The Making of Lists: An Alternative 100

This is a post about lists, and it’s going to get specific about making lists about music. If you are not of the High Fidelity school of music discourse this post may irritate. Discontinue use if irritation persists. Lists reflect those who make them, but they also reflect the list-making process. A To-Do list might be broken down into things to do before lunchtime, things to do before the weekend and things to do before Christmas, as a way of managing different priorities. A shopping list might be organised according to retail establishments, or even by way of supermarket aisles. Even books list contents by chapter, by title, alphabetically or by author name. There are all kinds of ways of organising the lists we make. A radio station I rarely listen to recently compiled a list, as voted by its listeners (and me), of the 20th century pieces of classical music most cherished by its listeners (and me). The enthusiasm

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Top Classical 20th Century Pieces: ABC Classic FM Edition

Fabulous concept, fabulous consequences: you’re a radio station that broadcasts classical music exclusively and you ask your listeners to vote on their absolute favourite classical pieces from the 20th century. Each listener gets 10 votes and they can nominate whichever piece of music they fancy. The top 100 pieces are then broadcast over the space of a week, concluding with a concert featuring the top 5 pieces, live-broadcast to conclude the event. And since it’s 2011, the whole broadcast event comes replete with facebook discussions and a twitter hashtag. Go. The countdown began at number 100, naturally, and John Adam’s The Chairman Dances from Nixon in China seemed about right. But over the course of the next 10 or so entries things began to unravel. Schmaltzy and ersatz contributions were mixing it with works commonly regarded as masterworks, and straight-out film scores even got a look-in. We all knew this was a popularity contest, but even so it felt as if voters

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Issues emerging from Richard Gill’s TEDxSYDNEY talk

A summary of the issues, as compared to the exploration of the talk itself. 1. The need for a definition of ‘properly taught music’ if this is to be put forward as a “right of every child in every circumstance”. Richard Gill gave anecdotal examples of music education experiences he has facilitated, but his talk did not outline what he believed ‘properly taught music’ would look like in the classrooms of the future. Does it involve individualised instrumental tuition for every student? Does it involve every child in Australia learning to read music notation? Does it involve students developing a social understanding of music, studying it as another ‘text’ that is presented to them in 21st century life? And Richard Gill was keen on singing – how does that fit in? Is group performance important for every child too? And what about composing music and writing songs? 2. An urgent need to recognise that asserting the intrinsic meaningless of music

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Richard Gill at TEDxSYDNEY 2011

Warning: this post is a detailed analysis that goes for nearly 5000 words. Alright then. You have been warned! TEDxSYDNEY is had its second outing this last weekend, and I was rather late to the party. The Sydney Morning Herald guide to TEDxSYDNEY the day or two before was my first notice that it was on. Glancing through the lineup of speakers I was thrilled to see that Richard Gill was featured in the second session of the day. Richard Gill is a champion of music education in Australia, and he is a voice of reason in many a public debate about the arts. Richard Gill’s contributions to musical life in Australia range from leading the Victorian Opera as well as conducting and commissioning new works all the way through to working in classrooms with young children. He is much respected and, I think it is no exaggeration to say, beloved! His inclusion as a speaker at TEDxSYDNEY 2011 was both

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Max and the Lost Note

Jazz is an area of music that seems resolutely impervious to childhood, performed as it is almost exclusively in venues that require proof of age prior to entry. And yet children are not impervious to jazz. The instruments are intriguing, the tunes are engaging, the solos are an exotic adventure in performance possibilities, what’s not for a kid to like? Piano teachers (from all kinds of places on this planet) will tell you that students come to lessons wanting to ‘play jazz’ even though they aren’t quite certain exactly what jazz is. And this is where my latest children’s book discovery comes in: a story book that is an almost faultless introduction to the world of jazz, jazz musicians, listening and jamming, Graham Marsh’s wonderful Max and the Lost Note, published by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books in 2009. Max is a jazz cat who plays piano and makes up his own tunes, but on this particular day he’s unable to

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Playing Pop, and (all that) Jazz: Chord Chart literacy

A cliché I used to find myself confronting as a young musician in the mid-late 80s and the 90s was the idea that the world of pianists divides into the classically trained and those who can read chord charts. It shook the foundations of many a musician’s world that I had a B.Mus. degree  and I could still read a chord chart. To be fluent reading a ‘chart’ while also being able to play the Pathetique seemed to be about as musically transgressive as it was possible to be. Needless to say I found the fuss rather ridiculous and just wanted to get on with making music. In 2000 I started presenting professional development seminars for piano teachers and when I would ask “who can read a chord chart?” maybe 10% of the teachers at the seminar might put up their hands. Eleven years on and that percentage has almost flipped: I estimate at least 75% of piano teachers these

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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

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Piano Lessons for Life

Piano teaching has been a part of my life since birth (my mother resumed her at-home piano teaching when I was three weeks old) and a part of my professional existence since I was 14 and started giving lessons myself. Teaching at such a young age provided many lessons to me beyond the usual teenage job learning curve: I had to create invoices, prepare materials, plan learning sequences, discuss the progress of students with their parents, coordinate timetabling, engage in professional development, and so forth. This learning curve was much facilitated by teaching under the watchful eye of a mentor-mother, but even so, these are considerable responsibilities for someone who won’t be allowed to vote for another 4 years. The most challenging aspect of teaching as a 14 year old was, without doubt, talking with the parents. Fortunately my early students practised well enough, and everyone paid their fees on time, so two of the biggest piano teacher communication challenges

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