RSAMD SCOTTISH PIANO ‘COLLECTIVE’
Minute of the BA Scottish Music Piano Staff and Student meeting held at held at 11am on Monday 29th June 2009 in the Concert Hall of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD)
Present: Dr. Joshua Dickson (only Initially to welcome all present)
Mary McCarthy (Chair)
Hamish Napier (notes)
Maria Lara Falsone
All perform a piano piece, MM says that a mini informal piano concert should always start off meetings of this kind.
MM said that before Brian left that her and JR had agreed that there should be a piano day/morning in academy for students to ‘showcase’ with prepared pieces, in which classical pianists could come and get a taste of Scottish work. Currently, there is no place anywhere to showcase ‘Scottish piano’ – there are however plenty of courses in jazz, classical and accompaniment.
Below are eight areas pertaining to the Scottish Music piano study and Keyboard Skills module. Over the last couple of years, these points have been discussed with various people, including Murray McLaughlin, Head of Keyboard in Chethams School Manchester, who was on our last Piano Support Day in June 2007.
How important is it for new folk to understand the reasoning behind using Suzuki Book 1 – regardless of how many traditional tunes they can play when entering the course?
MM explained how a tradition of Irish Folk Piano was started successfully in Ireland through leading players already being classically/jazz trained e.g. Michael O’Sullivan. Lack of basic pianism in students beginning at the RSAMD, despite being very musical. They are committed students, but don’t understand why they have to learn the technique. It is very rare to have a well-trained pianist enter the academy on our course. The Suzuki Method is a method to fast track good pianism. Suzuki, despite being mainly an aural method, is also a great way of improving reading skills, as the syllabus of pieces is structured, and each simple piece is often a development of the previous piece.
EM says that a good bridge between vocalists and instrumentalists is to let them know that the piano can ‘sing out’ in a continuous/sustained melodic line, and therefore needs good hand technique to get legato. Demonstrating that the piano can sing, by getting them to play their pipe/fiddle/song melodies with equivalent decorations, giving a good bridge to their understanding of their own instrument. Then they can gradually add harmonies, as it is important not to overload melodies with thick harmony anyway. Exploring pentatonic improvisations with the pedal down is a good way of doing this also.
MM explains how there are some trad piano students with good chord knowledge but a lack of good ‘sound’.
MM says those with good ears e.g. LT and HN, can struggle as their untrained fingers won’t do as their ears are telling them to, resulting in random loud notes or lack of individual ‘sound’.
Last year the large group masterclass at the start of term for all the pianists was successful, and should be repeated say JR and MM.
LT says Suzuki Method is about “understanding how to play not what to play”, and that this point should be made clearer and explained in depth to the students somehow, from the outset. Actual audio examples or demonstrated examples of good versus bad pianistic technique on one piece would be very effective. This could be carried out at masterclass.
HD says bring in older students to this masterclass, as they weren’t present last year. LT says older students should come and share ideas also, including both past and present senior year students, e.g. HD, JR, LT and Phamie Gow). MM suggests a ‘buddy’ system. MM and LT say that students tend to find it difficult to understand why they are being taught Suzuki, but by 3rd year nearly all really appreciate the benefit of it.
Value of observation
Some Year IV students mentioned that they really understood the value of observing other lessons. How do we encourage and develop this very simple, yet valuable, activity?
Observation also subconsciously teaches good posture to new pianists.
The first year is mainly about students receiving input, as sometimes little output is observed until second year. Some students performed basic one handed pieces like ‘Mary had a Little Lamb’ in their first year, but became very good pianists in their third and fourth year.
HN sates how observation reduces the feeling of learning piano as a ‘lonely pursuit’.
HD states that students are very bad at attending other student’s concerts and recitals
MM highlights the fact that people observing a lesson doesn’t affect teaching style – each lesson is similar to a masterclass with interested students sitting in.
EM asks if there are any technique workshops or classes as part of the Classical piano course, that the Scottish Music piano students can attend/sit-in on, and wonders if there is enough integration within the academy that brings these students together. All believe there is an barrier. HD highlights her frustration that she is not even allowed in the Classical piano corridor (or the Classical harp corridor for that matter, despite being a first study harpist).
EM says that he had been very excited, before the course started over a decade ago, about Scottish traditional musicians getting the opportunity to hearing the likes of Chopin and Debussy, and that there would be more coming and going between Classical and Traditional. LT points out the complete lack of Trad piano at the RSAMD’s piano festival.
MM points out how helpful Gordon Munro has been in bridging the gap through working with her to develop the keyboard skills curriculum. MM had asked Gordon Munro if students could observe Classical piano.
