and that they have been spending the past half hour thinking hard about the best way to help your child grow and develop. So what if this week was a disaster in the practice department? The piano teacher is part of your network, your support team. You’re not going to give this up just to save a few bucks.

I get it.

And I also know, from all my years as a piano teacher, that even without practice at home a child can still (miraculously) make something resembling progress, can still play happily at recitals, can still be a joyful musician. Not anything like a professional musician. But still happy. And it makes complete sense to have your child experience this, even if you can’t (for whatever reason) support your child’s at-home practice the way piano teachers might tell you you should.

Piano lessons aren’t always about playing the piano. A successful lesson might not even involve touching a keyboard. A great outcome for a student might not even have anything to do with music.

And that’s totally, completely, and always OK.

I think I really, truly knew this before I became a parent. But these days I think I marvel more – how extraordinary a thing it is that a student finds an hour a day to practice! – how tremendous that the whole family attends the end-of-term recital! – how spectacular is an improvement in posture! – how thrilling is a memorised performance!

Parenthood has underlined to me how the whole enterprise of learning is miraculous. And how it’s a privilege to participate in that miracle every day.

A Teenage Cautionary Tale

In her marvellous memoir Piano Lessons, Anna Goldsworthy recounts a turning point in her relationship with her piano teacher. Anna had won an extraordinary string of awards, academic and musical, in her final year at high school, and she was being interviewed for a story in the paper. Anna describes the whole experience as being quite surreal, finding the questions put to her by the reporter as being weirdly disconnected from anything she might have wanted to say.

When the story appeared in the paper then next day Anna was bemused to herself quoted as saying that she owed her success to her kindergarten teacher, and that she planned to move to Sydney to further her career. It’s not that she was misquoted exactly, but that the whole story skewed very far from Anna’s reality.

Next thing Anna received a phone call from her piano teacher, very cold, asking her about her plans to relocate to Sydney. Long story short, Anna had failed to credit her piano teacher with any influence at all in her extraordinary piano performance success. The memoir goes on to detail how Anna and her teacher worked through this: the senses of betrayal and teenage confusion that mingled to create this interpersonal flashpoint.

I read this part of the memoir with looming dread as the story unfolded, and with deep empathy for the teenage Anna. Goodness knows the number of times I got things wrong with my music teachers through no deliberate fault of my own; I just wish someone had been able to steer me clear of false steps in my adolescent musical career. I knew exactly how ashamed Anna felt when she realised the impact the newspaper story must have had on her teacher, and how helpless and foolish she felt when it was all too late.

The worst of my musical crimes was perpetrated at the end of my high schooling, when I was asked to perform at the school’s Prize Giving Night. I had only one piece suitable for public performance at the time: a Bartok Dance in Bulgarian Rhythm from Mikrokosmos VI. It’s a flashy work, short, rhythmic, loud; but it’s Bartok, and the consensus from the staff was that they’d much prefer me to play some Beethoven (maybe they even asked for Chopin, but that was never going to be on the cards).

If I could time travel back to 1983 and whisper in my just-turned-16-year-old ear I would yell “It’s the Bartok, or it’s nothing!”. Then I’d advise the high school staff to contact my piano teacher to talk about alternatives, rather than hassling a teenager to do something against her better judgment. I’d explain to myself that performing a work that is not ready to be performed does absolutely no one any favours: not the audience, not the school and certainly not yourself.

But since I didn’t time travel back to 1983 I found myself trying to keep my school teachers happy by agreeing to perform the first movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata. I needed to master it in any case for a piano exam I was sitting in 7 weeks time, so I didn’t sense the degree to which I was letting everyone down when I allowed the staff to influence my performance choices.

The night arrived. My piano teacher wasn’t going to be there, but that hadn’t even been on my mind at all. It hadn’t even occurred to me to let her know about this issue at the school regarding my Prize Giving Performance. I sat down to play, and as those first ponderous bars of the Pathetique began to resound about the school hall so a cicada began its summery task of chirping through the dusk. Once I reached the Allegro the cicada upped the ante, chirping at double speed; I couldn’t reciprocate – Andante was the best I could do.

It took over 10 minutes to play the movement, and I was accompanied throughout by an insect. When I finally played the concluding chords the audience broke into rapturous applause (thank God that’s over, was what I imagined they were thinking), and once the clapping had died away we all realised the cicada had stopped too. And then every human being in that school hall laughed.

