Music Teaching (Piano Tuition, Vocal Coaching)
1. Piano: I teach piano/composition and singing in Shrewsbury and the surrounding area. Piano students (usually Associated Board Grade 5 and above) work particularly on composition, improvisation, arranging music and song writing, particularly in relation to modern piano styles Jazz, Blues, Gospel, Rock etc. Piano students follow a 12 point syllabus which covers topics such as chord structures, voicings and progressions, the use of modes and 'alternative' scales, bass lines and the development of stylistic contrasts. This is taught on a one-to-one basis as well as through group workshops.
Here are some frequently asked questions (FAQs):
How much do you charge? Usually I charge £35 for a lesson, which is usually about 75 minutes long, although I always leave time to allow some discussion. I try to teach specific skills, rather than 'pieces', and encourage students to come monthly for an intense session, rather than weekly.
What teaching resources do you use? Although I encourage the use of the standard jazz piano texts such as Levine, Richards, Steinel, etc. I make use of my own original student handouts, 'charts' and 'lead sheets', which I'm developing into a manual for students of jazz, blues and gospel piano styles.
How can we define jazz? It's almost impossible to define ‘jazz’ in a formal sense. Many contemporary jazz critics prefer to avoid the question, and argue that ‘jazz’ denotes a wide spectrum of musical practices and styles which is continually changing, enlarging and evolving, spanning blues, be-bop, hard bop, cool and modal jazz, free jazz, jazz-rock fusion, funk and even some ethnic ‘crossover’ music. Recently, the use of elements from 'world music' has become an important new tendency in jazz - Omer Avital's 2013 album 'New Song', and the Touré-Raichel Collective's 2014 album 'The Paris Session' are two super recordings which epitomize this new direction.
So if jazz is always evolving, perhaps we need a new definition? Maybe so. Jazz commentators such as Darius Brubeck and André Hodeir have both argued that jazz isn't so much a genre, but rather a series of methods and processes through which any pre-existing music can be adapted, transformed and given new life through re-arrangement, re-conception, and the addition of layers of improvisation. According to this model, jazz is not a musical genre per se, and therefore any original composition, re-arrangement of a ‘standard’ or free improvisation which uses the recognized processes and draws on appropriate musical 'rhetoric' may be defined as jazz.
What do you mean by jazz 'rhetoric'? Broadly speaking, important aspects of jazz ‘rhetoric’ might include the following:
- The use of characteristic 'swung' rhythms, and the development of a strong rhythmic sense.
- The use of melodies and improvisatory figures from outside the western European tradition, with African or Latin-American derivations or influences such as funk, calypso, bossa nova etc.
- Characteristic harmonic innovations ('altered' harmony) controlled dissonance and the use of modes (variants of traditional scale patterns).
- The use of particular instruments, combinations of instruments, and of certain musical textures.
- The use of phrases derived from the ‘blues’ tradition.
However, this is just a list of basic features of jazz rhetoric. An important aspect of jazz is listening to established players and absorbing their ideas. Jazz is not only a matter of improvisation: it also involves oral/aural transmission of style, of complex musical ideas, rhythmic 'feel' and a myriad of tiny ornamental details. These are important supplements to the written versions (basic outlines) of 'standard' tunes, which are often conveyed through 'lead sheets' rather than through fully-written scores.
Accordingly, jazz has become a vehicle for experimentation and innovation, as well as a highly ‘inter-textual’ genre which builds on ‘traditional’ elements and practices, and quotes freely from other performances. Indeed, jazz performances usually acknowledge these ‘traditions’ to some extent, perhaps in the way specific tunes are played and interpreted, in the way musical quotations are used, or the way in which a ‘set’ of pieces constituting a complete performance is designed. Thus, although jazz performances might include experimental and original compositions, it is often considered desirable to base part of any performance on well-known jazz ‘standards’. A fairly conservative list of such standards might include the following:
A Foggy Day (Gershwin)
All the Things You Are (Kern)
Autumn Leaves (Kosma)
Beautiful Love (Young)
Embraceable You (Gershwin)
Fly me to the Moon (Howard)
Have you met Miss Jones (Rodgers)
How Insensitive (Jobim)
It don’t Mean a Thing (Ellington)
Love for sale (Porter)
My Foolish Heart (Young)
On Green Dolphin Street (Kaper)
Satin Doll (Ellington)
Tea for Two (Youmans)
Musicians with more of a leaning towards the so-called ‘bebop’ style might include tunes such as:
A Night in Tunisia (Gillespie/Paparelli)
Giant Steps (Coltrane)
I Mean You (Monk)
Straight, No Chaser (Monk)
Although the tunes in this second group have come to be regarded as ‘standards’ now, such tunes associated with the ‘bop’ era demand a different treatment in performance, and the use of a different musical rhetoric.
Although many jazz musicians use so-called ‘fake’ books or 'pads' of lead sheets as outline sources of standard material, and some use transcribed performances presented as scores using conventional notation (a convenient entry route into the jazz idiom for students) most jazz musicians play largely from memory. Many performers play standard tunes in ‘head and changes’ form, i.e. stating the subject, and playing a series of improvisations over the chord changes of the standard before re-stating the subject to conclude the piece. An ideal performance might demonstrate mastery of recognized musical styles and processes, combined with original elements. Indeed, many jazz pianists allude to the styles of others in their performances, both consciously and unconsciously.
