Intuitive Improvisation


Composition VII by Wassily Kandinsky

I’m pleased to announce that the article I wrote for American Music Teacher magazine, originally published in the winter of 2007, is now available on line here . It’s specifically targeted at music teachers who would like to venture into the world of creative improvisation and don’t know where to begin, but would also be useful for anyone who is feeling the urge to create their own music and knows a bit of basic theory.

For me, the key to learning how to improvise was allowing myself to approach the piano playfully, as a small child would, and not to weigh myself down with admonitions or expectations. In other words, to be free to create!

Viva la Vida!

Choir was never like this when I was a child. I always loved singing and developed an affection for a wide variety of repertoire, so choir was an enjoyable experience as long as the teacher wasn’t too boring or bad-tempered. Yet I also remember stony stares from the other children if I sang too heartily or showed too much enthusiasm.

Performances were about rows of uniformed children standing straight, arms at their sides, enunciating clearly and watching the conductor like a hawk. And I loved it– Christmas carols in the freezing local church (invariably followed by a throat infection), anthems in the university chapel, and choir tours encompassing the Cathedral of Notre-Dame and the Sacre-Coeur in Paris.

But I’ve never before seen a choir connecting so deeply with music. As an appreciative You Tube viewer so aptly put it,”The sound produced from these kids is so pure and beautiful because it comes straight from their hearts.”

The choir is made up of fifth-graders from PS 22, an elementary school on Staten Island, New York composed of students from many ethnic backgrounds, many of whom come from difficult and deprived backgrounds, but thanks to their inspirational teacher, Mr. Breinberg, they are being enriched for life. And I know that watching and listening to them make music has changed me irrevocably too.

 Why A New Blog?

Why a new blog? Well, this is actually a resurrection, a re-assignation of my blog previously found on my professional website I’ve moved for a very specific reason- I want to expand the areas I’m writing about.

Yes, I’m a professional musician, teacher and coach. I’m also, like you, much more than what I do. I’ve learned the hard way not to be over-identified with my career.

Twelve years ago, an injury which turned into a chronic health condition stopped me in my tracks as a professional concert pianist in London. Deprived of my livelihood, I also swiftly discovered that I felt deprived of my identity, my whole sense of self. Not wanting to face the classic question, “What do you do?” at parties, I stayed home. Well-meaning friends who suggested I use my fluent French and German to find another job couldn’t understand why I was in such a state of shock and grief, unable to take action.

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Flutes Across the World

Growing up as a musician, whenever I heard about men and women undertaking courageous humanitarian projects in developing countries, I always experienced a twinge of guilt. Surely that would be a much more worthwhile activity than simply playing music. What was I doing sitting in my ivory tower practicing the piano when people were starving?
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Walking the Tightrope

I just got back from the cinema, following a showing of one of the most exciting and inspiring films I’ve seen in years. It’s a documentary entitled “Man on Wire,” which follows the story of Philippe Petit, the high wire walker, and the series of events leading up to his epic walk across a high wire strung between the Twin Towers in 1974. Seeing Petit on screen now and in extensive footage form the 70’s, I was struck by his single-minded focus on achieving extraordinary feats (he warmed up for the New York exploit with similar walks between the towers of Notre-Dame in Paris and the Sydney Harbour Bridge), his concentration, his incredible confidence and, most of all, the beauty of his artistry.

These qualities reminded me of a wonderful interview I read yesterday in the current edition of “American Music Teacher” magazine with the performance psychology consultant, Bill Moore.

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Relaxation for Peak Performance

There was a great article in the New York Times a couple of days ago about the tremendous benefits for athletes of learning to relax when performing. I believe a lot of the tips mentioned could help musicians also. Check it out here

Musical Escape

Here’s a wonderful article on the latest project of El Sistema, as a follow-up on my previous post. The project is now being taken into Venezuela’s prisons, where perpetrators of crime (often also its victims) get a chance to transcend their situation, and maybe get a chance thereby to change their lives, by playing in an orchestra. I only wish prisoners in this country received such enlightened treatment.

A Legend at Lunchtime

The other day, I was privileged to meet Katinka Scipiades Daniel, an eminent piano teacher and almost solely responsible for introducing the Kodály Method of music education to America back in the 1960’s. Katinka, now in her 90’s, joyful, sprightly and alert, welcomed members of the Kodály Association of Southern California for a potluck lunch, where we had chance to hear stories and reminiscences of all kinds.

Katinka’s own history is interesting– her husband Ernö Daniel was an eminent concert pianist in Hungary, giving concerts internationally, when the Communists took over Hungary in the 1940’s. As he happened to be abroad at that time, he decided not to return, although Katinka and her children were still in Hungary. Ernö went to America, accepting a position first at Wichita Falls and then at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and eventually after twelve years, his wife and children were permitted to join him.

The family all flourished in America– both parents becoming renowned as teachers, their son and daughter eventually becoming well-respected and successful doctors. Katinka has made an interesting video on how to combine the Kodály method with piano teaching, which also contains valuable examples of her technical methods. She has also written excellent books on teaching Kodály from Kindergarten upwards. However, her most lasting impact has been the training of some wonderful Kodály teachers in California, who are now passing on her legacy. I’m excited to join them.

Creative Discipline, Creative Freedom

As a teen, I remember being woken daily before dawn, so that I would be able to fit in part of my piano practice before school. I would slouch downstairs in my robe, dress shivering before the gas fire, eat a quick breakfast and set to work.

Up to the age of fourteen or so I had been an early riser anyway, always waking full of energy, ready for anything. But when puberty struck, something catastrophic must have happened to my biorhythms, as almost from one day to the next, I seemed to need a lot more sleep and felt horribly jet-lagged and grumpy when woken.

I was thinking about this earlier today. Despite how wretched I felt, my mother obliged me to practice. How I felt simply was irrelevant (unless I was actually ill). And so I learned a huge amount of discipline, first imposed on me, but later self-engendered. I know how to ‘carry on regardless’.
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