Artist/Educator Archive Interview - Margaret Brandman
e regularly feature the personal experiences and insights of a noteworthy artist/educator on various aspects of piano performance and education. You may not always agree with the opinions expressed, but we think you will find them interesting and informative. The opinions offered here are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent those of the West Mesa Music Teachers Association, its officers, or members. (We have attorneys, too!). At the end of the interview, you'll find hypertext links to the interviewee's e-mail and Web sites (where available), so you can learn more if you're interested. Except where otherwise noted, the interviewer is Dr. John Zeigler.
PEP: What made you go into music?
I was raised in an environment surrounded by sound from the time I was conceived. Both sides of the family came from a European musical tradition. The five brothers and sisters in my father's side, plus my mother, formed a small ensemble accompanying my grandfather, who was a fine tenor. In the months before I was born my mother participated in music soirees and was taken to hear many concerts. Readers who have come across the research into hearing before birth by the great French 'audio-phono-psychologist', Dr Alfred Tomatis, will be aware of the findings, and realise why I start my musical journey even before birth! A teacher of accordion and piano, my mother filled the house in non-teaching times with music of all styles, from Beethoven Symphonies or Wagner Opera to her favourite popular singer, Frank Sinatra. From the age of two I was present in the room while she taught. She tells me that when I was asked at the age of two what I wanted to be, I already said 'a music teacher! '. I began learning the accordion at the age of 4 and the piano, which became my first love, at the age of seven. From her modest beginnings as an accordion teacher, she and my father built a large music studio, with many teachers and a shop which sold instruments. My life was surrounded by sound and guided by my ear; music became as natural a part of life as eating and sleeping. I soon found that I had a preference for writing my own music, plus an amazing thirst for reading and performing any music I could get my hands on.
PEP: Who was the most influential person in your years as a student of the piano and why?
My most influential piano teacher was Isador Goodman, whose special interests aligned with my own, and included the music of Bach, Chopin, Debussy, Ravel and Gershwin. Goodman had recorded many classical works for LP's, television and radio. He also played professional piano including jazz in high-class restaurant situations.
PEP: What do you enjoy most about making music?
To me making music is a joyous experience. When I toured England last year, my colleague Sarah Woodhouse with whom I'm co-operating on a music booklet for a UNICEF project, reflected my feelings exactly when she said "THERE ARE ONLY TWO UNIVERSAL LANGUAGES, MUSIC and SMILING! '. I enjoy being able to connect with people around the world, who are similarly into music as a civilising influence and a means of connecting with the spirit. I read recently that the old English word 'to dream' meant to 'make music'. Our Australian aboriginal culture also talks of the 'Dreaming', whose stories are told with song and dance.
There are many facets to music which are enjoyable..... I treasure the kinesthetic experience, the good feelings in the body when playing and listening to very rhythmic music such as Latin American music, the mental stimulation, the delicious sensations of aural 'tingling' when sensuous chords and harmonies are played, the vibrations traveling through my fingertips as I touch the piano keyboard (not quite the same on electric piano), the wonderful unspoken communication between musicians in ensemble situations, and the thrill of composition, both in the improvised sense and in the written situation. More and more, I feel that music that I write is simply channeled through me. When I compose in a relaxed state, the music simply flows, ready to be captured on tape or on paper.
As a teacher, I have always endeavoured to present music in an uncomplicated way and have been intrigued by the patterns presented by the keyboard layout. For instance, when you look at the position of the three black notes in A Major Scale, (3rd, 6th and 7th) degrees and compare them to the position of the three white notes in A Flat Major scale, you will notice that the positions are the same. Not only that, but the names of the three black notes in A Major Scale are F Sharp, C Sharp and G Sharp and the white notes in the A Flat Scale are F, C, and G. I enjoy watching my students have the 'aha' experience when they are able to crack the code of the music, and thereby learn more effectively. These codes include:
* seeing the spatial relationships of the notes, and being able to judge distance on the keyboard, for example, finding the hidden octave connections between changes of area
* seeing shapes, patterns and directions, which aid in co-ordination of the hands
* understanding harmonic structure so that the composers intentions can be better expressed, with a feel for the structure and cadences.
I also enjoy following the general progress of my young students through school, and seeing their overall progress in many fields improved through exposure to music and sound. For instance, parents have reported improvements in their child's mathematical abilities, motor control or language development. Individual music tuition given to children, who otherwise would only experience class situations at school, helps to build confidence, self esteem and effective use of out of school hours.
