In 2003, our family was living in Yokosuka Japan on the US Naval Base, Yokosuka. It was a great place to build a piano studio as I was one of the few native English speaking piano teachers for miles around. One day, a young man came to his lesson and said that he was going to quit. I asked him why. He stated that a new teacher had arrived at the Department of Defense School who was going to start a class for digital instruments. He said that I was just too old to learn new stuff .(I was in my late 40’s and had no inclination that I was in early onset of Dementia...) This new teacher would be teaching him all about this “new stuff.”
Well, challenge accepted (you little booger)! I called a few associates at Yamaha that had given me their business card while at a teacher workshop in Yokohama Japan. Mike Bates directed me to a course, then taught at the University of Kentucky called the Keyboard Technology and Ensemble Seminar. The class was 7 straight days of fast paced, exhaustive amounts of information, performance & lab time. Any teacher could join, should spots still exist. Plans were made to fly to Lexington from Japan. Little did I know how much my life, as a classical piano teacher, was about to change.
Susan Ogilvy, Joy Carden, Dennis Stanfield and a couple Yamaha folks began the workshop with the phrase, “The Uncommon Piano Teacher.” I remember heading back to the dorm after a day’s learning and not being able to sleep. I wondered why all this cool, interesting information had been kept from me. How could I use what I was learning to make my student’s lives better. Why had I not learned all this “technology” before? Why was the new technology so vilified amongst the “Classical Music Crowd”? What I took away from the KETS Seminar was how much I didn’t know and how much I needed to know.
What happened after leaving the workshop (and after an annual return to KETS over the next 10 years) was revolutionary. What kids need are teachers who are willing to innovate. Our students, especially our piano students need friends to make music with. Our students want teachers to be up on the new learning game. We need technology and we need to learn how to use it effectively. It is not about pushing buttons! I went back to Yokosuka and bought four digital keyboards. I ordered a couple packets of ensemble music from Ogilvy Music and created a digital keyboard class. Needless to say, the kid who quit wished he hadn’t. Our little keyboard ensemble played at a Japanese bank’s concert hall and base events. We had so much fun together. We laughed and played some amazing music. We still play amazing music across a whole mixed bag of genre.
When my husband retired from the Navy and found a civilian job in Colorado Springs, we pulled up stakes and moved to Colorado. After a one year sabbatical and the purchase of additional Clavinovas, my first really great piano and a new studio space, the idea of the keyboard ensemble was born. Kids wanted to play music because they actually had FRIENDS who played as well. They stayed in piano because there was a purpose to learning. They practiced because they didn’t want to let the group down. As time passed here in Colorado Springs, more knowledge was added to the idea of collaboration and creation. Andrew Eales, a very well respected teacher and musician from Milton Keynes in the UK came to our area as a guest conductor. It was from him that we learned about KEYBAND! and how this interesting type of digital keyboard experience can build great improvisors and composers.
A special National Federation of Music Club was built on Andrew’s idea of a KEYBAND! called KEYBAND! USA. It would take too long to go into too much depth in this article, but the idea is to teach students to work as a “rock band” and learn how to improvise using a specific set of materials. The concept moved my kids from ensemble players into creative players who can work together.
One of the benefits of getting training in areas you are not really familiar with is that you become an information junkie. Berklee College of Music offers on-line classes to anyone brave enough to meet the challenge. After taking an online jazz theory course, I learned about Noteflight and how to build long distance courses for students across the state and nation. Karen Greenhalgh and I built the “Colorado Composes Project” to teach both students and teachers how to become proficient composers. Students and teachers would head to our Colorado Composes website and receive instruction from composers who were the best in the business in both the USA, Canada, Australia and the UK. Over the four year period students created nearly 400 original pieces of music. Some went on to win both state and regional composition contests.
What was amazing was how the kids felt about themselves. The whole reason for creating is to find your voice. It is my feeling that the participants found their voices. They learned their worth from creating.
Before Covid, the studio had two-three groups who met once a week to work on keyboard ensemble music, theory and composition. We have needed to be a little more creative in the 2020-2021 academic year, but I see us returning to group ensembles after the crisis is over and these old bone have been vaccinated. The main reason for continuing with ensembles and composing is because of the kids. They need to be together and making music.
I must confess that I am a part of MTNA and Federation because my kids need the experiences these organizations bring. I have found friends and fabulous associates through these groups, but the real motivation has been to work on projects that advance the needs of the common and uncommon student. Every music student, regardless of meeting the criteria of a “gifted and talented” designation, needs to find a place, their place, in the world of music making.
We are focusing too much of our attention on top performers. How do kids even know what they can achieve if they are never given the chance to have events that introduce them to possibilities. I find, too often, that the music teaching organizations are too intent on offering that same old events (they play two pieces and get an evaluation) or masterclass that are not very interactive for students. We need more creative, inclusive events. Our current music teachers’ organizations might push the envelope a little more.
When MTNA was holding Pedagogy Saturday with Bradley Sowash and Leila Viss, teachers ran to their workshops. It was a loss to have these fabulous classes no longer offered. I love a good class on Chopin and Bach, but our kids are yearning for ways that teachers can be trained to get students to share THEIR voice. Too many conventions are too focused on the college level teacher and deep academic study. We need to ask, from where do colleges get their students? Students who come from the “uncommon music teachers” might not have their kids play a Bach Prelude and Fugue. But..perhaps the student is creating their own Prelude and Fugue. (My students participate in the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of music exams. Students have to play Baroque and Classical literature in these exams. I wanted to share this bit just in case others felt that I was disparaging classical music training.)
In saying the following statement, I might make some music teachers a bit uncomfortable. My daughter keeps reminding me that I am in the “Music Business”. It is called the music business for a reason. It is not “Music Friends” but the music business. We all need to make a living and be able to put food on the table. But, for years the music association/federation paradigm has been to rely on volunteers to run the business of music events. Perhaps we need to ask, are we running music businesses or is this the music events “friends” event. We are running our current volunteers into the ground. The next generation of teachers are not quite as willing to work a music event, where an entry fee is paid to the organization as an unpaid volunteer. We might need to rethink how we run our events and music association/federation organizations and find competent people we can pay to help us provide programs for our music students. I love giving back to my community but you can only work a horse until it drops for so long.
As the current MTNA/Colorado composer coordinator and the NFMC Junior Composer Contest Wyoming FMC and Western Region Chair, I see some of the most creative kids on the planet. We need to encourage music creation as well as music performance. We need to meet our students where they are and not be afraid to learn new tricks. They need to play together, create together and then share together. I hope the pandemic moves to a different planet soon. We all need to make music together to create unity and a sense of purpose.