Friday, May 15, 2009

VDM-Musikschulkongress, Berlin, Germany

The VDM-Musikschulkongress is a bi-annual event for German music school teachers. It was held in Berlin, at the International Congress Center.

I was invited by Heiko Kremers, product manager for digital pianos and digital keyboards for Roland Germany ( Heiko saw me quite a few years ago at an event in Flensburg, way up north (near the Danish border) and was struck by my rapport with music teachers. So he asked me to come to this event and talk to German teachers about Microjazz and the HPi-7s piano.

If you look at the Contacts and Links section of my website, ( you’ll see a reference to the Roland HPi-6. Roland decided to include 50 Microjazz pieces as one of the categories that are embedded in this HP range of pianos, along with classical pieces, popular songs, childrens’ songs etc.

On the Friday, I gave an hour’s presentation. I started by introducing the sound of the Microjazz series and quickly moved onto its value in a teaching situation. Among other things, I highlighted:

Children like the sound and style of many of the pieces right away
It introduces the sounds (and voicings) of many contemporary popular piano styles from an early stage
The variety of articulation, the use of the whole piano and the varied dynamics all make the series useful on many levels pedagogically
Microjazz improves music reading

The teachers agreed with these and other points about Microjazz and even helped me to play some of the pieces, either solo pieces played by 2 people or duets. But they also agreed with me that it is difficult to get children to practice at home, no matter how much they like the music! The HP piano series helps to overcome this resistance to practicing in various ways.

First of all, you can hear the composer’s own performances from the Microjazz section of the HP piano. It demonstrates how the pieces should be phrased and articulated. You can play along with the composer, either separate hands (with a built-in metronome) or hands together. You can slow the tempo down as much as you like if the piece is proving tricky! So point 1 is that the HP piano enables the student to hear up to 50 pieces, choose what they would like to play and then play along separate hands or hands together at whatever speed is comfortable. The music for each piece scrolls along on the very easy-to-read screen in the centre of the piano (so music reading is being encouraged all the time)

Point 2 is that there are great backings that go with the piano parts and these enable the student to have a backup band while playing. It also gives a student a very good idea of how a style sounds once guitar, bass, drums etc are added. Teachers were very happy with the sound of all this, as you can see with this picture of 2 happy teachers from Uelzen:

But the really useful aspect of the HP piano came next – you can select Visual Lesson and select Beginners Course, Repertoire Course or Challenge Course. In the Beginners’ Course, the right hand part of a piece is played and displayed and you are invited to choose a comfortable speed and then record your own performance, following the music as you do so. Once you have recorded, a screen comes up that gives you a score (out of 100) and comments if there are things you need to improve. You can then look at a score of your performance and, using arrows, scroll backwards and forwards through your performance. Pitch mistakes are highlighted in one colour, rhythm mistakes in another. You can then re-record and see if you can improve your score.

The Repertoire Course and Challenge Course give you the chance to record separate hands (or both) and to pre-set various slower speeds.

The teachers agreed that the combination of Microjazz and the HP pianos is a very interesting one that could benefit the teacher in many ways. Getting students to practice music they like – that’s the formula!

On the Saturday I did a couple of presentations on the Roland stand and we gathered quite a crowd. Here are some of the German teachers who stayed to listen:

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Ontario tour

I'm just back from a most enjoyable tour of Ontario. There were Christopher Norton Piano Festivals in Kingston, Sunderland, London, Orillia and Toronto, as well as an American Popular Piano workshop in Milton and 3 seminars for teachers on improvisation. I also gave a couple of private composition lessons! The whole tour was masterfully organised by Liselotte Jongedijk, who is an MYC ( teacher in Toronto with a vibrant music school ( She organised the Toronto Piano Festival last year and was emboldened to make this a bigger affair altogether, involving teachers and students in 4 other centres.