The next day a teacher stopped me in the schoolyard to praise my performance. I had this little moment where I considered explaining how truly awful my performance had been, but I could see he was genuine, completely meaning every word he said, and I didn’t have the heart to let him down twice, so I just said “Thank you”.

But at about the same time on this same next day the musicology professor from the university was on the phone to his good friend, my piano teacher, asking her if she had had any idea what I had been up to the previous night. It’s at this point that I realise that deep in my heart I did know I was doing the wrong thing – if I had thought for an instant that any of the university staff were going to be at my school’s Prize Giving I know I would have insisted on playing the Bartok.

But I didn’t (know the musicology professor was attending), and I didn’t (insist on playing Bartok), and my piano teacher didn’t (know about my woeful performance).

The next piano lesson was just one long blush.

I felt terrible about it, and I do to this day. Anyone who was there will remember that cicada.

But more than feeling terrible about giving a terrible performance, I feel terrible about the social betrayals in this story: my high school teachers let me down, encouraging me to give a performance so far from my best; I let my piano teacher down by implying this was also her idea of a good performance; I also let my piano teacher down by not even telling her that I was going to be performing. I really thought I was doing the right thing….

Teenage piano students: your lot is not an easy one. You spend hours each week on your own perfecting your performance skills, and then the world wonders when you’re not up to speed on interpersonal protocol.

Here’s the deal:
1. Never perform in a formal public setting without both the knowledge and the approval of your piano teacher. This saves you making a fool of yourself.
2. Never perform a piece that deep in your heart you know is not ready. This saves you making a fool of the music.
3. Never allow your high school teachers (who may be absolutely brilliant teachers and people) to dissuade you from following rules 1 and 2. This saves you making a fool of them.

And should you happen to be interviewed for a newspaper about your performances and prizes, be sure to give your kindergarten teacher just a little less credit than that you give to your piano teacher!

Piano Lessons for Life: Don’t Correct Mistakes

One of the most profound life lessons I’ve learned as a piano teacher is to not correct mistakes.

Correcting mistakes can take up whole piano lessons, whole terms of piano lessons, whole lifetimes of piano lessons. It’s no fun for the teacher, even less so for the student, and what’s more it simply doesn’t do any good.

Correcting mistakes means that all the attention is drawn to what is being done wrong, rather than to what one should be aiming to do right. This is not a good tactic in improving performance (on the piano, on the tennis court, and keep extrapolating as suits your own activities); the performer’s focus is drawn inward to the mistake rather than outward to communicating clearly.

But correcting mistakes is an easy habit to fall into. A what-not-to-do list looks like ‘instruction’, and is much simpler to compile than a strategy for success, and that’s because at the piano (as in life) it’s often easier to articulate what we don’t want than what we do. And it’s easier to articulate what we don’t want because what we do want can change from one day or moment to the next. The right thing to do changes according to context: much easier to list forbidden behaviours than to inculcate the wisdom to select judicious courses of action.

For those of you unfamiliar with piano lessons, or for those of you whose piano lessons days are far behind you, here’s the rundown of a lesson where correcting mistakes is the means of ‘teaching’. Let’s say the student plays a scale, and stumbles on a particular note. The teacher usually has two options: one is to name the note the student should be playing, the other is to name the finger the student should be using. This results in piano lessons where the teacher wearily calls out “F sharp” whenever the student reaches that part of the scale, or where the teacher forcefully suggests “4” when the student goes to use a third finger.

The same kind of thing happens with students presenting repertoire they’ve been practising during the week: a wrong note, muffled articulation, or inappropriate dynamic expression. A teacher focussed on correcting mistakes will say things like “it’s a G“, “play staccato!”, “LOUD!!“. All piano teachers reading this: I know you will agree that you have certainly engaged in this kind of in-lesson communication at some point in your careers, maybe even this afternoon. And while each of these exhortations does focus on the preferred activity of the student (play a G instead of whatever fool note you are playing/those dots really do mean a short and detached sound so do it/play loudly because that’s what forte means, hello), they are responsive to a ‘mistake’, not to a vision of what the performance should or could be.

One of the best lines I’ve ever come across about piano teaching is this: Don’t correct mistakes, instead find the source of the error.

It doesn’t take too many years of teaching before you realise that a huge percentage of ‘mistakes’ come down to fingering. A student keeps hitting a wrong note? Check the fingering. A student struggles to play a passage legato? Check the fingering. And by check the fingering I don’t mean that the teacher should check that the student is playing the fingering as written in the book; I mean that the teacher should check that the fingering being used by the student actually facilitates the performance of the correct notes, articulations, rhythms, and so forth.

