Key Signature ≠ Key

It’s the 21st Century. We’ve had modulations and chromaticisms, bitonalities and even atonlities, and you’d think that in 2011 we’d have a modicum of sophistication regarding the tonal centres and key relationships we discover in the music we play. But no, an insistence that the key signature tells us the tonal centre of a piece of music has gone from being an example of anachronism to being a deplorable trend in most major Australian cities (!). To be fair, we do call those congregations of accidentals at the beginning of each line of music a key signature; that is, this term implies that the accidentals signify a key rather than simply the notes required to be played a tone or semitone higher than the straight note name pitch. But in a post-atonal, neo-modal world it defies experience to assume that an absence of key signature signifies the C Major/A minor duopoly. Imagine my horror/bemusement/outrage/despair some 10 years ago on seeing a

read more Key Signature ≠ Key

2 Years: Highlights, Lowlights, Strobe.

Two years ago today I began this blog. My expectation was that this would be a catch-all repository for whatever was on my mind and to a certain extent that has turned out to be true. But the reviews of children’s books and the commentary on local media have given way to a fairly specifically-focussed series of posts about piano teaching and music education, plus occasional reviews of performances of contemporary art music, and discussions of classical and contemporary art musics and their audiences. One of my first blog pieces, Scales As Propoganda, was linked to and recommended by some wonderful bloggers in the world of music education (most notably Wendy Stevens), and this was my first experience of how material written in a blog can ‘go viral’ (even if this version of viral was more like a preschool outbreak of the sniffles, rather than a pandemic). This was an unexpectedly exhilarating introduction to the speed of conversation and connection

read more 2 Years: Highlights, Lowlights, Strobe.

Teaching Beyond Major-Minor

Disclaimer: if you live in the 19th century or earlier this post won’t have much relevance for you.  Working on the P Plate Piano series (back in 2008/9) I was struck by how insidious the two-tonality (major-minor) system is in educational piano publications for beginners. Method book after method book sticks resolutely to major and minor sounds only, with not the slightest acknowledgement that other tonalities are the everyday musical reality in the 21st century. This is true right from the accompaniments teachers are given to play with students in their earliest lessons, through to the five finger positions introduced later on, and then into the repertoire collections groaning with originals from the late 1700s. My suspicion is that the music tonality discourses of the twentieth century have created a false dichotomy in the minds of piano pedagogues: if we aren’t diatonic anymore then we must be atonal, and vice versa (if the music isn’t atonal then by default it

read more Teaching Beyond Major-Minor

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

read more Issues emerging from Richard Gill’s TEDxSYDNEY talk

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

read more Richard Gill at TEDxSYDNEY 2011

Inadequate Indoctrination (or, a practical instance demonstrating why scales matter)

Scales matter. Piano teachers are renowned for insisting that this is true, examination boards reward mastery of these patterns, and piano students compare speed and distance as if they are training for field and track. I talked before about why I think scales matter, in my Scales as Propaganda post, and this post follows up a lot of the ideas I put forward there. One of the main ideas in the Scales as Propaganda post is that the reason scales are important is not for technical facility per se (finger strength, fluency, tonal control and so forth) but for a broader (and fundamentally imaginative) ideational and geographical facility with the diatonic patterns that underpin music from the Baroque through to the end of the Romantic period (chromaticisms notwithstanding). What this means in practice is that if you know how to play the major scale in each of its 12 permutations you will have a reasonably high fluency in sight reading

read more Inadequate Indoctrination (or, a practical instance demonstrating why scales matter)

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

read more Max and the Lost Note

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

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