2010 MTNA Conference – Tuesday Early Morning

Exhibitor Showcase – The Frederick Harris Music Co.: Inspiring Creativity at the Piano with Pattern Play – A Look at the Complete Series

This wasn’t the session that I originally planned to attend, but several of my colleagues were so enthusiastic about this series after attending a workshop on it yesterday that I decided to attend.

Forrest and Akiko Kinney began the session with an improvisation at the piano. It was gorgeous! Following the piece, Forrest shared a quote by poet, Wallace Stevens, “Music is feeling, not sound.” He went on to ask: if what you are playing is not on a printed page, not by ear, and not memorized, then where does it come from? It comes from your feelings within. He also shared a humorous illustration to make the point that creativity-encouraging activities often get too bogged down with cognitive details. His illustration was to imagine that you attend a story-writing contest and are told to write a story, but then you are given myriad details that should be incorporated into the story (you must have a princess…and her name is such and such…and she must fall in love with so and so…but then another so and so must come onto the scene, etc.). You become so bogged down cognitively that creativity is stifled. Akiko shared a supporting example of the importance of recognizing feelings as a valid basis for musical expression with students.

The Kinney’s have developed a series that introduces students to their 38 improvisational patterns. What is a pattern? An accompaniment. They use a duet-to-solo model so that students become comfortable improvising at the piano with another person before they are expected to do it on their own. Here is a breakdown of the highlights of each of the four books in the series:

Pattern Play 1
• Explore world-music (African, Persian, and Irish), classical, and popular styles
• Improvise on all black keys and all white keys
• Improvise using major, minor, and blues scales
• Create music with intervals and triads

Pattern Play 2
• Explore world-music (Japanese, Spanish, Caribbean), Medieval, classical, jazz, and blues styles
• Improvise using modes (Dorian, Lydian, etc.)
• Create music with seventh chords
• Create accompaniment patterns with intervals and triads

Pattern Play 3
• Explore world-music (Brazilian), classical, jazz, boogie, blues, and popular styles
• Improvise using scales and modes with one flat and the “major blues scale”
• Create music with triads and 7th and 9th chords

Pattern Play 4
• Explore moods and imagery in music
• Improvise using scales and modes with one and two sharps
• Create music with triads and 7th, 9th, 13th, sus, and diminished chords

How do you know when to end a duet improvisation? You can specify a number of measures, but, again, this bogs down the creativity with too much cognitive information. Plus, it takes away the excitement, the surprise, the sensitivity to the sound.

The Kinney’s then gave an overview of how each piece is laid out in the books. Each piece contains four pages: Duet (Bass), Duet (Treble), Solo, and Trio or Quartet. The Duet (Bass) page, the bass player (typically the teacher) is provided “with the materials for making a repeating accompaniment that creates a rich, supportive environment in which the student feels invited to create melodies.” On the Duet (Treble) page, ideas for creating melodies that complement the bass accompaniment are given. On the solo page, further ideas are given for the student who is ready to try solo improvisation. On the Trio or Quartet page, “explores more ideas for the soloist or reveals how to play the Pattern as a trio. Theory is also incorporated into the books, but it is introduced according to the philosophy that music theory should follow, not precede, creative expression.

One of the teachers in attendance volunteered to serve as the student so that they could demonstrate the improvisation principles in practice. They moved beyond just white key improvisation to various modes and keys. After asking if the volunteer knew a particular key, they stated that you don’t know a key until you’ve created in it. You don’t learn to play, but you play to learn.

After several additional comments and demonstrations, they had two volunteers from the audience (including my friend, Sarah!) demonstrate a trio improvisation. They encouraged teachers to enjoy teaching and to always include surprise and creativity in the lessons!

Oh, also, here’s a fascinating little point of interest that the one introducing the Kinney’s mentioned: Forrest Kinney is a regular performer at the home of Bill Gates. Cool, huh? So maybe if I buy the books and get really good at improvising, some wealthy individual will want me to come play in his home… 🙂

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