Of the many other possible sources of error there are two that account for nearly everything else that goes ‘wrong': a failure to notice and a failure to imagine. Rather than, for instance, inserting micromanaged dynamic instructions throughout a piece (and then rote-teaching these dynamics to students) a teacher can create learning experiences that strengthen a student’s interest in and ability to notice and to imagine, thus developing a performer who finds logical and emotionally engaging ways to present performances.

But the lesson for life here is both simple and profound: don’t correct mistakes, locate the source of the error.

Say you have a bill from your telco where you are being charged the wrong amount. You can call the company every month to dispute the bill and hopefully have it corrected, or you can find out why you are being charged the wrong amount and resolve the fundamental error that is leading to the mistaken total being billed to you. Finding (and resolving) the cause of the error will save you time (and probably money), not just in your piano practice but in your whole life.

Say you are setting your alarm for 7am but you are still running late for work/class/the bus each day. Rather than just trying to get ready faster, find out what the cause of the delay actually is: is your clock running five minute late? are you allowing 2 minutes for 4 minute walk to the bus stop? have you not factored time in for breakfast? Taking time to find the cause of the error (in piano practice as in life) allows you to make a good decision as to how to create effective change.

Say someone gossips about you, telling untruths in the process; in 21st century terms it could be talking about you on a facebook page or some other kind of (social or other) media. Protesting that things said about you are not true would be exactly like a piano teacher calling out “Don’t play quietly!” – all you are doing is drawing attention to the thing that is wrong! If you take the time to locate the source of the error in these social aspects of your life you’ll avoid making mistakes of your own, just as you will in your piano practice, but until the source of the error is discovered you will find new mistakes cropping up time and time again (in life as in piano). Deal with the source of the error and it is unlikely that mistakes will reappear.

To be continued.


The Letter Chelsea White Received From Me

For anyone following the so-called ‘radio wives war’ as reported by Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, here’s what I really said. If you want to check my tweets you need to look at December 13. I tweet as @elissamilne, and be warned – I tweet mostly about music education, piano teaching and classical music, the same topics I cover in this blog.

Hi Chelsea

My apologies for being impossible to access yesterday – I’m in the middle of a tour around the country presenting seminars to piano teachers in this last week before school goes back, and my flight back to Sydney last night was one of the last of the day.

I suspect it’s too late for phone calls now, seeing as your plans were to go forward with the story already. But I’m assuming you are referring to the news that Lisa Oldfield made remarks about me on her private facebook account. I wouldn’t even know about it except for someone alerting my husband to this, and my view is that Lisa is entitled to say whatever she likes in her facebook status, and her friends are equally entitled to respond to her status in the way they see fit.

I understand Lisa’s comments were in response to a twitter conversation I had had on December 13, where I was discussing the lack of apostrophes in written journalism, and my surprise and horror at the misuse of subordinate clauses. Yes, this was a grammar-nazi tweeting-session, replete with hashtags decrying the illiteracy of the media and my despair that an ability to use words correctly was dwindling in the fourth estate.

In the midst of this twitter conversation/rant someone tweeted that David Oldfield had read a list of ‘racially based surnames’ in a recent broadcast, and I tweeted that ‘illiteracy was better than that shite’, a reflection of my belief that comments that superficially dwell on ethnicity or that attempt to sensationalise and deride the racial diversity of Australia are a poor use of the broadcast spectrum. And I can only assume that this is what upset Lisa.

It’s possible that Lisa mistook the entire rant about apostrophes and so forth as being about David, but since he works in an audio format where apostrophes are not visible it’s hard to see how this conclusion would have been reached. Further, David has a wonderful voice for radio and really is a natural in this medium. He also has a perfectly functional vocabulary (not true of everyone in the trade). The only thing one can criticise about him is the questionable content of his broadcasts, and I can only imagine that David’s content will continue to be oriented toward decrying ways of living that are foreign to him (halal food being served in KFCs being a recent example) and therefore open to criticism from people like myself who find this attitude to parts of the Australian population to be distasteful.

I hope this sheds some light on the ‘dispute’. I firmly believe Lisa should be allowed to say whatever she likes about me or anyone/anything else – it’s her facebook page for goodness sake. And I wouldn’t have even known about it except for someone phoning John.

On the other hand, I have no idea how on earth Lisa was alerted to my tweet. I am mostly followed by people interested in music education, classical music and arts marketing. I tweet as myself, Elissa Milne, and my profile does not mention my relationship with my husband. As I have never met Lisa in person I am amazed that she even knows who I am.

