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!