So, why Contemporary?

I've already written a lengthy post about what is contemporary piano. This time I'm going into the why.

There aren’t a lot of piano teachers who brand themselves as “contemporary” specialists. Some classical piano teachers will (reluctantly) teach ‘pop’ songs to their students but often with a traditional approach of printing off the sheet music and following the score with traditional note reading. I’ve heard stories of some teachers who refuse to teach pop at all. I’ve also heard other teachers refer to pop charts as “not real music,” as though its face-value simplicity diminishes the merit of contemporary tuition.

I must admit, when I was first faced with students who wanted to learn contemporary music, it challenged me at first. Teach you by rote? Teach without sheet music? What kind of sorcery is this? It really made me reflect on my own teaching and I realised I had to adapt pretty quickly otherwise these students would simply go to YouTube tutorials and I’d be out of a job.

Why I had to reflect at all is interesting. It’s true, I was taught from a young age by a traditional teacher who used traditional methods – Howard Kasschau tutor books, crotchets minims semibreves, Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit (don’t even get me STARTED on mnemonics!) And don’t get me wrong, I loved my lessons with my grandad and he was a very good teacher but let’s face it, he was old school. From there I went to study Classical piano at university, playing my romantic and impressionist loves - Chopin and Debussy and Ravel. And the saying goes that you teach the way you were taught. I simply expected my students would also have to experience - and enjoy, obviously - the classical canon of Bach and Mozart and arpeggios and scales played in thirds and reading from the stave because that is the “correct” way to play the piano.

But here’s the rub: since graduating, I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve ever been asked to play a sonata (spoiler alert: none). But contemporary style? It’s how I’ve managed to eke out an existence as a musician. Accompanying choirs, playing keys in a band, self-accompanying on cabaret shows have all required the ability to play contemporary keys.

Photo by James Stamler on Unsplash

No style exists in a vacuum. But contemporary playing does require a unique skill set. Contemporary keys is all about the rhythm and the harmony. It’s about being able to not only play in time but to create the time feel as well. It’s knowing how to invert your chords so that you can move through your progressions seamlessly. It’s about how to create a solid bass foundation over which to vamp your chords. It’s about developing an intricate understanding of keys and the relationship between chords so that when the singer you are working with asks you to play a tone higher, you can transpose at sight.

It’s less about the melody and more about the harmony which, for me at least, unlocks the mystery of music. If you can understand harmony, you can speak the language.

And don’t get me wrong, I still strongly believe in and advocate for traditional classical tuition, if mainly for the technique it develops. But I also think there’s a place for contemporary tuition which until recently has kind of been swept aside as the poor cousin. It’s “just chords.” It’s the style that doesn’t uphold staff notation as the be-all and end-all of music learning, as though being able to read music is of equal importance as being able to play music. The Beatles couldn’t read music. Neither could Eric Clapton. Or Lionel Richie. In my opinion, being able to read and interpret a chord chart is a skill, just like being able to read staff notation is.

So, with all this in mind, I reflected on the kind of playing I do, the kind of playing I teach, and the kind of teacher I want to be. This is why I’m embarking on a new chapter in the life cycle of my studio, opening it up to my brand new Contemporary Keys course. I’m really excited to be offering this course and I think you’ll get a lot out of it. Happy playing!

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