At least now introductions won’t be required.

All the best

Elissa Milne

Resuming Normal Transmission

It’s been exactly a month since my last post to this blog, and in the intervening time my journalist husband has been working overtime making commentary on the unique electoral result Australia achieved (and on the final makeup of the minority government) while I’ve had a fairly full schedule myself, with a weekend in Wagga Wagga participating in a composing festival (premieres of specially commissioned works at night followed by workshops for aspiring composers during the day) and many pages of proofing for some new books coming out over the next few months. Oh, and my sister has just had her first baby, so the whole family (yes, that includes me!) has been enjoying this newborn phase with the delighted parents.

But transmission is about to be reset to ‘Normal’, with a backlog of issues, ideas and music to discuss.

I’ve been playing through the new ABRSM (2011-12) piano exam books, and revisiting the AMEB Series 16 selections as well. I’m fascinated by the way ABRSM Grade 6 is getting easier (pieces that were in ABRSM Grade 5 collections in the late 70s and early 80s are now in Grade 6) while AMEB Grade 6 seems to be headed toward something like what Grade 8 AMEB used to be back in the late 70s! I’m not sure what either exam board is hoping will come of the repertoire drift, but I’ll be blogging about specific examples of this in the weeks ahead.

And I’m still working my way through how not to teach the way you were taught (!) and this issue of how many hours practice it should take for a student to successfully improve one whole grade standard.

There are new children’s books I want to talk about, and there are still a swag of issues coming out of the Classical Music Futures Summit I’d still like to explore.

So it’s definitely time to resume normal transmission….

Anita Milne is my mother

It’s time to write a piece about my mum.  Mums are self-evidently worth writing about, but in my case I am further motivated to do so knowing that about 10 people have discovered my blog in the past seven days because they were wanting to know more about my mum, Anita.

A brief history: Anita was born in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1943 and started piano lessons at the age of nine. She progressed rapidly, and was teaching the piano herself by the time she was in her late teens, as well as working as an accompanist and organist. She married Richard Milne (born in Prosperpine, QLD, and working in Christchurch at the time) in 1963.

I was born when Anita was nearly 24 and living in Wahroonga, Sydney, and I grew up listening to her piano lessons (as a baby) and hearing her students practice (as I became older). When she was 27 our whole family moved to the Manawatu district of New Zealand where Richard was the Business Manager of a boarding college, Longburn College. While there Anita was asked to join the faculty teaching high school music, as well as being the resident piano, organ and theory teacher.

During the nearly 10 years we were at Longburn Anita also organised a series of concerts performed by the students, productions which subsequently toured New Zealand.  Anita also organised children’s singing groups and produced and directed music theatre presentations by children and adolescents.  And it was during this time that Anita gained a number of piano teaching qualifications (LTCL and LRSM), as well as taking further training as an organist.

In 1980 we moved to Auckland, and Anita established a piano teaching practice there (in the St Heliers/Glendowie area), until 1985 when Richard was headhunted for a job in Sydney.  Anita moved to Sydney in the second half of 1985, and Richard and Anita built a home in Cherrybrook which then was the site of her piano teaching practice until the middle of last year (2009).

During most of the more than 20 years Anita was teaching in Cherrybrook I also worked as a piano teacher alongside her (from 1989), and my sister, Suzanne, also taught piano with us for a number of years.  The house really did become devoted to piano teaching, and during the time all three of us were working together we devised a number of programs and teaching aids that made the experience of learning piano at our studio quite unique. The studio was originally called the Milne Music Studio, later changing to Pepperbox School of Music.

And it was during this time that Anita started urging me to compose educational piano music (which I first started doing in November 1995).  And over the next few years Anita was an integral part of my composing process, giving me feedback from a piano teacher’s point of view as to the usefulness of each of my compositions, and the likelihood (in her opinion) that students would actually want to play the pieces.

In 2001 I started collating the material that would become the Getting to series (Preliminary, Grades One and Two first published in 2003), and it was during this period that Anita started notating the ideas that she had been teaching with over the years.  In 2006 I included one of these pieces in each of Getting to Preliminary, The New Mix and Getting to Grade One, The New Mix.

In 2006 we were also working on a publication that Faber Music were going to publish, My Very First Little Peppers, pieces mostly composed by Anita for use with students in the first six months of lessons. My pregnancy in 2006 interrupted the timeframes of this publication, and to date Faber Music have not published the collection, but two of the pieces Anita had composed during this period have been included in last year’s P Plate Piano publications from the Australia Music Examination Board.