HD says introduce weekly keyboard skills class to all piano students in 1st year, as that is where the strength of Suzuki is highlighted. It should be a compulsory class in 1st year and then can be chosen in 2nd year. MM and JR agree. Here, all piano students will then further understand the point of ‘observing’, an important Suzuki technique.
MM proposes something is sent out to 1st and 2nd year students to highlight the importance of observing. It doesn’t matter how much they practice or play, it’s more important that they come and observe.
LT says the statement ‘come I and sit in on Heathers lesson’ might make students feel they are intruding on something ‘exclusive’. A better approach is to advise/invite students to come to Heather’s ‘half hour’.
LT suggest the piano workshop concept should be be expanded to a all-day workshop for first year students (including invited older students past and present) to demonstrate the importance of basic piano skills for pipers/fiddlers etc.
Solo practice with piano
The piano tends to be seen only as ‘accompaniment’, and many think that only a keyboard is ‘OK’ for traditional pianists. Is there a need for students to have much more opportunity for solo recital practice with a piano, rather than a keyboard?
DM points out that ‘big black pianos’ and ‘keyboard skills’ are two different things. He states the importance of digital pianos, due to their highly beneficial instant tuning capabilities (Pythagorean tuning etc.) that greatly alter his harmonic language. DM says he uses digital pianos more than pianos for Scottish music because of this. DM asks if what MM teaches in the keyboard skills class is based on actual acoustic pianos. MM says that it is, as many Scottish pianists haven’t experienced ‘real’ pianos until 1st year, and that playing real pianos brings students up to the pianism level of the Classical pianists. This is particularly important for RSAMD students auditioning for Postgraduate Teaching courses at Moray House and Jordanhill, in which they are assessed on their basic Classical pianistic technique. The keyboard skills class is designed for such applicants of the postgrad teaching courses.
MM states that the Scottish Music keyboard skills class is the ‘bridge’ between the Classical and the Trad. In fact the Scottish Music keyboard skills class gain excellent grades, and their examiners are classical examiners (Gordon Munro and Eric Rice).
MM explains how the Keyboard Skills carried out on real pianos makes the B.Ed students aware of the risks of practice injuries.
DM says that ‘big black pianos’ bring ‘baggage’ with them, and completely change the way we play, and that, sadly in reality, digital pianos are what most pianists encounter at gigs. MM believes that we will never produce pianists of the likes of James Ross, unless we fight for something the Classical musicians take for granted. MM explains how she is fighting for the Trad musicians to get the same treatment as the Classical pianists. JR said that he would rather have a real piano for gigs, but it’s often hard to get the chance to play one, even if there is one in the building. The reality is not ‘ideal’ and for this attitude and situation to change, something must be done.
HN points out that while many upright acoustics are preferable to digital pianos, grand pianos can seem ‘overpowering’. MM explains how good pianistic technique will completely remedy this issue.
LT explains how regular playing of digital pianos before coming to the academy made her ears ‘immune’ to, or unaware of, rich pianistic sounds. Doing all your learning on a grand piano makes you a better pianist; digital pianos are merely a replacement.
HD and LT both believe that the whole purpose of the meeting is to help create great solo pianists who ‘understand’ that the piano can ‘sing’, and that the piano is just as important a traditional Scottish instrument as the pipes or fiddle. MM underlines this with the fact that accordionists and pipers play on the finest accordions and pipes available, and why shouldn’t pianists?
DM believes it is absolutely vital that you have to have a real instrument and learn how real strings and mechanism make sounds and how your body works with that. DM says that in order to change the unpopular decision to deny first study Scottish pianists access to the best pianos in the 1st study Classical piano corridor, the Scottish Music piano department ought to focus on one person who can change the situation, as opposed to making it an ‘institutional problem’. MM points out that it was a group decision unfortunately. HN wonders if the Classical department’s decision is based on a belief that Scottish Traditional pianists are unable to appreciate the difference between a regular RSAMD piano and the finest RSAMD pianos. MM believes this to be the case, and that the finer the piano a student is able to practice on, the quicker they improve. MM says that there are instances of trad pianists using high quality pianos badly and being unaware of their pianistic sound. Suzuki is a method fast tracking this problem.
EM suggests a lecture/seminar on the tuning of keyboards
Josh Dickson ad Mary to discuss this issue fully and take it up with the Classical department.
In the broad sense, jazz study has always been part of our course, including an accessible ‘history of jazz piano’. Are there ways to develop this more?
