This article is a personal account of my experiences with traditional piano training. It offers an exploration of my transition from a classical pianist toward a blues-R&B, funk pianist passionate about the music of New Orleans. Moreover, this article lays down the foundation to explore the deeper realms of creativity and creative expression.
I started learning piano at age 7 through a teacher offering Royal Conservatory of Toronto training in my neighbourhood. At least once per year, I was required to pass a formal playing exam at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto. I passed my grade nine playing exam at age 13. At this point, my teacher felt that I would be better served by undertaking lessons directly at the Conservatory. For various reasons, this never happened and formal piano training would now wait until university.
In high school, I was asked to play “keyboard” in a 50s and 60s rock and roll band. Arriving at the first rehearsal having no idea what to expect, I quickly realized that I was not equipped to perform in this setting. First, I didn’t know the songs because my musical experience was oriented toward classical performance. Second, I wasn’t used to hearing a song for the first time and performing it without having sheet music. And third, I was unfamiliar with the language of the music and how to “speak” it through the piano. Although I started catching on fairly quickly, I was left wondering why my training hadn’t better prepared me for it.
I returned to classical piano studies at McMaster University and was fortunate to study with a remarkable teacher. My mental skill and physical technique were quickly ramped up. During my lessons I would be asked to transpose a piece on the spot, or look at an unfamiliar piece for brief periods and try to immediately play passages from memory. More importantly, he helped me focus on making better use of my internal energy while playing. I was never destined to be a professional concert pianist, but when I graduated I was able to confidently perform the Chopin Ballade No. 1 and the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.
“When you say everyone has to play a Bach prelude and fugue, a Beethoven sonata, a Chopin nocturne, and we’ll do that until the end of the world, something in our soul dies.”– John Mortensen
I discovered improvisation in a jazz history course during my graduate studies in ethnomusicology at York University. During a folk music research methods course, I became intrigued with the oral transmission of songs and how a single tune can evolve in myriad ways. And then one day I sat in a class listening to my professor talk about the critical role of improvisation in classical music performance and composition. Of course, we can’t hear Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, or Brahms improvise, but we know they were improvisatory masters.
And then I started questioning the years of formal piano training I had experienced:
- Why, during all those years of traditional piano lessons, was I never once exposed to the improvisation?
- Why was I never asked to express myself through music composition?
- Who decided that interpretation of other people’s music was enough?
- Why could I achieve honours on performance exams, but not function in a 50-60s rock and roll band?
- Why did I develop technical prowess without concurrently developing genuine creative expression?
These were the questions that haunted me as I completed my degree at York. I would have pursued them, but rather than pursing doctoral studies I entered the world of work and stopped playing the piano… for 30 years.
I resumed piano playing with renewed spirit and passion at age 56 solely because of the encouragement of my wife. It wasn’t something I was self-motivated to return to. However, the questions that haunted me back at York would soon impose themselves again.
My wife and I formed a band called, “Upbeat Groove.” The purpose of the band is to perform toe-tapping boogie-blues-shuffle music that makes people feel good. I had to become a completely different kind of piano player, the core of which was to shed some of the assumptions of my classical training and learn a more flexible, improvisatory, and spontaneous approach to playing.
I will be working on becoming that piano player the rest of my life. And I’m working through those questions that are now more than 30 years old. Moreover, improvisation and creativity are at the forefront of my effort as a piano player now. Over the next several articles, I will explore the ups and downs of my transition from being a classical pianist to more of an improvisatory pianist in search of his own style of playing.
- I would like to emphasize that I do not regret my classical training, nor that there is something inherently wrong with it. I am saying, relative to musical creativity, that there were deficiencies in my training relative to my passion for creative expression. I would also suggest that improvisation and composition are vital elements in any training program – in fact, they are the starting point.
- My initial musical training was guided by the Royal Conservatory in Toronto training method. My comments in this article reach back forty years and may now be out of touch with their current training methods.
- I majored in music composition and arranging at McMaster University, and focused on music improvisation during my graduate work at York University.
- There are modern classical pianists that improvise, but it is not the norm. John Mortensen exemplifies the spirit of improvisation in classical music. Here is a improvised performance of Aarhus Improvised Concert Prelude. He has recently released a new book entitled, The Pianist’s Guide to Historic Improvisation, which is explored in the Guardian article, Why Today’s Musicians Should Follow Classical Greats… and Improvise. His work on reclaiming improvisation in classical music performance is, for me, the most important work being done in the field.
- Our band, Upbeat Groove, started in our basement by four people (vocalist, piano, drums, bass) who love playing upbeat music: “Upbeat Groove is an emerging piano-based blues-boogie-shuffle band in Orillia, Ontario, that plays lively, toe-tapping music that makes people feel good–life is too short, let’s have some fun!” We made two public performances before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic shut down live music. We look forward to returning to live performance once the pandemic lifts.