I was 14 years’ old when I passed my ABRSM Grade 8 exam. I was not a prodigy nor exceptionally talented. I was an average young pianist who worked fairly hard and had been put on a diet of “exam….festival…repeat” since the age of four.
I had no understanding of how chord progressions worked. I’m not sure I had ever set eyes on the Circle of Fifths. I was taught all my scales by rote. I had never heard of modes. Playing jazz meant playing a piece of notated music in the jazz style, rather than anything approaching improvisation. I wouldn’t have known where to begin if asked to compose my own music.
So, having achieved a merit at Grade 8, was I a well-rounded musician? Not even nearly.
Fast forward nearly 30 years and I became a piano teacher myself. I was determined that my own pupils would be able to do all of the things I couldn’t at their age, and frankly, I was not overly concerned about them passing exams.
I wanted them to be able to play by ear, to transpose, to be able to arrange songs in their own way, to harmonise, to improvise, to compose. I wanted them to be able to pass a piano on a train station, or in their school hall, and sit down and play something to impress passers-by and friends, or to accompany themselves or others in vocal groups or bands. I wanted the piano to be a source of pleasure, relaxation, and creativity for them – not just another activity on which they would be examined and judged.
So alongside the more traditional teaching of repertoire and notation, I always try to incorporate other activities into my lessons – aiming to maintain a balance between notation-driven work and ‘off-the-page’ activities.
For young beginners, this often involves working out a simple song such as Mary Had a Little Lamb by ear and then showing how this can be harmonised with two left-hand single notes or fifths. Once this is grasped I show them how to transpose the same, using the black notes where the white ones sound wrong!
I might then progress to songs which need three or four harmonising notes, whilst we develop a knowledge of chords. It is then a logical step to show them how many pop songs can be played using the same four chords and I encourage them to choose current songs they like to work on.
Until now, however, my approach with such activities has been somewhat ad-hoc, and once they are able to pick out and harmonise simple songs by ear, in all honesty, I find myself at a bit of a standstill in terms of how to develop these skills further.
Then I discovered the excellent new series recently published by Forrest Kinney – Puzzle Play.
I’ve been familiar with Forrest’s work since I started teaching and have used books from his other series’ – Pattern Play and Create First – when working on improvisation. I’ve also been a reader of his blog and inspired by his ‘Four Arts’ approach to teaching. Briefly, this approach suggests that a rounded music education incorporates the ability to interpret, arrange, improvise and compose.
However, much of music education today (and certainly the one I received as a child) is based around interpretation – i.e. learning pieces of repertoire – often to the exclusion of the other aspects. Having already provided a wealth of material to help develop skills in improvisation in his Pattern Play and Create First series, his new Puzzle Play series aims to provide a structured approach to the art of arranging.
Three volumes of this new series have recently been published: Prep level, 1a and 1b. The first two focus on solo playing and Level 1b concentrates on accompanying. Book two will be coming out later this year and ultimately Forrest aims to publish four or five new books in this series.
Forrest himself says that he wanted to…
…create a series that 1) started at the very beginning and 2) moved more slowly and 3) progressed in the way I actually taught, in a way that developed the ways of thinking of an arranger.
Using well known songs such as Happy Birthday, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Greensleaves and so forth, Forrest takes us through the approach of picking out melodies by ear, harmonising using single left-hand notes, expanding this to fifths and full chords, transposing to different keys, creating various left hand patterns with the chords and then proceeding to the use of substitute chords, adding colour to chords through sevenths and seconds.
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On the way, he shows how to create different moods and introduces common rhythms and bass lines such as Boogie, Ragtime and Latin. Syncopation and blue notes are also covered. As well as traditional melodies he also includes some classic and more current pop songs (although pop songs don’t remain current for long!) such as Let it Be, The Lion Sleeps Tonight and Justin Timberlake’s Apologize – making connections between the chord progressions as he goes. In so doing, he introduces the student to a thorough knowledge of chords – how they work in a diatonic series and how they can be analysed in terms of function.
To say I was excited when I saw this series is an understatement.
Forrest has provided a wealth of material to aid teachers in guiding their students through the art of arranging. The series could be used in a structured, sequential manner – or could be dipped into. Already in my studio, I have some young students working on their own versions of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, using Forrest’s suggestions about different style of left hand patterns and ways in which melodies can be altered.
A teenage student has started exploring chord substitutions and colours using Greensleaves. Another student, having passed her Grade 5 last year, has now worked out how to play Happy Birthday by ear, harmonise it and transpose it into different keys. This is all within two weeks of the series being published.
Other highlights of the series for me, and to which I am really looking forward to trying out include:
Of course, we are not limited to the specific songs that Forrest includes; the techniques which he covers could be used for any song.
In fact, having been inspired by this series I am currently asking my students to choose any song which they would like to learn, and then we will work together on arranging this using Forrest’s books as a guide. There is such a wealth of suggestions in the series so far that there is something suitable for students of all ages and abilities.
Teachers reading this may be concerned about how to fit such activities into a student’s education, particularly if that is an education focussed on learning repertoire, and possibly driven by requirements of exams and/or competitions.
However, Forrest himself makes the connection between this approach and that of JS Bach:
I see this series as being in the tradition of Bach who, according to his son, taught most students about chords, lead sheets (figured bass), arranging, and accompanying from the beginning. These were essential skills for anyone thinking of being a musician at the time, and most of Bach’s students were. Arranging then provided the foundation for the art of improvisation.
As teachers, we, therefore, could ask ourselves whether a diet focussed only on repertoire and technical skills really equips our students with the essential skills needed to be an all-round musician.
Further, whether such a diet is really what today’s students want?
In the UK, there is a relatively high drop-off rate after a student reaches a Grade 3 level and I would argue this is because many students are provided with a limited exam-focussed education.
By broadening our approach and giving our students a much wider range of skills, and then allowing them to follow their own paths, there may well be a greater chance of these students becoming lifelong pianists. With the publication of this new series, teachers now have an excellent and comprehensive resource to enable them to guide their students in the art of arranging and, in so doing, giving them a really sound understanding of many of the fundamentals of music.
I cannot recommend this series, and the approach championed by Forrest, highly enough.
Did you have a similiar musical education to me? One based on passing exams? Have you used Forrest Kinney’s work before? I’d love to know your thoughts and experiences below.
Rebecca is a piano teacher based in Teddington, South West London, UK. After spending 15 years in the corporate world as a Finance professional she left to set up her own teaching practice five years' ago. She now has about 50 students - about 30 children and 20 adults. She is committed to providing all her students with a well-rounded and varied musical education. She is also a keen, but novice, gardener.