Sunday, October 24, 2010

Christopher Norton Festival, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada

I visited Fredericton, New Brunswick on the Connections tour back in 2007 and met Wendy Beardall, who has been President of the Fredericton Music Teachers Association (FMTA) and who continues to be a positive and lively presence in this delightful town on the St John river. Wendy invited me to come back to preside over a Fredericton-based Christopher Norton Piano Festival and opted, along with her enthusiastic, nay visionary committee, for a 3-day event.

Day 1 started with a “Meet Christopher Norton” event sponsored by the local high school. Music students from Fredericton High School and Leo Hayes High School came and heard me talk about my work as a composer and heard me play a number of pieces. Here are some of the entirely typical teenage audience:
This went very well and at the end of the session there was some spare time, so I selected 10 students from the larger group and got them to come on stage, where there were coincidentally 10 keyboards set up. Before they knew what was happening I was teaching them a chord progression (Stray Dog Blues from Microrock) and then getting them all to have a go at improvising on it.
This led neatly to what was the “official” second session of the day – a group of 10 students from FHS came up on stage and played Clean sweep from American Popular Piano Level 6, then went through the Improvisation Etudes based on that piece. We got some very good results and everyone had a chance to shine during the course of an intense but rewarding session.
The entire afternoon of day 1 was work with other improvisation groups, ranging in age from about 9 years old through to late teenagers. All of the pieces used were from American Popular Piano. The students seemed to enjoy this a lot and a number of the most confident players came to the grand piano and did their solos on a much louder instrument, the others all playing along on the relatively quiet keyboards.

Day 2 was masterclasses from 9 am until nearly 5.30. The students were grouped by age and I was very impressed by the overall standard, as well as by their willingness to try my suggestions out, in public! The youngest group were all so good I chose every one of them to come and play in the evening Gala concert.
There were groups of students throughout the day, each one an older age group than the last. The final group was in many ways the bravest – adults, some of whom had come back to the piano relatively recently. Here is one of my adult students at work:
And a testimonial from one of the adult students:

Thank you for a beyond-fabulous experience with my students this past weekend in Fredericton, New Brunswick! I haven't played a piano solo for over 15 years - but you quickly put me at ease! Every student left feeling excited about the piano, the music and the fact that they met someone they can look up to! My son is still telling everyone about his weekend with Mr. Norton. It's something none of us will forget any time soon! - Irma Mulherin

After a break, during which we got photos of the individual master class participants onto a Keynote presentation ready for the Gala Concert, we repaired to the Charlotte Street Arts Centre in the city centre. The children performed brilliantly and the capacity crowd were enthusiastic and both moved and astounded by many of the performances. I played along on a second keyboard, something the students had not heard before the concert. I’ve done many concerts of this kind now, but this was definitely one of the best – there was a lot of audience participation and a really joyful atmosphere was in evidence throughout.
Day 3 started with a breakfast with some of the local teachers, then a session called How To Incorporate Improvisation Into Lessons, which was held in the home of Margaret MacDonald, the local FMTA President. This proved to be very useful, as it was quite hands-on and it seemed a fitting end to the weekend, as it reinforced many things that had come up in the group improv sessions.

My thanks again to Wendy and Megan Woodworth and the committee for organising the event so well, to Fredericton High School for the use of the school hall, to the Fredericton Music Society for the use of the Church of the Nazarene for masterclasses and to Tony’s Music Box for the loan of the piano for the concert. It was a very positive event and will definitely be repeated.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Hornchurch, Essex; Organized by Advance Music

Advance Music is one of the biggest suppliers of printed music, musical instruments and accessories in East London, Essex, Kent, Barking and the southeast of England. This, unusually, was a Sunday morning workshop and it was held actually in the store. A good-sized and enthusiastic group of teachers turned up for a 9.30 am start and were treated to a game of two halves – a presentation on the Microjazz series and related Boosey & Hawkes books, as well as a presentation called Unlocking Popular Styles, which featured American Popular Piano.

Advance Music had an impressive display of my music for people to look at:

All of the teachers knew about Microjazz, but many were unaware of the Microstyles Collection, the Concert Collections and the Preludes Collections. I played pieces from these, as well as from the new “Micro” books (MicroLatin, MicroRock and MicroSwing)

I also showed clips culled from Youtube of my pieces played by students from China, Canada and the Czech Republic – this was of course of great interest to the audience.

I played some easier pieces from the Microjazz Collections, like Struttin’ and Intercity stomp, I then got splendid help from a teacher with the repeated left hand part of In the Bag from the Microstyles Collection. I played Dreaming On from the Rock Preludes Collection (a set piece for Grade 5 for the ABRSM this year) and I finally played some more difficult pieces, like Turkey in the Straw and Joy to the World from the Concert Collection. Here is me in my usual “blissed out” performing mode – yes, my eyes are closed!

I also told teachers to visit and also to look at my new Youtube channel – The Pianist magazine profile and series of articles on popular piano styles was also mentioned (

Lots of books were perused and bought during an excellent morning tea break, which included delicious shortbread (I can vouch for that!)

In Part 2, I gave a quick over-view of American Popular Piano, then launched into Unlocking Popular Piano. This was a live version of what is now available to peruse on - 20 popular piano styles “unpacked”. I had the teachers clapping, “drumming” and vocalizing drum parts and this practical approach helped many of them to understand what the styles feel like to play as well as to listen to. Here is part of the audience, very attentive!

I also touched on the difficulty in the modern world of keeping piano students motivated and how important it is to try to give them music they can relate to and to encourage improvisation without too much theory getting in the way, at least in the early stages. This was the first time the teachers in Hornchurch had ever heard of American Popular Piano, so it was quite a lot for them to take in, but I felt the essence of the series – learning to enjoy playing through using contemporary popular styles, ensemble playing (including tracks) and step-by-step improvisation – was clear by the end of the presentation.

Thanks again to Colin Freeman at Advance Music for being prepared to put this event on. I hope to get back at some point and see how teachers are getting on with all these new ideas!