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What's in a Diary?

June 5, 2017

In mid-May I decided to start a 'piano diary' project. The idea was to post an entry each day for thirty consecutive days, but life and indeed travels got in the way, and so today marked just the eighth entry. Each entry is a short improvisation: I go into my studio, sit down at the piano and record the first thing that comes in to my head -  mistakes and all.

 

For the sake of structure and framework, I try to keep the pieces to no more than about two minutes, and have attempted to work through in a kind of key order (dare I say, inspired by the cycles of preludes by some of the keyboard greats?). It's an engaging project for me as a pianist, and, once the thirty days are up, the goal is to take those improvisations I feel worked best, and develop them into a set of preludes for solo piano. I'm not the first pianist to work on a piano diary project, but I am keen to take the principles behind the process and encourage my students to start their own. 

 

Here is today's short diary entry - a prelude of sorts, in the key of A minor. 

 

 

One of the great things about improvising short pieces is that we have to think carefully (and quickly) about not using too much material. It can be oddly liberating to work under time restrictions (both on length of phrases, and the time you actually set yourself to record the piece). When I ask students and beginners to improvise a short diary-style piece, I often ask suggest they think of just a two bar phrase, which can then be repeated on different pitches in bars three and four...

 

In this example, bars five and six take the same idea but offer-up a slight variation, for interest, then the last two bars of the melody are based on a chromatic scale and lead us smoothly to a repeat of sorts.  I often use chromatic scales in my improvisations: they are quite simple to manage and take the immediate thought away from worry of melodic control: useful for beginners who are looking to focus first on shape, expression and structure.

 

This focus on expression is perhaps THE greatest thing about piano diary improvisations. the tag line for the project reads "30 days, 30 moods, 30 improvisations" and this focus on attempting to express a mood in fairly brief terms is incredibly useful as a teaching tool. Once I have taught students and beginners a few basic steps and discussed a few simple ideas for creating a mental picture, their concentration quickly moves to interpretation and mood - the short nature of the task means they don't get lost in larger ideas, and in keeping things brief they learn a crucial musical lesson.

 

In my own playing, I naturally veer toward tonal writing/improvising (and sometimes more modal writing), but students often express texture and structure better when they play with no key in mind. In fact, after a few weeks of improvising near-atonal piano miniatures with a focus on joining sort phrases together, and on overall texture, I find young students develop as performers much more quickly, and are able to tackle actual harmony work more confidently later in the process.

 

I recommend everyone tries a short piano diary, and more importantly, encourages diary-style improvisations in their teaching. Soon I hope to share some recordings of young students improvising in lessons, and I would love to hear similar recordings from others!

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