I will be putting reports and pictures on and, so I thought 
I would use this blog to make some general remarks about the young performers I saw.
First of all, the students chose their own pieces and this was a real plus. The level of understanding of the music was much better than it might have been if teachers had chosen the pieces for them. Students are always well advised to listen to the pieces before learning them - the Connections website has all of the pieces available to hear (and download) the Christopher Norton website has audio of many pieces, as does the American Popular Piano site (and of course John Michael Iverson's The Christopher Norton Project has all of APP Levels 1-5)
1. Students should be tested to see if they can keep a steady beat - I like them to both tap their foot and clap or tap at the same time. The teacher can play part of a piece while the students keep a beat for them, then the positions can be reversed. Students should be able to keep a beat going in one hand and play the other hand. The lack of a consistent beat was one of the noticeable things that needed more work.
2. Students should also remember to keep their fingers curved (imagine holding, but not gripping a softball and you'll be close to the right relaxed hand position) Too many straight fingers! Straight fingers mean less control and a much less controlled sound.
3. Have a relaxed, flexible wrist and try not to let the bottom of your wrist go below the bottom of the keys.
4. Play genuine legato in your hand, with fingers alert! In a smooth passage, feel that the weight is being transferred from the bottom of one key to the bottom of the next, via your fingers, with the weight of the arm helping (via a flexible wrist) to shape the phrases. Think through your fingertips.
5. Think like a singer when you play a melody and in fact try to sing the melody you are playing - it will often make you aware of the most natural phrasing.
6. Play a series of staccato notes with your thumb to get a feel for the bounce of the wrist that can create a nice sound and a way of playing that doesn't create tension in your arm. Once you've got that, make the same movement and sound with any of your other fingers.
7. Be able to play a piece with all the correct rhythms and phrasing (and notes of course!) before you play with a backing track. My rule is that if it's easier to play with a track, you've probably got everything else in place.
8. Start to get excited about the sound you make - and keep listening critically to every sound you produce.

That's enough for now class! Congratulations to all concerned. If you want to know more about Christopher Norton piano Festivals in your area, contact this blog or one of the websites.


Saturday, May 9, 2009

Toronto May Workshop

The organiser of the 2-day Toronto event was another Music for Young Children (MYC) teacher, Liselotte Jongedijk ( who was also the organiser of the entire tour.

The final date in my whirlwind tour of Ontario was Toronto – this had slightly more components in it, so felt like a nice change of pace. On the first morning I did another improvisation session with teachers. Using the same material as in London, I found once again that teachers were very happy to do some off-the-cuff playing if the context made them feel clear about what they were doing and secure in its execution. Quite a few people came up and played in front of everyone else, always impressive! Here’s a picture of this group at work:

Photo 1: Improvisation session in Toronto

The organiser of the 2-dayToronto event was Liselotte Jongedijk ( who also was the organiser of the entire tour. Her attention to detail at all times and her deft handling of teachers, other organisers, parents and students (and me!) was a joy to behold. She hopes to organise a similar event in 2010 so watch the website for further news!

After the improvisation workshop, I gave a composition lesson to Edith Covach, a Canadian resident who originally hails from Argentina. She had written a variety of pieces, including a tango and a song in Argentinian style, as well as pieces in more experimental vein, including a 12-tone piece. I found this a really interesting session and I think she was heartened by my comments, which veered towards “come up with a strong idea and base the piece on it, don’t introduce too many disparate elements”

Picture 2: Edith Covach and CN

After the session with Edith, I heard Anika Roberts, a 16 year old student, do her own improvisation on Back on track (a Connections piece) This also proved a very interesting session for us both and it helped her to play the piece really well at the Gala.

Then onto master classes – 2 on Friday afternoon, 5 on Saturday! The standard of playing was really very good and it was quite a task to choose my favourite players. Here’s a montage of the most memorable ones:

Picture 3: students from Toronto

One really special feature of the Toronto event was a family who played piano six hands – from Microjazz Trios – and who proved to be triplets! Here they are:

Picture 4: the triplets play in Toronto

The Gala was on the second night, so we had a good number of students playing and a very appreciative audience. The most striking performance was from a 5 year old student, who played The Young Rider (a Connections piece) with accuracy and real understanding. The audience were amazed! There were also a couple of students who played duets with me – pieces from American Popular Piano Preparatory Level and Level 1 – and these were certainly crowd-pleasers.

