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.

2 thoughts on “How I came to compose educational piano music

  1. Hi — Every time I teach one of your piano tunes in Feilding, NZ, I tell them you were born or brought up just down the road in Palmerston North, isn’t that correct? Like you, teaching piano “crept up” on me, with people asking me to do it, and me wondering if I possibly could, were I to up-skill. It was something I could combine with raising a family.
    I hope your students find, as I found, that the goal, as you get closer and you realise it is indeed do-able, gradually resets itself at a more advanced level (ie. they get hooked). Yes of course, you being so good at improvising would be great with teens and adults — but I prefer to take the young ones and be the one to lay the foundation, and feedback from their subsequent teachers is good.
    Keep presenting the piano world with those gems!

    • Moved to the Manawatu when I was nearly 4, grew up near Longburn (so not too far from Palmerston North at all, really!), and didn’t move away til I was 13. Living in St Heliers/Glendowie in Auckland for the next 5/6 years was a BIG culture shift!!

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