In this guest blog post, Lindsey Berwin, co-founder of Compose Yourself! explains how she, and her colleague, Alison Mathews, organised an online Piano Composition Festival to encourage young pianists to develop their musicianship, creativity and self-expression.
Compose Yourself! is a new and exciting online Piano Composition Festival, created by Alison and myself to reflect our passion for encouraging creativity in students from an early age. From many years of experience we are aware how beneficial composing can be, and in a variety of ways. For some pupils it provides a means of opening doors to self-confidence in a way that playing never has, and for all pupils it brings together different aspects of musical learning. It gives an opportunity to introduce important techniques in a creative way, those such as form and structure, transposition, use of motifs and their development, dissonance, harmony and ostinato, all contributing to the development of a complete musician.
Knowing your student
My approach to the introduction of composition, like Alison’s, depends on the particular students we are teaching. Some are natural explorers or improvisors, and others are less confident. Here are a variety of ways which we have found to be effective:
• For some, it is free exploration of the piano, often producing abstract pieces.
• For others, it is choosing a subject, such as an animal or a sport, and experimenting with ways to describe this musically.
These two methods are excellent for students to be able to experiment with the instrument’s tonal possibilities, and to choose which effects they feel work well. Use of different registers, glissandi and both pedals can make a myriad of descriptive sounds. A mysterious sound world of underwater or outer space has often been the result!
A third method which has proved to be especially effective for pupils who are less confident is to provide a structure:
• Using a certain piece that they have played, or a particular style, as inspiration. The latter could be, for example theme and variations, minimalism, jazz or even fugue for an extremely able pupil!
• Basing the piece on one or more scales, for instance the pentatonic, blues, whole tone, chromatic and modes.
• Creating a storyline to act as a framework.
Feedback and encouragement
Alison and I both regularly entered many pupils for the annual European Piano Teachers’ Association Composers’ Competition, happy to give them an opportunity to receive constructive feedback from an eminent adjudicator. The recent demise of this event has left a gap in the world of young pianists’ composition, so we decided that we would like to fill it. As a result, we are delighted to be launching this new online festival, which we aim to run as an annual event.
Instrumental and classroom teachers
Both of us very much hope that other teachers and their pupils will choose to take part, as it will provide the perfect opportunity for all young pianists to be involved in composing as part of their learning journey, promoting creativity, musicianship and self-expression. It could perhaps be a goal for those learning how to compose for the piano in a classroom setting, as well as for those receiving individual lessons? Indeed I am delighted to have discovered that a head of a school music department is encouraging pupils to enter the festival as a project for lockdown!
Involving contemporary composers
Compose Yourself! will include both competitive and non-competitive classes, and each entrant will receive an encouraging comment sheet from the composer June Armstrong, this year’s adjudicator, along with a certificate. One particularly exciting aspect of the festival is the involvement of a wonderful group of leading contemporary composers. All entrants will receive a piece of music specially written by one of these composers to suit their performance level. We hope that this will help inspire pupils to continue composing and is an extension of the idea of sharing music-from student to published composer.
Sponsorship and support
We have also been very fortunate to have the support of publishers in giving music as prizes, such as Faber and Trinity College London, and the generous sponsorship of The European Piano Teachers’ Association.
Compose Yourself! information
The Compose Yourself! website has articles and free printable resources to support teachers wanting to introduce composition to their pupils in a simple and engaging way. For more information on how to enter and to register your interest please visit the dedicated Compose Yourself! website.
Lindsey grew up in Cardiff and Leeds and then spent four years studying at the Royal Academy of Music. After a brief period of working as a classroom music teacher, she decided to refocus on piano teaching. Since then, she has followed this path, together with that of performing, amassing some thirty-five years of experience. In 2002 Lindsey became employed by Queen Elizabeth Grammar School and Wakefield Girls’ High School, where she continues to have a busy and thriving teaching practice.
Lindsey has become well known for her innovative approaches to improving key skills whilst maintaining enjoyment for her students. She is the composer of FunKey! a series of books designed to improve piano students’ sight-reading skills using jazz based material and Jazz Keys, its counterpart, for flute. In 2017 her suite of piano pieces entitled, All the Fun of the Fair, suitable for intermediate and advanced students, was published. This was followed in 2018 by a set of advanced pieces entitled Vignettes, and then by Jazzagility! a series of graded piano technique books in the jazz idiom.
Alison is a pianist, composer and teacher with a thriving private teaching practice in Surrey. After graduating from the Royal College of Music, she went on to complete a masters’ degree at Surrey University with the philosophy of music at the heart of her studies.
Alison’s interest in composition grew out of a desire to provide her students with imaginative music to play that would give them the opportunity to explore the full range and sonority of the piano whilst exploring different techniques. Her published work includes a varied portfolio of educational books, such as Doodles 1 and 2 and Treasure Trove, as well as commissions from ABRSM, Trinity College London and Breitkopf & Härtel. Alison has also had works included in the exam syllabi for ABRSM and RIAM and has contributed to several anthologies.