GUEST FEATURE • by Lindsey Berwin
From a very young age, my ambition was to forge a career which in some way involved the piano.
After completing my A levels, I was fortunate enough to spend four rewarding years studying at the Royal Academy of Music. However the one area of formal musical training that was missing from my time spent there was composition.
As a result, when I began my piano teaching career and decided to embark on a journey into this unknown territory, it was very much an exploratory one. It began with me gingerly feeling my way, but it very quickly became one of excitement for both myself and my pupils!
I tried out several different ways to inspire their creativity, discovering, not surprisingly, how the process varied from one student to another:
- For some, it was free exploration of the piano, often producing abstract pieces. A mysterious sound world of underwater or outer space was often the result, aided by the use of the pedals.
- For others, it was choosing a subject, such as an animal or a sport, and experimenting with ways to describe this musically.
- A third method which I found to be especially effective for pupils who were less confident was to provide a structure:
• Using a certain piece that they had played, or a particular style, as inspiration. The latter could be, for example Theme and Variations, minimalism, jazz or even fugue for an extremely able pupil!
• Basing the piece on one or more scales, for instance the pentatonic, blues, whole tone, chromatic and modes.
• Creating a storyline to act as a framework.
I quickly realised that introducing composition into lessons can be an excellent way to teach important musical techniques such as form and structure, transposition, use of motifs and their development, dissonance, harmony and ostinato.
Encouraging the pupils to add performance directions to a piece, and helping them to write out a score, however basic, are rewarding processes for them. I have also put most of their scores on Sibelius, as seeing a pupil’s reaction to its appearance makes the work worthwhile!
I also became aware that, for some pupils, composing could be a means of opening doors to self-confidence in a way that playing never had.
One particular boy comes to mind, someone who had always struggled to make progress as a performer, but who I knew was imaginative. He had never composed before, but as Halloween was approaching, I asked him if he would like to create a ghostly piece.
At first he was nervous and unsure of where to start, but, as I introduced him to diminished and augmented intervals, the chromatic and whole tone scale and even bitonality, a spark seemed to light up in him.
With encouragement from me, he slowly began to explore the keyboard, trying out the techniques that I had shown him, and discovering others for himself! These included experimenting with the use of different registers, varying tempi, glissandi and both pedals. The effect of the damper pedal particularly excited him because of the sound world it created, so much so that he entitled his completed piece Underwater Ghosts!
His confidence received a further boost when he was awarded a prize in a national competition, and this was the first of many compositions to follow.
The Compose Yourself Festival
My passion for encouraging pianists to compose from an early age is matched by that of fellow established composer Alison Mathews.
We both regularly entered many pupils for the annual EPTA Composers’ Competition, happy to give them an opportunity to receive constructive feedback from an eminent adjudicator. The recent demise of this event has left a gap in the world of young pianists composition, so Alison and I decided that we would like to fill it.
As a result, we are delighted to have created a new online festival entitled Compose Yourself! and we very much hope that other teachers and their pupils will choose to take part.
The Festival will provide the perfect opportunity for all young pianists to be involved in composing as part of their learning journey, promoting creativity, musicianship and self-expression.
It will include both competitive and non-competitive classes, and each entrant will receive an encouraging comment sheet from the composer June Armstrong, this year’s adjudicator, along with a certificate.
In addition they will receive a piece of music specially written by a leading contemporary composer to suit their performance level.
The Compose Yourself! website has articles and free printable resources to support teachers wanting to introduce composition to their pupils in a simple and engaging way.
For more information on how to enter and to register your interest please visit:
Lindsey is the composer of FunKey!, a series of books designed to improve piano students’ sight reading skills using jazz based material, Jazz Keys (its counterpart for the flute) and Jazzagility! – graded technical exercises in a jazz style (available here).
Her most recent published works are All The Fun Of The Fair, a suite of piano pieces suitable for intermediate and advanced students, and Vignettes, a collection for advanced pianists grade 8 and above.