Thursday, July 21, 2011


This tour was my first major tour of Australia since the late 1980s (if memory serves me right) and was arranged by Hal Leonard Australia. They distribute Microjazz and all other Boosey & Hawkers products) as well as the Frederick Harris Connections series, as well as American Popular Piano. The tour was called, appropriately, “Beyond Microjazz”.

Unusually for me, I had a co-presenter on this tour, Elissa Milne ( Elissa is a leading educational composer in Australia, published by Faber Music in the UK and a regular presenter for Hal Leonard in Australia. She is a dynamic presenter and a talented performer and it was a great pleasure to be in a double-act with her.

1. Rockhampton, 11th July 2011

We started the tour in Rockhampton, a city in Queensland, north of Brisbane. It was held at Green Brothers, a well-established music store in the city. This session was unusual in that we had keyboards for most of the teachers to share, so they were able to play along when I got onto the improvisation section of the presentation.

Don’t they look happy?

The presentation consisted of an introductory interview of me by Elissa, along the lines of “what have you been doing since you were last here?” and I then ran through recent (ie post-1990) Boosey & Hawkes publications before doing a presentation on American Popular Piano, ending with improvisation for everyone. In the second part, Elissa ran through the excellent new publications from Hal Leonard Australia - "Getting to Grade Two" and "Getting to Grade Three" ( before I wrapped up proceedings with a whisk through Connections. The teachers found it all interesting and stimulating, at least according to the feedback sheets!

I also did a masterclass with local students, which was very enjoyable. One young performer played and after the masterclass asked for a photo. I did a double-take:

I was amazed to see my photo in the window of the shop, taken at the MTNA in Denver in 2009. And in 2010 the hosts of the event had flown David and Lesley Gereghty from Recreational Music center in San Diego to work with students – I did an event with Lesley and David in San Diego last year (see the blog archive again) Small world…

2. Brisbane 12th July 2011

This event was held at the AMEB (Australian Music Education Board) in Brisbane – see The interest in the event was sufficient to warrant a repeat of the presentation and enthusiasm and excitement from the audience were high at both presentations. Sales were also strong – here are some happy buyers after the first presentation:

There were some younger teachers at the second presentation, who were full of questions and positively buzzing (Elissa on the far right):

3.Melbourne 13th July 2011
The Melbourne workshop was held at Pat’s Music in Oakleigh and was packed. Again, enthusiasm was high and the whole presentation was regarded as both entertaining and informative. As I always do, I used an audience member to help me with improvisation and the picture below is my “student” after she did her unexpected public performance:

In the afternoon, I did a very enjoyable masterclass with students at a local Yamaha music school. This went very well – I’m always pleased to work with students as well as doing teacher presentations. Here are 2 of my delightful young students:

4. Sydney 14th July 2011

The Sydney workshop was held upstairs at Music on the Move, the dealer who supplied music at Wagga Wagga. At this point I should pay tribute to the great work done by Gina Wake, the Hal Leonard Australia organizer of the tour, who was always alert to the needs of her demanding co-presenters and was always cheerful and positive. Here she is with John from Music on the Move:

The Sydney session was repeated and both audiences were really excited by the material. Here is a cross-section of one of the audiences:

All of the audiences on this mini-tour were pleased to hear that this was a taster for a bigger tour in January, involving day workshops and some days with students. I am very much looking forward to seeing many of these new Australian friends again in 2012 – it was heart-warming and humbling to hear the difference that Microjazz made to teachers in the 1980s and I hope that equally dramatic results will flow from the use of the new material in 2011.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Wagga Wagga

The APPC – Australasian Piano Pedagogy Conference – was held in Wagga Wagga this year and I started my mini-tour of Australia there. I haven’t been in Australia in a music education capacity for a very long time, probably over 20 years, so it was great to see to what extent my work there in the 1980s has continued to bear fruit.

The first session I did at the conference was a masterclass with students from Wagga Wagga and Griffith. They played pieces from Microjazz and Microstyles as well as Latin Preludes and I was able to guide them to better hand positions, phrasing and dynamics so that they all felt a little more assured as public performers. The idea that a technical solution can create a better musical result cannot be over-stressed!