This whole Ontario tour was an unalloyed pleasure, for me and I think for the participants. Some final comments from people who attended either master classes or Galas during the tour:

Congratulations! The show was great - you guys sure do run a tight ship.

We thoroughly enjoyed learning from Christopher Norton. What a wonderful musical experience for all the kids. Our son was thrilled with the experience, and really liked playing with Christopher Norton. He is very pleased with himself right now. Thank you so much for creating this opportunity.

This is just a quick note to say thank you very much for all the wonderful work you have done to give us the opportunity to meet and listen to C.Norton. It was a great event. Thanks again.

Thanks so much for the amazing Christopher Norton experience... We all enjoyed it. We heard some beautiful music and it was really interesting.

Thanks so much for all you did to make the event happen. I know our son learned a lot (hope it will stick!) from working under Christopher's direction.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Orillia Workshop

Orillia is a city north of Toronto and our master classes and Gala were in the Opera House in the centre.

Photo 1: The sign outside Orillia Opera House

The organiser of this event was Sherry McKinnon ( and again she organised a very full (but very enjoyable) day.

There was a very good range of students – from multiple players of Stairway (!) to good performances of New Kid (from Jazz Preludes) and At the Rodeo (from Connections 8) There were tiny players aged 5 or 6 right up to teenagers who towered over me (I always said “great performance!” to these players) There was even a moving performance by an adult performer, who had heard Moonscape (Connections 4) and had determined to play it. Two things stood out in Orillia – one was an entire “MYC” ( - check it out) class – every last one at Moonbeams 3 Level – who played very well as a class and demonstrated that the MYC way of teaching really does encourage good listening and confident public performance. The other was the very large number of students who had elected to play with backing tracks This was interesting – not one broke down or even got seriously adrift with the track. I always tell students (and teachers) that if you have all of the piece under your fingers and can tap a beat with it, playing with the track is actually easier than not playing with it. The track isn’t really supposed to be like a metronome – it should be providing a stimulating enhancement of the style you’re playing. It was great to hear so many students getting to grips with ensemble playing at such a relatively early stage.

Picture 2: a student concentrating hard at the Orillia master class

The Gala was again a really special occasion. A comment from a parent:

Thank you so much for getting our son to take part in the Christopher Norton program. He is such an incredible pianist/teacher. Our whole family truly enjoyed the gala and our son was so inspired he was up until 10:00 PM playing various Christopher Norton songs! So much for studying for the exam last night.

Finally a photo from the Orillia Gala - a proud parent and 2 of her children, both very good performers on the night:

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Milton Ontario Workshop

Milton, Ontario is a town west of Toronto off the Trans-Canada Highway 401. It is another very attractive Ontario town, with a charming town centre containing lots of specialty shops. It is also distinguished by being Canada’s fastest growing communities. The local music teachers’ association seems to have taken a liking to me – this was my third visit! My first ever Connections workshop was hosted by the Milton Teachers’ Association ( This workshop was on American Popular Piano ( A number of teachers were familiar with the series already and they were therefore very pleased to see Levels 6, 7 and 8 out at last.

Here are the three delightful organisers of the Milton workshop (and me!)

Picture 1: Milton, Ontario teachers and CN

I did a similar presentation to the one at the MTNA Atlanta conference –I started with a description of the present slightly parlous state of piano teaching, - students dropping out young or giving up around 12 years of age or not continuing to play at all once they go to college. There are lots of reasons for this, but a major one is that students have to find time for piano playing alongside all their other activities – sport, homework, Facebook etc. They also need to feel that the music they play is relevant to their musical tastes and (more to the point perhaps) relevant to their friends and parents.

