In the previous post I wrote about the improvisation method Forrest Kinney developed containing the background for the following interview.
Pianoways: Forrest, thank you for joining us here. Could you please share some of your ideas about why improvisation is so important?
Forrest Kinney: We teach our students to read and recite musical scores. To improvise is to be able to speak music freely without a script. Don't we all wish to be able to speak words without relying on a script? In the same way, I believe all musicians secretly wish to have that sort of ability at their instrument! All the great masters from Bach to Bartok were master improvisers at a keyboard instrument. Improvisation is the source of much of the music we play and hear today, the wellspring of our classical tradition.
I began making music by improvising before I began lessons. It is such a natural and enjoyable way of making music! You can just play according to your feelings in that moment.
Improvisation is also a wonderful way to make music with others. It can help people learn to relax at the piano and play in a flowing way and gives teachers a way to bring music theory to life.
P: Piano students approach improvisation very differently. Some jump into it happily, some, usually the older ones, find it harder to let go and leave the safe haven of the written score. I find it surprising how generally, the more advanced the players, the less comfortable they feel about improvising. Why do you think that is?
F: I completely agree with you about this. The longer someone makes music by only reading and reciting, the scarier it becomes to make music without following a script. This is why it is important that people make music by improvising from the beginning.
Traditionally, improvisation was taught after one learned to play tunes and understand harmony enough to make accompaniments. Improvisation then consisted of making variations on tunes, particularly on the repeats. However, this approach meant that those students in the beginning years of study were not encouraged to improvise. So, by the time they were ready, most people were so fixed to the page they found it difficult to explore without crippling self-criticism.
What we have needed in our tradition (for centuries!) is an approach to improvisation that can be done from the first lesson onward. I wanted to create such an approach and that is why Pattern Play was born.
P: People love listening and moving to music with a strong beat, so why do you think so many players find it challenging to hold a steady beat?
F: In my experience, pianists of all levels often find it challenging to play in rhythm, whether playing from a score or improvising. I think it is mostly because piano playing (particularly coordinating the two sides of the body) is so difficult, and people are busy thinking about what to do and not feeling the movements in their body.
With these kinds of students, I recommend that teachers play duets that feature a strong beat. The students should be encouraged to play with simple, repetitive rhythms at first, such as all quarter notes, or a rhythm pattern such as quarter, quarter, half. Also, these students should be encouraged to just play with the middle finger at first so that they can strongly feel the movements in their arm and upper body. Beginning students who try to play with all their fingers tend to immobilize their bodies to do so.
In my experience, the most reliable and enjoyable way to develop a sense of rhythm is to play rhythmic duets with students in every lesson.
P: Your approach to teaching improvisation is "From Duet to Solo". The teacher takes the student by the hand and guides them a long way before sending them off on their own. How did you develop this idea?
F: It took a long time to develop though it seems perfectly obvious to me now.
I discovered the duet approach when I had a teacher come to study with me. She was an accomplished musician, but very nervous about learning to improvise. Sensing she needed support, I played an accompaniment and said to her, "Just play with me by making sounds on black keys." She did it and was quite pleased with the sound. She started teaching all her students that way. Many months later, I went to a recital given by her students in which every one of these students improvised! I asked her how she accomplished this. She said, "I play improvised duets with every student in every lesson." From then on, I did the same thing and got tremendous results. After that, I wrote the Pattern Play series in a duet-first format.
P: How would you describe the mindset required for improvising, compared with that of interpreting a written piece? What would the player be focusing on in each of these?
F: For improvisation, the issue is not on playing the "correct" notes- it is on exploring sounds, on finding the sounds that fit one's feelings. So it is very important not to judge one's music by the same standards that one applies to literature. Improvised music is probably not going to sound like Chopin! Yet, improvised music has a special kind of beauty because it is created for the first time, and often fits one's feelings.
P: How can we learn more about your work?
F: I have a website: www.forrestkinney.com. There is a lot of information there about not only Pattern Play, but what I call the Four Arts of Music: improvising, arranging, composing, and interpreting. You can also write me at firstname.lastname@example.org
P: Thank you so much Forrest for sharing these insights with us!
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- Pattern Play Improvisation
- Why "free playing" at the piano is good
- Improvisation Hundreds of Years Ago: Interview with Elam Rotem