Any list of ‘great’ jazz pianists is inevitably influenced by personal preferences and prejudices, but surely any list of acknowledged masters of jazz piano style would include many of the following names:
Art Tatum (b. 1910)
Oscar Peterson (b. 1925)
Bill Evans (b. 1929)
Herbie Hancock (b. 1940)
McCoy Tyner (b. 1938)
Ahmad Jamal (b. 1930)
Chick Corea (b. 1941)
Thelonious Monk (b. 1917)
Keith Jarrett (b. 1945)
Bud Powell (b. 1924)
Michel Petrucciani (b. 1962)
Bobby Timmons (b. 1935)
Cecil Taylor (b. 1933)
In my view, it is almost impossible to participate fully in jazz as a performer without knowledge of these pianists and their their recordings, which largely define the idiom of piano jazz. Of course, their performances are very different in style. Some, such as Peterson and Tatum, are acknowledged masters of piano technique with vast repertoires, ‘athletes of the piano’ perhaps, although quite conservative in their choices of material, with little concern for stylistic innovation. Others are highly esteemed because of the contributions they have made to jazz evolution in terms of their compositions, original thinking or stylistic development. Among these, Bill Evans and Thelonius Monk (also perhaps Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett) can all be seen as major innovators. The recordings of Evans and Monk unquestionably opened new doors for pianists, and indeed for jazz as a whole. Their influences can be detected in almost any set which a jazz piano trio plays today.
Overall, performances by jazz musicians (including pianists) are arguably evaluated on the basis of five elements:
- Originality of interpretation/treatment/new composition.
- Acknowledgment of tradition.
- Technique and fluency.
- Presentation/Entertainment value.
- Programme planning (i.e. range/contrast of the music and originality of the material).
However, there are two questions of balance to consider here:
1. What is the ideal balance between original and ‘standard’ material? Some younger players now argue that the performance of jazz ‘standards’ is now irrelevant, and many excellent recent recordings consist entirely of original material, which can be interpreted as jazz on the basis of idiom/style alone. Modern jazz trios, such as EST, have released albums of entirely original music.
2. To what extent should ‘traditional’ practices and procedures obstruct new developments, originality and fusion experiments in jazz in the future? Cynical comments about the so-called ‘jazz police’ are often found in the jazz press, and this reflects a major intellectual debate between two major factions of the jazz world, the so-called ‘radicals’ and ‘classicizers’.
2. Vocal Tuition
My vocal teaching to individuals emphasizes the importance of technique and the 'diagnosis' of technical faults, rather than interpretation. I regard pointing soloists towards suitable repertoire is an important way to help singers. When working with choirs, my emphasis is trying to encourage the best vocal sounds from the group, and choosing (or where required writing/arranging) music which will bring out the best from the voices available. Every choir is different, and so the repertoire and approach need to be tailored to the group.
Technique is crucial to good singing. I encourage student to read texts by established authorities such as Pierre Bernac, Richard Miller, Clifton Ware etc., and sometimes earlier writers and singers such as Pier Francesco Tosi and Lilli Lehmann. However, I have created a number of original teaching resources. My vocal teaching is informed by my experience as a classical singer, specializing in nineteenth-century German Lieder and (more recently) as a singer of French chansons, jazz, blues and spirituals/gospel, supplemented by many years experience as a piano accompanist working with singers preparing for recordings, stage productions, examinations and competitions.
It is astonishing how many students of singing, who have evidently been singing enthusiastically in choirs many years, or even attending one-to-one lessons, apparently know almost nothing of basic technical issues such as warming up correctly, or how to produce and support the voice. Their lessons, it often transpires, have concentrated on the issue of learning and interpreting repertoire, rather than on the technical issues which are the cornerstones of good singing. Such students do not have the necessary 'tools' to go away and develop on their own, and although their lessons have been pleasant and affirming, actually time has been wasted. Many students have been directed towards 'standard' repertoire which is familiar to, or of special interest to, their teachers, rather than actually appropriate for the student's vocal capabilities and timbre. Subsequently, these students (it emerges) have concentrated on interpretation while still persisting with and actually consolidating very common fundamental technical errors. One of the most common is allowing breath to escape past the vocal cords in an uncontrolled manner (especially when singing consonants) so that there is often insufficient breath to support phrases to their end. This lack of breath control (usually associated with poor air flow and inadequate support of the air column) is frequently the root cause not only of phrasing problems, but also of intonation faults, especially in the upper register. It's usually the real reason why the voices of many singers tire so rapidly.
Interpretation of songs, in my view, is a very delicate matter for the individual singer, closely tied up with the issues of personal taste and self-expression. It's also a matter of knowing your material really well, finding something new to say when performing, and not about copying Enrico Caruso, Maria Callas or Tito Gobbi. Accordingly, character development is closely connected to the development of singing. Student singers can also learn a great deal by researching and selecting their own repertoire - ideally by transcribing or arranging material to suit them.