Scott McBride Smith and I, along with Clarke MacIntosh, developed American Popular Piano to help address these issues, as well as to provide a course that emphasises “traditional” virtues like strong, independent fingers, great sight-reading and thoroughgoing ear-training. The Milton teachers agreed with all this, but the demonstration of the Improvisation Etudes at all Levels was the clincher. I had both students and teachers up to play and the results were gratifying, to say the least.

You can get something of the flavour of the event from this picture:

Picture 2: the APP seminar in Milton

The Milton Teachers’ Association was very interested in participating in a possible 2010 Christopher Norton Ontario Spring Tour, so I may see them all yet again (plus lots of students) next spring. Thanks everyone!

Monday, May 4, 2009

London Ontario 2009 Workshop

I’ve been to London, Ontario a number of times now – way back in the late 80s (I think!) with Boosey & Hawkes and Roland Canada, more recently on the Connections tour, then with Scott McBride Smith on the APP trail and, most recently, with Victoria Warwick, the Executive Director of Conservatory Canada on a CC tour. Conservatory Canada ( is, to quote its own mission statement, “a not-for-profit, federally incorporated educational institution of professional musicians and volunteers that serves its clients through programs of study, training, examination, recognition and performance” CC hosted this event, which consisted of a 2-hour teacher workshop on improvisation, 4 master class sessions and, as with the other places, an evening Gala concert. We used the Wolf Performance Hall in the city centre, so we were working in a great purpose-built concert venue

The improvisation workshop was a lot of fun (I thought so anyway!) I used Intercity Stomp from Microjazz, then London Waltz and The Girl on the Beach from APP Prep and Level 1 and finally Bayou Tapestry from APP Level 7. I got one of the teachers to play Intercity Stomp as written first, so that the harmonic framework and melodic ideas were there as a clear starting-point. We then did simple tapped improvised rhythms, with the strong on-beat quarter note Gs supplying the beat. Then we tried improvising using the notes of the piece (F, G, Bb, C, D) as source material, with simple ideas supplied by me to help my “student” get started. Finally I and my plucky student played the original piece up to a certain point, then she did an improvisation over the thumping Gs (she loved doing it, honest!) and then we repeated the piece right to the end. To great acclaim.

The early APP pieces used the Etudes books from the respective Levels and my methodology became clear quite quickly:

  • clapping a beat to a backing track
  • clapping a given rhythm
  • playing the rhythm using only the notes of the original tune
  • playing left hand chords (from Level 1 on)
  • putting hands together and starting to improvise.

The improv (as we like to call it) uses a set rhythm and given notes, but which of the notes are played when is down to the student. As always, unexpected magic happens at this point.

The group were intrigued by the Level 7 APP Etudes book – chord symbols are beginning to appear, chords (generally in inversion) are highlighted and analysed. The left hand plays the entire chord progression with the backing track, the right hand is then given some improv tips, including the scale(s) or mode(s) to use, the hands are put together and hey presto! something wonderful happens again. 2 examiners for the CC Contemporary Idioms syllabus took part and they seemed to like the approach very much indeed.

The master classes were very different from the previous venues in the sense that one London teacher fielded a number of students who were playing “advanced” classical repertoire – including a Mozart sonata movement, a piece by Kuhlau, Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude and a Liszt Transcendental Etude! I tried not to demonstrate too much of the last pieces mentioned, but it was interesting for the audience to hear much more challenging pieces being attempted by teenage students. I felt sorry for the young student who had to follow a Liszt Transcendental Etude with the 10th performance of the day of “Stairway”!

The evening Gala was once again a special time for the performers and the improvement in playing during the course of the day was quite noticeable, the Revolutionary Etude as much as Struttin’. Parents and students were impressed by the range and quality of the playing - it really was a very positive occasion.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Sunderland ON Workshop

Sunderland is a small, very charming Ontario town located approximately 100 km northeast of Toronto. We were pleased to have both the use of the Sunderland Town Hall and the enthusiastic support of the local community. This day-long event was organised by Kim Schneider ( ably supported by her husband and children.