Anita’s published music to date:

The Last Leaves of Autumn, in P Plate Piano Book One. This piece is a beautiful piece exploring how to play the two-note slur, and also exploring how harmonics work on the piano.  Students cover the whole keyboard while playing this piece.

Who’s There, in P Plate Piano Book Two. This piece is partly off-keyboard, with students knocking rhythms on the body of the piano alternating with 5ths being played in either hand.  This piece also explores the difference between a perfect and a diminished 5th, and explores the idea of enharmonic equivalence, with the right hand playing G flat, while the left hand plays F sharp.

Shiver Me Timbers, in Getting to Preliminary, the New Mix. This piece is really a set of variations on the chords A minor and G major, in much the same way that the folk song “What shall we do with the drunken sailor” is.  All sorts of pianistic possibilities are explored, including clusters, triads and moving between octaves, as well as a range of articulations and rhythmic devices.

Shiver Me Timbers II, in Getting to Grade One, the New Mix. This piece is a more difficult set of variations on the same harmonic sequence as Shiver Me Timbers.

Anita doesn’t really consider herself a composer, simply a piano teacher coming up with material that solves the problems she sees her students facing as they attempt to master various techniques and styles.  But her material is really well written and the students enjoy playing her music.  It’s not the kind of old-fashioned stuff one normally assumes piano teachers will come up with – but maybe in the 21st century we expect different things from piano teachers than we did in the 20th.

I rely on Anita to give me brutally honest feedback about my compositions and ideas, and we teach each other’s students from time to time to monitor how different students respond to different approaches.  And of course, I’ve benefitted from her experience as a piano teacher right from my earliest years: Anita was an early adopter of new music that would become available in New Zealand, and I think she was among the first teachers there to really use the music of Kabalevksy and Rybicki there in the 1970s.  Her interest in finding engaging new repertoire resulted in my hearing a wide range of piano music as a child and student, and certainly impacted on my own ideas about what makes a good piece of educational piano music.

Hopefully we’ll get that My Very First Little Peppers book published soon!  But in the meantime I’m sure there will be other publications in which Anita’s music will surface.

Anita and Richard moved to Annandale (in Sydney’s inner west) in the middle of 2009, and Anita is now teaching some students at her new home while still teaching her remaining students in Sydney’s north-west from a piano teaching venue in a primary school in that area. Anita and I are currently working on a range of new ideas for working with students in the first five years of lessons, and are road-testing these concepts on Anita’s students this year, with a view to making them more widely available in 2011.

If there’s anything you were hoping to find out that I may have omitted, please just leave a comment below and I’ll attempt to provide you with any and all salient details that are of interest!

So it turns out I AM an Australian composer.

When asking if I am really an Australian composer, and if it mattered all that much anyway, I was asking for trouble.  Especially in the week preceding Australia Day.

Comments posted to my Facebook page convinced me that when I questioned the value of national identity I did so in a myopia of macro-thinking (thinking “do I represent this nation?”), and was forgetting all about the micro-realities about identity (“do I live in my community?”).

Of course it matters if I am Australian to the children from Australia who play my music: me being from where they are from tells them that composers live in their community, which is a double shock to some people (the fact that composers are alive at all, and that they live down the road).  It matters to the Kiwi kids who find out I grew up half an hour away from where they live, or I went to school at their high school.

Knowing that someone just like you (who lives in your street, who went to your school) has grown up to be a composer tells children that this is a perfectly legitimate career choice for them to make, and that real music (published and all) is composed in the very community they are living in.

This can be a transformational realisation, especially in a world (classical music) where so many of the heroes are from a foreign country and well dead.  I don’t know what it’s like to grow up as a piano student in Germany, but it has to be an entirely different sensation, knowing that the Beethoven sonata you are learning was composed in a house only a short trip down the road, or that the Bach Prelude and Fugue you are practicing was first performed in the neighbouring town.  It simply has to change the way you set about the task, playing something indigenous, something local.

Then there’s the other aspect to my ambivalence about claiming to be an Australian composer: what does that even mean?  Well, Prince William’s speech writers summed it up for me on Thursday when they said that Australians are notable for their vibrancy, their straight forward ways and their classic sense of humour.  I caught a sound-bite of Prince William (participating in the state of Victoria’s Australia Day celebrations) listing off these admirable Australian attributes, and I realised that, on the basis of these qualities, I am entirely and deeply Australian, and my music is even more so.

What a relief.

Am I an Australian composer?