During the Convention, I did literally dozens of one-to-one sessions with teachers, particularly on improvisation, using American Popular Piano, but also repertoire sessions on Microjazz, Connections and APP. I met New Zealand teachers who competed against me in the 1975 Christchurch concerto competition and a teacher who was at school in Timaru with my wife back in 1969! There was a lovely Kawai piano in the exhibition room, so I played with lots of teachers:
and interacted with students:

The main session for me was a Keynote Lecture entitled “An approach to teaching improvisation that works!” and it was absolutely fully attended by a very responsive crowd. I got 2 students to help me throughout, both local girls and the way they blossomed as improvisers on stage was a source of astonishment even to them. Here they are, concentrating hard:

This was a dramatic launch of APP in Australasia and its repercussions will be felt in the months ahead. Teachers here, as in California, are very interested in incorporating improv into lessons – they have just been waiting for a way of doing it that works for them as well as for the student. And the consensus seemed to be that they have found it at last. Here is the audience at the Keynote Lecture:

I was also delighted to find myself sharing a bill with Murray McLachlan, Head of Keyboard at Chetham’s School of Music and head of EPTA in Europe (and a great pianist!)

and also Dr Siaw-Sing Koo, a colleague from Singapore who I got to know in Oakland. I was also delighted to meet and hear Jovanni-Rey de Pedro, an outstanding pianist and clinician who alerted us all to the wonderful compositions of Friedrich Gulda. A rich and varied programme and lots of great conversations made this a memorable conference.

Saratoga and San Jose

The annual MTAC (Music Teachers Association of California) Convention is the largest convention for private music teachers in California. This year it was held in Oakland, a city I will always associate with Tower of Power,, specifically their Back to Oakland album. But I flew in some days earlier than the conference so that I could do a 3-day improvisation camp with students from two private studios in the Bay Area.

Ellen Tryba Chen is a private teacher in Saratoga who was bold enough to invite me to her studio 2 years ago (see the blog in the archives!) to work with some of her students on improvisation, using American Popular Piano. Here she is :

The event went very well, so Ellen decided to do a bigger event this year, with students from her studio as well as students from the studio of another first-rate Californian teacher, Kathleen Goldbach.

We had 20 students, playing American Popular Piano pieces from Levels 1,2,4 and 5. Each group came together twice. The participants all really enjoyed playing together as an ensemble, using 2 grand pianos.

Each player was then able, through a steady accumulation of improv skills, to “find” their own voice and start to improvise in 2 contrasting styles. You should be able to tell how much fun the students of all ages were having from this photo:

At the end of the improvisation sessions, all of the students put on a public concert. This was held in the beautiful Sherman Clay Steinway showroom in Santa Clara, using 2 magnificent Steinway grand pianos, one signed by Lang Lang! With extended backing tracks creating a rich, full sound, the students all played very impressively in ensembles as well as each individual improvising at least twice. Chrissy Huang, who organizes concerts in this venue, was positively overwhelmed by the concert, describing as “the most joyful concert” she has ever seen there. She immediately set about organizing a much bigger event, a Christopher Norton Piano Festival that will include both improv and masterclasses as well as concerts, in 2012 - watch this space!

MTAC, Oakland, California

I was delighted to join my colleagues Clarke MacIntosh and Scott McBride Smith at this MTAC convention, ably assisted by Richard and Isaac Holbrook and Charles Hung. I did 4 presentations at this conference and the reactions from the audiences indicated that American Popular Piano is really starting to make an impact. The 4 sessions were:
1. Vertical harmony
2. 5 easy steps to improvisation
3. A showcase on American Popular Piano with Scott McBride Smith
4. An improvisation workshop
Vertical Harmony was a session on recognizing chords. I began by asking audience members to come to the piano and play major and minor chords, with all their attendant inversions. What I was trying to do was get the audience to “spot” which inversion and also to demonstrate how re-voicing a chord can make a world of difference. We moved to 6th chords, 7th chords and 9th chords and time ran out as we got to maj9/6, to the obvious disappointment of the crowd. They wanted more chords!
I will create a section on vertical harmony for the website (www.americanpopular in the very near future.
The 5 Easy Steps To Improvisation was a very well-attended session and I had a 9-year old student on stage throughout, who demonstrated very assuredly each point that I was trying to make in regard to clapping a beat, clapping and playing a rhythm, using more and more notes in that rhythm and using new rhythms (and notes) as well as grace notes, pedal notes and chords. There was lots of audience participation and I’m certain that all of the teachers went away thinking “I could do this!” The feeling of sheer joy was there again and this photo from the Novus Via booth, which shows a student improvising with Isaac Holbrook, was typical of students’ reactions to improvising for the first time:

The showcase also went very well and the audience found the inclusion of a young student, again doing some simple improv, a very telling addition. Here is the young player in question, pictured with me and Scott at the Novus Via booth:
My final session brought 2 girls back from the Saratoga improv sessions. They played for the audience and were once again playing both expressively and in their own unique way. I also added a third player, a young student who had come to the booth the day before and been given an extended lesson in improv by the composer. She also did really well.
I did lots of playing on the stand and the picture below shows me at the piano, with the full range of APP books behind me. By the end of the Convention, the books were virtually all gone. We’re on our way!


My initial reason for visiting Minnesota was to take part in the wedding concert of Jon Michael Iverson and Pinar Basgoze. I first met Jon in 2007 at the MTNA in Toronto and he has become a good friend since and a great proselytizer for both Connections and American Popular Piano. See and look for the Christopher Norton Project for a start!

