2012 MTNA Conference – Tuesday Afternoon – Frederick Harris Showcase – Chord Play: The Art of Arranging at the Piano with Forest Kinney

This showcase was the first one I put on my schedule! Ever since I attended Forrest and Akiko Kinney’s Pattern Play showcase at the 2010 MTNA Conference, my teaching has been transformed!

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Forest gave his workshop on piano arranging to a group 24 years ago. So, he’s been looking forward to this day for that many years. He is excited to have a course available now to offer to music educators.

He humorously suggested changing his name from “Forrest” to “Four Arts.” The arts used to include many different components, but has in recent years been reduced almost strictly to interpretation of existing art.

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In the same way that we can have conversations and arrange words and stories to share with others, we should be well-versed as pianists so that we can do the same. It’s great to be able to interpret and play the works of the masters, but we must also be comfortable carrying on musical conversations with others and creating new arrangements.

He expressed hope that all of us would “buy” his argument: “It is not talent that keeps all of us from experiencing the four arts. It’s only one thing – pedagogy.”

Forrest will be presenting both an old and a new pedagogy. Clara Schumann’s father taught her to arrange at the piano, and in fact it was a year before she learned how to read music. Forrest and his wife have developed a new pedagogy for teachers today through their Pattern Play series.

A volunteer from the audience was invited to come forward to try an improvisation with him. He taught her the Persian scale, placed a couple of pencils and a book on the strings inside the grand piano (another use for the Pattern Play books… :-)), and began playing an accompaniment pattern while she improvised on the scale.

We think that knowledge is so important, but she didn’t even know what she was doing. Her intuition kicked in and she was able to make beautiful, Persian-sounding music on the spot!

How did we all learn to speak? Our parents talked with us day after day after day until we could converse fluently. That’s why it’s so helpful to play the duet patterns with students until they feel comfortable stepping out on their own to improvise with both hands simultaneously. Each pattern also contains a trio and ensemble option so that students can play together and create beautiful music. Forest had a couple of volunteers take their seat at the piano to demonstrate this trio aspect of the materials.

After this quick overview of the Pattern Play philosophy, Forrest moved on to the new Chord Play series. Being able to arrange is an essential skill for a pianist. He has been invited to play 19 times at the home of Bill Gates. It’s because he is able to create engaging arrangements of old favorites, orchestral tunes, Broadway songs, and more.

What’s the most important song for every pianist to be able to play? He thinks there should be an acronym for pianists – HBPHD (a.k.a. Happy Birthday Public Humiliation Disorder). Ear training has largely been abandoned in our day. People who only play by eye are robbed of a certain intuitive faculty. Those who play only by ear and can’t read are impoverished; they tend to be enslaved to one style of playing.

He begins working with a student by asking, “Did you know that you can play Happy Birthday starting on any key?” Really? they may be surprised. Many students have no concept of well-tempered tuning. He plays a game with beginning students by playing the first notes of Happy Birthday starting on any key with a book covering his hands. Then the student has to try to find the starting key and play it.

The Pattern Play books are geared around little patterns called “explorations.” Chord Play introduces theory concepts and then immediately turns them into artistic expressions.

Forrest draws a humorous analogy: Knowing your chords is like having a head of hair. Once you have it, what do you do with it?

Once you have an idea of what you can do with chords from the ideas presented in the book, you learn to shift/substitute chords, then add 2nds to chords. He describes these as “flavor enhancers without the headaches” (in contrast to MSG). The last part of book one is about introductions, endings, and fills.

Just like Franz Liszt, once you learn these principles you can invite audience members to shout out themes and you can make up arrangements on the spot. A bag of fake books will go a long way!

Book One is kept to root position chords in order to cultivate the ear. Book Two begins with Canon in D. Ask the question, “Is there some way we can make that bass line more interesting?” You can invert the chords to create a descending pattern. The book keeps exploring inverted chords in relation to the principles introduced in Book One.

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Some chord substitution can be accomplished just by voicing the changing bass line created by using chord inversions. The book moves into a long discussion of arpeggios and then goes into right hand inversions.

The book goes into ragtime and then gospel style. Book Three explores seventh chords extensively so that by the end of the book students should have the knowledge and experience in their fingers to arrange any hymn, pop song, etc.

The final minutes of the showcase were reserved for an introduction to the newest Pattern Play Book 6. It uses keys with three sharps and three flats. Another attendee joined Forrest on the bench for a riveting improvisation on the pattern, Storm!

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