It has often struck me that describing myself as an Australian composer is not an overly enlightening statement.

Sure, I was born in Sydney (specifically, in Wahroonga, at the San, on Fox Valley Road), spent the first three and three quarter years of my life living there, and have now lived in Sydney for the 21 years since I was 21. My passport is Australian. I even have a kind of Australian accent these days.

But my formative years were spent in New Zealand, and it was there that I undertook the bulk of my musical education, and it is the sounds of New Zealand that shaped the way I hear the world.  That and my parents’ record collection, and various films and programs broadcast by Television New Zealand in the 1970s.

Maybe even more importantly, once we moved to New Zealand we lived on the campus of a boarding college which had a strong religious component to the on-campus experience: hymns, religious music from the Baroque to the then current day, choirs, organ music, guitars accompanying camp fire singalongs, spontaneous a capella singing, men’s quartets, women’s trios, solo vocalists, you name it – if it had a function in a local community church it was part of my experience.

And experiencing this kind of religious music at a boarding college in New Zealand had the added element that I was making music with gifted young musicians from Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, the Cook Islands, Norfolk and Pitcairn Islands, even sometimes from Tahiti. And that’s without taking into account the New Zealanders who were not of immigrant descent, the Maori students. It was a quite Polynesian musical upbringing, for a kid whose ancestry is fundamentally Scottish.

So.  What does it mean to describe myself as an Australian composer?

Well, geography, I suppose – I live here.  And maybe in addition I do fit into a narrative of larrikinism. And the third thing is that I have certainly made an effort to create titles for my educational piano music (and the handful of educational pieces I’ve written for other instruments) which connect the story of the music to the real lives of Australian children.  So I have pieces in my Little Peppers and Pepperbox Jazz series called: Cockatoo, Mozzie, The Lone Echidna, Bandicoot Ballet, Brolga Stroll, No Worries, Larrikin, Wombat, and Mulga Bill.

But more importantly, in my opinion, is that my tempo indications are in English, and evoke rather than dictate a performance approach: Glistening, Alarming, Laid-back, Nimble, Buzzing, Frantic, Showing Off, Feeling better than usual, and so on. Now this isn’t an effort to be democratic (a most American notion), but reflects being part of a culture in which authority figures are figures of fun, where expecting others to do as you say only sets you up for ridicule.  These are tempo descriptions, not tempo demands – I know, as an Australian, that you’ll end up doing whatever you want in any case! But should you be interested these tempo markings give you a clue as to what I reckon.

Pomposity is a capital offense in Australia.

Which leads to another element of my composing that maybe does mark me as an Australian. Brevity.  There’s not a lot of waffle or filler in my compositions.  I say what I feel needs to be said, and then move on.  Other cultures do seem to beat around the bush when addressing a point, but that’s not really culturally comprehensible in Australia (or New Zealand, for that matter). Our current prime minister speaks in bureaucratese at times, and is mocked and pilloried whenever an example of this tendency surfaces. But since he takes the mickey out himself (to a certain extent, in public anyway) he doesn’t suffer in the opinion polls.  [You can be any kind of person in Australia and be completely accepted so long as you don't take yourself too seriously and you don't think you deserve special treatment.] But I suspect that exactly the same kind of hyper-diplomatic or extreme-management use of language by a prime minister would not even raise an eyebrow in other countries.

Well, that’s as it may be, but am I really an ‘Australian’ composer because I live in Australia, sometimes name my pieces after Australian fauna, expect performers to do what they want with my music, and, write music that doesn’t mince measures?

Seems so.  And it also seems to me, in this age of instant everywhere, that my nationality is mostly important in terms of what this allows me to do and disallows me from doing. In theory Australian educators will be more likely to want to teach music by Australian composers, and there are, theoretically, funds available to support Australian music-making and composition – defined pretty much by one’s passport and address.

So yes, I’m an Australian composer.  Does this admission mean anything much to anyone? I’m suspecting not.

But maybe I’m being myopic, some kind of mid-summer response to the enthusiasm for flag-waving that might engulf us on Australia Day (January 26).  I’d be fascinated to know what you think – does being an Australian composer actually mean anything in 2010?

Musical Resolutions

It used to be my wont around this time of the year to think of my musical misdeeds and resolve to engage in behaviours that would counter my deficiencies of the previous twelve months over the subsequent 365 days.

I would resolve to practice longer. Mastering more repertoire. In a more focussed fashion.

I would resolve to put musical pen to manuscript paper for a set period of time per day.