MM says that despite the Margaret Faye Shaw set text and Suzuki syllabus, she also proposes that the ABRSM grade 1 jazz piano syllabus should be an integral part of the overall keyboard skills syllabus. HD says that it should also be there as an option for those 1st and 2nd study pianists who are interested.
MM and HN agree that the contemporary pieces in the ABRSM grade 1 jazz piano book provide ideas for tasteful left hand voicings and diatonic improvisatory opportunities that are directly applicable to folk music.
Classical piano (and other styles)
We are now finding that some students are keen to learn much more about classical piano music, and are offering this in their exam programmes. How can we develop this?
(N.B. This became a discussion about listening to all kinds of good pianism, from jazz to classical or folk etc.)
MM highlights the situation of LT’s interest in Classical music. MM will be teaching HN Ronald Stevenson works, and it is links and study’s like this that will broaden the overall picture of Scottish Trad Piano.
DP believes that being in the RSAMD should be an opportunity to hear all kinds of music, and music starts and ends with ‘listening’. DM says that unfortunately in conservatoires like the RSAMD the focus is usually on doing stuff and learning stuff.
We need to make more links with the Classical students by inviting them to Scottish Trad Piano events.
LT suggests that the BA Scottish music course should give students a better introduction to Scottish Trad piano by showing good recordings, as she never knew where to look. MM points out that while Andy Thorburn’s information in the library regarding Scottish piano was a valuable source at the time it was written (pre-RSAMD BA course), it now needs updated. LT suggests a compulsory recording
HD believes it unfair and a major oversight that piano is completely missed out in the 1st year course ‘Introduction to Scottish Music’. HN believes that the ‘listening’ lecture may not be enough, and that a more continuous approach is needed, by incorporating it into a regular class somehow.
HD suggests we create ‘piano awareness’ a trip to the School of Scottish Studies to hear archive recordings of Elizabeth Stewart playing piano etc.
MM remembers that as a student JR had performed a ‘history of Scottish piano accompaniment’ and wrote it up, but nobody has furthered that research. Can this be incorporated into 2nd study 3rd year work?
MM proposes that all of the group should email each other their favourite pianists (of any genre), so we can have a good range of recordings available for students.
LT suggests compulsory listening texts for 1st and 2nd year students, that directly link with MM and JR’s taught material. HN wonders if handing out ‘compulsory listening’ might affect their listening to (and enjoyment of) of the CD, and that a larger choice of piano music should be provided for them to chose from.
EM suggests earmarking live concerts. He believes that live piano concerts should be attended by students, going as a group of piano enthusiasts, and discussing the music all together after hearing it. These could be within or out with the RSAMD. Perhaps presenting a formal ‘critique’ of the concert to the teacher.
Some students continue to have the odd lesson/contact with me during the holidays. June to October is a long break; any ideas about this?
HD suggest a buddy system that helps organise group workshops in the summer, and works towards getting pieces ready for a concert on the first week back. Everyone could get in contact by email. The ones that live a long way away have to work by themselves, but having a concert to work towards would keep their momentum going.
HN explains his plans to work intermittently with his student JA for a ABRSM Jazz Piano exam in November, and how that will hopefully keep up momentum of both teacher and student.
MLF says the Edinburgh Festival could be a good way of bringing people together over the holidays informally. Perhaps Mary could email out a list of good piano concerts to all students, so people could go in pairs or as a group.
Traditional piano is such a niche area that it is a challenge to provide regular live concerts. Within our own circle though, including past students, there are a number of us able to provide this aspect of study. Some of us have done CD’s and get paid to perform. We each have a totally different slant on what it means to be a traditional solo pianist. Also, implicit in this, there is the whole area of listening to great pianism; whatever the genre, it’s all about the sound of the pianist. How do we take this further?
MM states that the piano first study is something new to the course, that it will take time to figure out a good approach.
EM always believed that there should have been a few seminars on historic keyboards like clavichords, virginals and harpsichords so they get a taste of what it was like for the Neil Gow ensemble, and perhaps even study it. Certainly first study pianists should be given the chance to hear about this and knowledgeable about this. LT is concerned with the time available on the course.
The course has developed as a result of the enthusiasm of many students over the years. Are there any ways in which students can continue to develop their piano playing and teaching skills when they leave the Academy?
Keep in touch with former students via informal gatherings. HN suggests that JD officially invite former piano students to the start of term piano master classes or piano lectures etc. HD says that Fiona Barlo from alumni relations would be very interested in this and that we email her.
EM suggests that duets or ‘8 hands’ could be tried out in the group sessions – MM said that this is already happening all the time.