Once it was established that I was visiting Minneapolis, I was invited to give a talk to the Minneapolis Music Teachers’ Forum – MMTF ( as well as do a number of activities at the MacPhail Centre for Music ( and finally to do 2 presentations at the annual Minnesota Music Teachers’ Association conference (

I flew in from London and after a short night’s sleep was (sort of) ready to start the presentations. First up was the MMTF – this was billed as a Meet the Composer event and I gave a talk about the variety of things I’ve done over the years as a composer, including my educational music series, but also referencing media music, ringtones, choral music etc. It was a small but enthusiastic group and there were quite a few questions and comments at the end. Here are some of the teachers who attended:

The event was very ably organized by Mary Jo Leier, pictured below.

One other person who came to the presentation was Nicola Melville, a New Zealand-born pianist who is now assistant professor of music at Carleton College, Minnesota, and is on the faculty of the Chautauqua Summer Festival. She has played my Rock Preludes a lot in concert and I was meeting her to discuss whether she might be able to make new recordings of the 4 books of Preludes and the 2 Concert Collections. Here’s a picture of Nicola – check her many activities via one of links above.

I then went across to MacPhail Center for Music, which is a community music school in a very impressive purpose-built building, with a fabulous concert hall and all the pianos and technological set-up that you could possibly wish for.

I gave a talk on all my materials to a group of the piano teaching staff – the presentation encompassed Microjazz and other Boosey & Hawkes material, but also Connections and American Popular Piano. Here I am at that session:

I felt there was a sophisticated appreciation from the MacPhail teaching staff of the pedagogical value of both the supplementary material (Microjazz and Connections) and the core material (American Popular Piano) being presented.

The following day was a public concert by 22 students, all playing pieces I’d written. It was preceded by a talk on what gets me started when I’m composing – I listed (and played examples of) 5 categories:

  1. starting with a known style – not quite pastiche, but starting with a style which has its own conventions. Examples – Boogie from Microjazz Collection 3 and Positively Swinging from Connections 4.
  2. Starting with a melodic idea – Stillness from American Popular Piano 4 and Stratford Air from American Popular Piano 8.
  3. Starting with a rhythm – Samba from Microjazz Collection 2
  4. Starting with a pattern or ostinato – Rainforest from Connections 3
  5. Starting with a chord progression – The moonlit sky from Jazz Preludes Collection

I then played short recordings of pieces by composers or bands that have been a particular influence on me – Beethoven, Nielsen, Prokofiev, The Jazz Crusaders and Steely Dan!

The student concert included some excellent performances covering a wide range of styles and difficulty levels. The stirling work of the 12 Minnesota teachers represented was very much in evidence. The venue was very striking:

This was the first event like this at MacPhail like this – a non-competitive composer-oriented concert - and we hope it could lead to a Piano Festival event or events in the not-too-distant future.

The following day I took a kind of mass master-class, with probably 25 students playing for me. Most of them played classical pieces (Greig, Schumann, Gurlitt etc) and some played some of my pieces. I gradually got a number of piano playing fundamentals into the open, such as the importance of knowing what the fingering is of a passage, the importance of projection and the negative effects of weak fingers when playing scale passages! It was a positive session and many of the students played more than once - I called them back to play again in order to illustrate a particular point.

Later that day was the wedding concert of Jon Iverson and Pinar Basgoze. Friends and colleagues from Minnesota and further afield played in a concert celebrating their recent nuptials. There was a great variety of music played, from a Bob Dylan song accompanied by bass clarinet and mandolin to a Fantasy on Carmen for 8 players at 2 grand pianos. I played a Latin Prelude and a new piece, a multi-time signature take on Hark the herald from an uocoming Christmas book. The whole concert was live streamed on the internet and various people watched it in other parts of the world.

On the Monday and Tuesday (June 6th and 7th) I was an presenter at the MMTA and gave a talk – Unlocking Popular Styles – as well as a product session, on American Popular Piano. The first talk was well received, partly because I had lots of audience participation, creating ad hoc rock bands, Latin percussion bands and samba bands to accompany me and a teacher who was brave enough to help me out on stage from time to time. Teachers are more curious about pop and rock styles than they care to admit and anything that can sharpen their awareness of styles is only going to be helpful.

The product session was very well attended indeed and I felt that the work I have done in Minneapolis (see the archived report on my Scmitt Music presentation) and the work both Jon Iverson and Andrew Hisey (my editor on the Connections series) have done have means that people know who I am and have tried some of the series out and have told other teachers that they work.

There was quite a rush to the music dealer’s stand after the session, by which time I was on my way to the airport and back to London.

Thanks to Jill Kilzer for being willing to add me to the programme at short notice. It was great meeting many fine teachers from Minnesota and I hope to see them all again before too long!

Christopher Norton

June 8th 2011, London, UK