Thursday, September 12, 2013

Listening and the Developing Musician

Musicians understand the importance of regular practice in order to master their craft. We acknowledge that performance is necessary to communicate our thoughts through sound. We agree that it is necessary to read about composers in order to develop a fuller understanding of their music. Sometimes, however, we tend to forget about another valuable part of our development: listening.

Listening allows the developing musician to become acquainted with the repertoire. A pianist may spend his entire life learning new repertoire. Despite his best efforts, there will be no way that he will play all of the solo sonatas written for the piano. When we begin to consider the miniature pieces, concertos, and chamber works written for the instrument, the list of available music becomes daunting. Listening allows us to become aware of repertoire that we may never play, providing a backdrop of the sounds of a composer's works as well as historical eras.

Pianists should also listen to works not written for piano. In order to play "orchestrally" when such a sound is desired, the pianist must be intimately aware of what the orchestra sounds like in all of its colors and varieties. Lyrical, legato lines seem to float from the keyboard with greater ease when compared to the way that a flute or singer might approach the line. A Baroque fugue takes on new life when envisioned as something written for string quartet.

Examining various recordings of a single piece aids the listener in understanding the difference that subtle nuances can make. Additionally, encountering numerous artists sharpens one's ears as they develop their own artistic voice. By considering how different performers shape a single phrase, the pianist is challenged to pursue greater personal artistry while developing their own interpretive voice. With the addition of video performances, the developing musician is able to examine some technical aspects of different pianists. Perhaps a lower wrist placement seems to be associated with a greater warmth of sound. Another video might suggest an unusual fingering pattern. These observations combined with the sound produced can be taken to a practice room for careful experimentation.

Lastly, listening develops the musical taste of the pianist. While I tend to enjoy listening to specific players, it is important to listen to others as well. I learn from hearing what I don't particularly like as much as I do from what I most enjoy. It is an interesting exercise to ask others for suggestions -- peers, teachers, and non-pianists -- of recordings that they enjoy and find interesting. You'll find that you are exposed to approaches you did not expect and might find something new to appreciate.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Why Teach Harmonization at the Keyboard?

I am in my third week of teaching class piano. In many ways, it has proven to be very easy so far. I'm teaching the third semester of a four-term sequence. The students know basic technique and read fairly well on their own. Much of my role right now is providing feedback and direction to help them achieve the course requirements.

When I was first asked to teach the course, I knew that much of the focus would be on building technique and learning repertoire. Still, I knew that I wanted to devote a significant portion of the class to practical harmonization at the keyboard. While I knew that I felt it was important, I had not yet taken the time to express WHY. That's what this post is all about. I think it will be interesting to revisit my thoughts as the semester comes to a close and re-evaluate my decision.

Harmonization involves providing chordal accompaniments to single note melody lines. In the early stages, the chord progressions are provided using both Roman numeral analysis and chord symbols; as the student's skills develop, the focus shifts to generating their own progressions. Is the development of the skill beneficial for the student? My answer is a resounding "YES!"

The process of harmonization reinforces the theory that they are learning. It's one thing to talk about secondary dominants, another to hear them while observing their appearance in scores, and still another to actively apply them in "real world" settings. Additionally, the skill aids the student's awareness of harmonic structure -- an awareness that will prove helpful as they begin to transpose, conduct, or compose.

Since many of my students plan to teach in an elementary setting, the ability to quickly create a plausible accompaniment will be useful. Many music texts for the early grades provide accompaniments that are simplistic to say the least. While they are valid arrangements, it is nice for the modern teacher to have the ability to re-harmonize songs in a way that is more pleasing to their contemporary audience.  The trend of re-harmonizing traditional pieces is also seen in the church -- another area in which my students may find themselves serving. This fact is the inspiration for the major harmony project my classes will explore this semester. Students will select a hymn to play; the first verse will incorporate traditional harmonies while the final stanza will feature their newly imagined harmonic structures. One thing is should be interesting!