It took two and a half years and an 8-hour teaching intensive, but at the end of the Pattern Play workshop today I had an epiphany. The philosophy undergirding this series is not that improvisation is a skill to be worked on as part of the piano lesson, but rather that improvisation (or creativity at the piano) is the core from which every student can learn to become an accomplished musician. This is a huge distinction that requires a complete paradigm shift from the more common pedagogical model today where learning piano literature forms the core of the lesson. It’s something I definitely need to ponder more in depth.
As Forrest pointed out several times today, this improvisation-based model was the prevailing philosophy in music education for many years. The ability to express oneself creatively at the keyboard was the hallmark of a good piano [organ/harpsichord, etc.] player. In contrast with today’s frequent emphasis on improvising as a skill to draw upon when the notes of a piece are forgotten in performance, in the 17th and 18th centuries, a musician might have to resort to using printed music if he was incompetent at improvising. Music was experienced, learned, and taught in a predominantly aural tradition.
Like most students today, our entire class at the Pattern Play workshop consisted of teachers who were trained in a predominantly visual tradition. Thus, the Kinney’s approach of having us take turns playing duet improvisations alternatively with each of them was more than a little frightening! But the variety of experiential learning, observation, and discussion proved to be very instructive for all of us. Tomorrow we will each be taking a turn playing the role of teacher as we introduce and teach our selected patterns to another student in the class. That increases the frightening factor by about 1,000%! But I can see how it will be extremely helpful if we really aim to become more effective at implementing these principles with our own students. I’m excited to see what tomorrow holds!