Saturday, May 14, 2011

Ackerman Music, Chichester UK - "Play with the Pros"

Ackerman Music, a UK music dealer with a number of stores in the south of England, bravely decided to run a day called “Play with the Pros”. This involved bringing 5 well-known educational music writers, myself included, to a school in Chichester for a day, with students and teachers offered the chance to have individual tuition or work in group situations.
The other “Pros” were John Kimber, James Rae, Pete Cooper and Mike Cornick, whose names and compositions are well-known to examination candidates and teachers around the world. I was stationed in the school hall:
and my brief was to do improvisation work with a miscellaneous group of instrumentalists. Flutes, clarinets, saxophones, trumpets and trombone were represented, as well as some piano players and both electric and acoustic guitar. I used methodology developed during the writing of American Popular Piano, to good effect I think! We all began by learning a melody – Green Onions initially, then The Girl on the Beach (APP Level 1) and playing each piece as a group, always with backing track. Then, having established the key of the piece, I got the most confident improviser to come up with a catchy one-note (the key note) rhythmic idea (a riff) that all the group could play back. Once everyone felt comfortable playing this riff right through the chord progression, I suggested that the same idea could be played using two notes – typically the first note of the scale and the second. At this point each student was free to choose when to play either note 1 or note 2.
We got as far as using five notes, which happened to be a pentatonic minor or major scale, much to the satisfaction of the electric guitarist, whose hand naturally fell into a pentatonic scale shape.
Then the improvisation started – students were able to invent their own idea, using their own rhythms. But, and it was a big but, they had to be able to play their own idea back again! This is never easy, but it is an important step towards “believing” in your own idea.
We gradually added other techniques – an idea answered by a slight variation of itself, a question and answer idea (two ideas, one different from the other) use of arpeggios, use of repeated notes etc etc. Some of the more confident players stepped up to a microphone and played with the band in a more extended way, using various techniques that we had all tried out.
I also got the chance to show some of the piano players some useful voicings and improvisation tips:
It was a very enjoyable day and I think the students liked playing together as well as having the chance to start improvising in a very step-by-step way. I hope Ackerman Music are encouraged to do it again soon!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Christopher Norton Piano Festival - Toronto, CN

The series of Christopher Norton Piano Festivals in Canada began in 2003 in Fort McMurray, Alberta and have ranged across the country since, most recently in Victoria (Vancouver Island) This year’s Toronto CN Piano Festival was organised by the person who has been the organiser of a number of these events – Liselotte Jongedijk. Liselotte runs the vibrant Musica Music School in Toronto ( but is also a fantastic organiser of large-scale events. This Piano Festival attracted around 100 children, plus quite a few teachers and was a 2-day event, climaxing in a Gala Concert on the second day.

I alternated group improvisation sessions, using American Popular Piano, with masterclasses. The largest improvisation groups consisted of 11 players, each with a keyboard, including 3 superb new keyboards supplied by Roland Canada – thanks guys! Here’s one of the groups in action:
We ranged from a group of 7 and 8 year olds working from the Preparatory books to an individual class with a teenager, Bethany Super (pictured below left) using the Level 7 books.
As can be seen on the video clips on the American Popular Piano website ( I did group exercises involving both beats and rhythms, then got students to play a set rhythm to a backing track on the keynote of the piece, then on 2 notes, then 3, 4 and 5 notes. They then started to invent (and try to remember!) their own melodies, initially in the set rhythm, then in their own rhythms. All of the students did well and could feel real progress during the sessions. Here’s another of the groups at work – an impressive sight!
The masterclasses were delightful and I was very pleased with the good sounds I was hearing, the accurate rhythm playing and the evident enjoyment of piano playing. Here are some great pictures of the students who took part in the masterclasses:
At the Gala Concert, which was attended by parents as well as students and teachers, some of the most secure performers played their pieces, with me jamming along on one of the Roland pianos. What was unique about this Piano Festival was that each improvisation group played as well, including some improvisation from individuals within the group. It was a happy and relaxed concert and a fitting end to 2 fun days.

Finally, a quote from a parent of two of the student participants:
"I really cannot thank you enough for giving ALL the kids this INCREDIBLE opportunity. Not only did they get to play with Mr.Norton, but they also learned such a unique gift —the Art of Improvisation. Our group from Cobourg had a thoroughly enjoyable experience. The kids laughed and played with Mr. Norton—UNBELIEVABLE! They were learning something and they thought they were just having fun - I cannot thank you enough for a wonderful weekend."
- Susie