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6 minutes reading time (1114 words)

How do we honor a child’s musical voice?

My eleven-year old student Corey arrived at the year-end recital dusty and sweaty from playing two tournament soccer games. With fifteen minutes to start time and no audience yet present (graduation parties, other soccer and baseball games), Corey sat down at the piano to try out his pieces. He ran through the ABRSM Jazz Piano arrangement of Duke Ellington's "C-Jam Blues," filling in the middle with a long improvisation. He then stopped, took a breath, and began improvising a jazz piece of his own using a new progression of chords. I stopped filling lemonade cups and listened.Who had taught him to do that?

"Corey," I said, "where did you get that chord progression?" "Oh, I grabbed it here and there from some of my other pieces."

He pointed out a favorite riff from Bruce Berr's "Great Fountain," combined with a section from "C-Jam Blues," and the diminished chords that Burgmüller uses to take us back to his energetic theme in "Ballade." Not only was Corey making a new piece of his own, he knew what he was doing. The result was jaw-dropping.

I can't take credit. If you have been teaching for any time at all, you know what I mean. I'll bet you, too, have experienced one of these "Corey moments," when a student takes off without you and lands in a magical place. Suddenly students are able to combine all their learning into a composition or performance uniquely their own.

We can teach five children exactly the same concepts, technique, and repertoire, and we will hear five different results. I am not just talking about the difference between one child playing a piece "perfectly" (whatever that means) and another child playing it not so well. I am talking about the difference between one child playing only what he was taught and another playing in a way that connects with and reveals his own musical voice—his singular intelligence, spirit, and vision.

Every student has such a voice, not just the "gifted" child (whatever that means). Mallory played at the same recital. At the age of nine, she has been studying for three years, and even with steady practice has only made it to Book III. Yet she loves her music and floated Phillip Keveren's "Watercolors" through the audience with such beauty that several parents were in tears.

People often refer to an artist's emerging voice, as if it has been in a pupae state hiding in a cocoon. In my experience, a person's voice is fully present in all its aspects at birth. When a new student comes to me, it is this part of the child I most long to meet. I often get my first glimpse of it when we improvise together at the interview.

It is easy for a person to lose or suppress that voice, however. I still remember Willard Palmer's story of his own first piano lesson. He came to it playing a few tunes and improvisations. His teacher then put in front of him what he called "The Book." He was forced to stop playing what interested him and learn "The March of the Middle C Thumbs."

When I am starting out with a student, I also like to remember that no one says to a child, "Don't talk to me until you can read." All language, and that includes music, develops gradually over time using all the senses. All children have something unique to say before they can say it correctly, and, well, before they can write it, before they can read their thoughts to another.

Yet children need to learn to do all of those things! As teachers, our job is to help students develop the technical and theoretical skills that will allow them to expand their voice, to use it with conviction and influence. Somehow we must accomplish this task without squelching individual intelligence, spirit, and vision.

As a child, the composer Phillip Keveren studied piano with an excellent and exacting piano teacher. My guess is that he was an eager, respectful student. His teacher taught him well, covering every aspect of technique and theory. He won many national and international competitions—a teacher's dream. Phillip then went on to study composition at one of the country's major music schools, continuing to win awards as he dutifully wrote music in the atonal, intellectual style in vogue at the time. His own musical voice, so present early in his life, had stepped into the background.

One day Phillip was called in to help the composer John Adams program an electronic keyboard for his opera Nixon in China. Adams began asking Phillip about his own compositions, their style and general characteristics. As Phillip spoke about his recent school-assigned works, Adams interrupted him.

"You're not composing music you really want to be writing, are you?" Surprised, Phillip answered, "No, you're right. I really prefer writing in a more tonal, melodic style."

Adams asked him to demonstrate, which Phillip did with some trepidation. Not only was he playing for a well-known composer, but he also knew his style was far from Adams's own. Adams listened and said, "That's the music you should be composing. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise."

In that moment, Adams was the best of teachers. He intuited Phillip's hidden voice and called out to it. He gave Phillip the permission to trust it and follow its lead. Yet Phillip wouldn't have any way to give his musical thoughts power if it weren't for his first teacher, who was also the best of teachers, because she taught him to count, to play with correct fingering, to voice chords properly.

At an MTNA convention several years ago, Phillip reconnected with this teacher. Phillip was now a successful adult—a well-known performer, composer, and arranger. Stopping by the exhibitor's booth, which showcased Phillip's large collection of publications, his former teacher greeted him as if he had just come for his lesson. "Play something for me," she requested. Phillip settled himself before a piano and played. His teacher sat in a nearby chair, giving every note her full attention. When he finished, she said. "That was very good, Phillip, but I couldn't tell if your pedaling was OK or not. It's awfully noisy in here."

We have to listen to and honor every student's musical voice, but at the same time we need to give each student the necessary skills to let that voice speak with authority and power. After my student Corey had amazed me with his new chord progression, I sat next to him on the piano bench. "Corey, that was so wonderful, but what about the transition into those diminished chords. Can you think up a better fingering?"


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I-Hsiang Chao on Sunday, 29 September 2019 17:37

This is a very instructive and well-written article, and your readers can only be grateful of its illumination of the teacher’s fundamental duty; however I would like to point out that the Keveren anecdote may not be an apt illustration of the thesis. It may even be contradictory to it—the anecdote, as it seems to me, implies that a more extravagant, adventurous (and perhaps therefore “progressive”) aberration from whatever foundational musical syntax the student has assimilated in his or her early stage may risk being considered intellectual and ill-intentioned. Adams’ question to Keveren verges on an ethical blemish because his critique—at least what the article tries to show—is not about Keveren’s music itself but about academia (not to say the entire atonal compass can hardly be intellectually framed as a singular concept), intended to provoke clarification, more likely dismissal, of one’s relation to it. Thus confusing the means with the end—and that is an impression we never want to give upon our students; we do not want our students to believe that certain expressive ends survive only in a particular, institutionalized idiom, whether categorically tonal, atonal, jazz—that’s the opposite of encouraging students to pursue their own voice…

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This is a very instructive and well-written article, and your readers can only be grateful of its illumination of the teacher’s fundamental duty; however I would like to point out that the Keveren anecdote may not be an apt illustration of the thesis. It may even be contradictory to it—the anecdote, as it seems to me, implies that a more extravagant, adventurous (and perhaps therefore “progressive”) aberration from whatever foundational musical syntax the student has assimilated in his or her early stage may risk being considered intellectual and ill-intentioned. Adams’ question to Keveren verges on an ethical blemish because his critique—at least what the article tries to show—is not about Keveren’s music itself but about academia (not to say the entire atonal compass can hardly be intellectually framed as a singular concept), intended to provoke clarification, more likely dismissal, of one’s relation to it. Thus confusing the means with the end—and that is an impression we never want to give upon our students; we do not want our students to believe that certain expressive ends survive only in a particular, institutionalized idiom, whether categorically tonal, atonal, jazz—that’s the opposite of encouraging students to pursue their own voice…

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