I would resolve to listen to more music; to become more than a passing acquaintance with the orchestral canon, the operatic oeuvre, the chamber music catalogue; to attend more live performances.

I would resolve to work my way through recordings of famous jazz pianists, jazz trios, jazz quartets and quintets and big band ensembles.  Learn to play the hundreds of standards I still didn’t know.

I would resolve to get to grips with world music just a little [more than before]; to learn how to compose for hurdy-gurdy, how to notate banjo music, the difference between a ehru and a rebab, what the aesthetic of gamelan really was all about, maybe even try to play a taiko drum or a mbira or the uilleann pipes.

Hell, I’d even resolve to learn western orchestral instruments: I was keen on the oboe, and felt that my lack of hands-on experience with the brass family was quite an impediment.  And then there was the annual wish-resolution to find a way to buy myself a cello.

Most of these resolutions will never find their way from the half-life of desire to the real life of accomplishment; there just isn’t time in three lifetimes for that. Or at least I tell myself that.

The fact is that as voracious as my appetite for things musical might be I am equally hungry for all manner of other skills and experiences as well: studying law, mastering Arabic, learning to figure-skate, finally figuring out how to check the pressure in my tyres, the list could literally go on for a lifetime. Besides all this, having a fundamental resolution to lead a balanced life, involving exercise, great nutrition, excellent interpersonal relationships, a disciplined approach to my finances, and enough time to go shopping.

How can one hope to succeed?

This year I am adding some new items to the list: coming to grips with musical iPhone apps as well as creating ringtones from my more popular educational piano pieces, really coming to terms with how to teach very young piano students (in time for my now two-and-three-quarters year-old son to start lessons later in the year), and tracking down ‘Babies Proms’-style concerts and other interesting (as compared to vacuous) musical experiences to which I can take my son.

And I resolve to do at least 15 minutes of daily practice on the piano. Unbelievably inadequate.  But seeing as I managed only 12.5 minutes per day (on average) in 2009, I will be thrilled if I manage such a statistically significant (20%) improvement in the year ahead.

How I came to compose educational piano music

This blog has been a bit of an experiment so far – an experiment in how-to-blog, as far as I am concerned, and I’ve realised that I probably haven’t included a whole lot of useful factual information about myself so far…..

So to rectify a little:

I’ve been composing educational piano music since 1995 when an adult student (probably no older than 22 at the time) said to me “But what I really want to do is to play the way you do when you are playing your own music”.  This set me back quite a bit, as I had never given any thought to teaching my students to play the way I did when I wasn’t performing ‘repertoire’.  My teaching was somewhat traditional in terms of content, style, outcomes and expectations.  But my performing life was anything but traditional, and many parents had sent their children to me to have lessons after they had seen me performing.

My adult student kept at me (nicely!) until she moved interstate and lessons stopped.  But somehow she had planted a seed that quickly developed into a project, a publication, and then two graded series (Little Peppers and Pepperbox Jazz).

Like many piano teachers I meet, I didn’t set out to ‘be’ a piano teacher, it kind of crept up on me. My career of choice was to be a composer – I’d been composing in earnest since I was six and I’d written the school musical while I was at high school – so naturally I studied composition at university (the University of Auckland, New Zealand, which at the time was where I lived).  I taught the piano from the time I was 14 until I finished that undergraduate degree at the age of 19.

I had a couple of years ‘off’ teaching, moving to Sydney, Australia where I spent a year on short-term contracts with various media organisations, working as a researcher or production assistant on television and radio productions for some independent producers.  Then I won a song-writing competition, which meant I had a flight around the world to use in the next 12 months – so I moved to London for the best part of a year.

Returning to Sydney, and to university studies, meant that I also resumed my career alter-ego as a piano teacher.  And while I’ve done many, many other fascinating projects along the way, piano teaching has been a constant, so much more stimulating and rewarding than the other kinds of jobs students seem to end up in (at the start) and so hard to relinquish (as time went on).

So by the time my adult student (only 5 or 6 years younger than me) suggested in 1995 that I should find a way to teach students how to play the piano the way I did, I was 27 and had 11 years teaching experience behind me.  Enough experience to have formed some strong views about what made a good piece of educational piano music.  Enough experience to know that I didn’t want to just churn out nice pieces for people to play; I wanted to create music which invited the student in – to explore, to investigate, to experiment, and into the possibilities that the 88 keys on the piano represent.