Photo 1: Kim Schneider and family (with me)

As in Kingston, there were master classes throughout the day – at 9 am, 10 am, 11 am, 2 pm, 3 pm and 4 pm. With quite large class sizes, I had to keep the pace up!

The day started with a string group with piano playing a movement from my Quintet, then some pieces for violin and piano from the Microjazz series. I thought this was a very nice gesture from the local players – starting with a mini-concert of my string music!

I was pleased to see how many teenagers played in the master classes, particularly teenage boys. The fact that students had chosen the pieces themselves meant that there was a good level of understanding of the music from the outset and there were some very good performances indeed, including pieces for piano 6 hands (Microjazz trios) and for violin and piano (Concert Collection for flute, very effectively played on violin) A very good local singer/songwriter, Lauren Maylon ( played a great set at the beginning of the Gala. The day proved to be a rich mix stylistically and the capacity audience at the Gala was very enthusiastic.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Kingston Ontario Workshop

Kingston, Ontario is a very attractive town at the eastern end of Lake Ontario – birthplace of Bryan Adams and of the first Canadian Idol winner, Ryan Malcolm! The interest in a series of master classes from Christopher Norton (er, me…) was such that classes commenced on the Thursday night, followed by a very full day on the Friday. The organiser of this event was Debbie Beckman ( a young and extremely well organised teacher who is part of the Music for Young Children organisation ( MYC hosted very successful events for me in Canada in 2008.

Behind Debbie you can see her husband and three (of her four) delightful children.

Master classes are basically piano lessons done in public – students first choose a piece of mine – from Microjazz (lots of performances of Stairway!), from the Connections series ( and from American Popular Piano ( I listen to the student’s performance and then, as appropriate, make suggestions, sometimes technical, sometimes musical, to make their performance more assured, to make them feel more relaxed when they play in public and to suggest ways to make the style of the piece sound more “authentic”. Parents are in the audience (as well as teachers) and I try to incorporate them in various ways during the master class. For example, if a student is struggling to keep a steady beat, I will get the audience to provide a simplified drum beat, using feet and hands (they love this!) If a student isn’t phrasing a melody properly, I may get the audience to sing the melody back to me correctly phrased. These devices prove very effective as ways to make the student listen to what they are playing and to really feel the beat. I might get a student to clap a beat for me while I play the piece and then I clap for them while they play. In all sorts of ways, an immediate improvement in the performance of their piece can be heard by the audience, but more significantly, an overall improvement in listening and playing can also be seen and heard. I generally get the student to play the piece again once we have worked on aspects that need attention and I often jam along. One eight year old boy stopped playing when I joined in and said (loudly enough for the audience to hear) “what are you doing?!”

At 4 pm on the Friday, there was a one hour improvisation session with teachers – this featured some simple (and fun) improvisation on Intercity Stomp (from Microjazz) and some easy-to-follow improvisation using American Popular Piano Preparatory Level and Level 1. The teachers found it all stimulating and thought it would be easy to apply back in their teaching studios.

During the day, I selected students who I thought had played particularly well (or even students who have improved significantly during the master classes) and we included these students in the evening Gala Concert. Parents (and grandparents) came to this and the Gala Concerts always take on a life of their own. The performers have been looking forward to playing to a much bigger audience and the audience are in turn swept along by the precision, enthusiasm and brio of the young performers. I play as well – pieces form the upper Levels of American Popular Piano, from Connections 7 and 8 and from Rock Preludes and Latin Preludes - and the combined effect is that piano playing is there to be enjoyed and shared. The Gala is a wonderful summing up of the day’s activities and it is by turns moving, breathtaking and even amusing. Some performers finish with a knowing look at me or the audience, realising that their performance has really hit the mark.