One important factor my tale thus far has omitted: my mother is a piano teacher, and her mother also was a piano teacher, my grandmother’s aunt had played the piano in cinemas when movies first began being screened commercially, and that aunt’s daughter was a concert pianist.  My childhood was filled with the sounds of piano lessons and piano practicing, family gatherings always included performances by pianists of varying degrees of accomplishment, and it seemed to me (as a child) that adulthood could not be bestowed upon anyone who could not play the piano.

And these family pianists had opinions.  About what music was interesting, which composers were exciting to play, about the things that were important about the piano.  I might well have benefitted from having a family clarinetist or viola player, but we were pretty much exclusively a family of pianists (maybe the odd organist got a look in).

So when, in 1995, I decided to start composing educational piano music I had my own home-grown audience and critic – my mum.  She was keen for music to use with her piano students, but was equally keen to not subject them to pointless piffle.  A lesson I quickly learned was that a good hook in one’s composition counts for little if the construction of the piece is slap-dash.  Once I had the structure exactly right my mother would be keen to teach my latest piece, but before that she would shrug and suggest that it wasn’t worth the effort!  The undeniable benefit of having a harsh critic as a mother is that if she has given a piece the OK, then I can be quite confident most piano teachers will find that piece useful and enjoyable.

In addition, having a piano teacher as a mother has meant that she has presented me with quite specific pedagogical challenges that she has been facing with a student, and I have come back with a composition that addresses that concern.  This ongoing student-focussed to-and-fro has been invaluable in creating a genuine body of work (as compared to a whole bunch of music that is easy enough for amateurs).

My first great compositional goals (from the age of 7 and 8 years old) were not to write symphonies and concerti, but rather to write musicals.  I think this is another important insight into my educational piano music.  Much of it is highly rhythmic (great for those dance numbers) and much of it is highly lyrical (important in those pivotal character changes), and I have had a reviews that suggest that some pieces from Pepperbox Jazz sound as if they are long-established jazz standards.

Now, on the topic of “jazz”…. My educational piano music is, of course, NOT JAZZ!  If it were jazz it would have sections in it where the student was required to improvise some of the performance. But that word “jazz” has, in piano teaching circles, become a kind of code word for “your students will like practicing this”, or for “this modern music is actually tonal”, or for “don’t worry, we won’t be changing time signatures from seven-sixteen to three-two to five-eight in consecutive bars” and so forth.  In our talking about the music of the twentieth century we still struggle to get the terms right. Jazz is not the right word, but it has oh-so-many of the right connotations….

There’s just one more thing about how I came to compose educational piano music – the composers whose educational piano music I practiced as a student.  Kabalevksy, Bartok, Shostakovich, later Ravel, Poulenc, more Bartok, more Shostakovich.  Three early experiences are key in terms of what drives my writing for very young students.

The first was playing a piece by Kabalevsky called “Scherzino” or “A Little Joke”.  The thumbs are adjacent and move from position to position in tandem, and the music has the hands playing in similar motion through a precise pattern of articulation and interval.  This piece just felt so good to play (as a 7 year-old – and still now some decades on!), and the distance of a 6th between the notes in the right and left hands meant that the major scale melody developed all these gorgeous 7th chord harmonies as a triad unfolded – satisfying to ear as well as the hand.

The second, from around the same time in my studies, was a piece by Bartok called “The Lost Cat” (amongst many of its other names).  This piece has the left hand harmonising a melody, beginning with a bare 5th on the tonic (in a minor tonality), and then moving to a major 3rd on the subdominant: magic.  It is, of course, the Dorian mode that Bartok uses in this opening (and then repeated) harmonic gambit, and to my 7 year-old ears this was an addictive way to be minor. Let alone the gloriousness of keeping the melody note the same (on the dominant) while the left hand turned the harmonic kaleidoscope to optimistic.  It felt as sophisticated as it was well within my technical prowess to perform.

The third experience (during that same year) was a piece by Pál Kodosa called “Andantino”. This piece is primarily in 5, with one hand continually parading up and down the A minor five-finger position while the other performs the same step-wise pattern in a 2+3 rhythm (one single note at the start of the 2-pulse beat, one single note at the start of the 3-pulse beat).  So simple.  One idea. Cleanly executed in composition, endlessly rewarding in performance.

I need my educational music to connect the deep physical pleasure of playing the instrument to the equally deeply satisfying emotional realities that music can create.  I need the technical challenges to be real, but fabulously fun.  It’s not always possible to meet all one’s self-imposed criteria on each single composition, but these are some of the things I strive for, in addition to wanting students to feel pride when they perform a piece I have composed, because they never knew they could sound so good.