PEP: Is there a"best" way or "method" to learn to play? Any that should be avoided?
When I began teaching over 30 years ago, I used the 'Thompson Method', but quickly discovered that it had many traps - isolated note naming and finger numbers on every note, to name a few. I also noticed that students learning this way frequently had to look down at the keyboard to find the notes, as they were not relating them to the previous note. As a result, reading ahead and aural training were not at an optimum level.
Seeing the confusion and lack of progress experienced by students I taught using the traditional methods that I had been trained in, I began questioning the system. While still at university I began developing a more streamlined teaching system of my own, which was later published as 'The Contemporary Piano Method'. I use accelerative teaching techniques to impart many of the topics and thereby to achieve results in a smaller time frame than the traditional approaches.
In recent years, I used 'Mind Mapping' techniques originated by Tony Buzan, to design a colourful 'Course Overview' enabling me to see my whole course in a 'nutshell'. The Course Map also provides me with a 'free form' plan for my lectures. As with my course map, the aim in much of my teaching is enable the student to comprehend the whole view (gestalt) of a topic as soon as possible.
My materials begin with a simplified interval method, using terminology connected to physical actions, which helps to connect the aural, visual and tactile aspects of music. Students are encouraged to sing the pitches while they play, using this easy language, which in turn helps the development of inner hearing. The music presented moves away from the centre of the instrument very quickly using the C's as signpost notes, so that students see the 'Gestalt' view of the instrument and understand spatial concepts on the Grand Staff. The method moves on fairly swiftly to larger intervals, changes of area, transposition and playing in all twelve major keys as the groundwork for all future key, scale and chord work on the keyboard.
This holistic approach flows through the entire method, blending:
* aural work and written work for consolidation,
* classical and modern techniques,
* jazz harmony and figured harmony at the keyboard,
* music speed reading techniques in the written key, or transposed or in Clef,
* drawing the parallels between the common threads of classical and modern
music (popular, jazz and contemporary).
The aim is to offer the student professional music making skills in an easy fashion and beginning early, so they can be incorporated in a very gradual way, rather than being thought of as tertiary study material. Then in time, students can choose the musical direction that suits them best. That is: performing, composing, arranging, recording, teaching , classical, jazz, pop etc.
PEP: What "deficiency" in training or technique do you most often find in students of the piano?
There are several areas that need more attention:
1) Sight Reading/ Transposition
This can be addressed by taking a more pictorial view of the notes, and encouraging students to develop their sense of touch at the keyboard, feeling space and using the black notes as guide posts. This approach also relies heavily on the ear to guide and correct notes, rather than the eye to look at the keys.
It is important to know the harmonic structure of the piece, for security of performance, otherwise there is always indecision as to whether the sound produced is the one the composer intended.
3) Harnessing an Ongoing Rhythm
Generally students need help to translate the musical symbols to a rhythm that can be felt in the body and sustained throughout a piece. I use colour (attributed to Right Brain function) to help with the comprehension of note values and rests and active clapping skills which impart a 'body feel' to the note values.
Traditionally trained teachers often lack experience in improvisation and therefore do not have the skills to impart this information to their students. In trying to correct this imbalance, I include Improvisation, Composition, and Arranging (keyboard harmony) as part of my general course, enabling students to explore many creative options while developing a deeper appreciation of the music of the great composers, who themselves were oftentimes expert improvisers.
PEP: What would you advise students and teachers of the piano to avoid?
I would advise early grade students to avoid music in which the melody often skips from single hand to single hand frequently as this impedes the flow of the reading. Students have to break their concentration on the music line, to search for the beginning note of each section. At a more advanced level, these breaks in the music can be handled by realising the connections (distances) between the areas.
I would also advise musicians of all levels, to avoid music set out without proportional spacing. In older publications, typesetters worked with the concept of a certain 'm' space or 'n' space between the notes, not with the length of time each note would musically receive. As a frequent sight reader in professional situations, I can vouch for the fact, that if the music is spaced proportionally, and the eye can travel at an even pace, a more reliable reading of the rhythm will occur as a result.
PEP: What advice would you give to students of the piano?
My students find that they can sustain an interest in learning the piano, if they are aware of the elements of the pieces. Combining theory and ear-training is a good way to enhance these abilities. I know of too many students who have learned by rote 4 pieces per year, by listening to a tape of the music, or simply by memorising bar for bar. These students hesitate if given any new music to play as they do not have the study skills to teach themselves. My advice to a student would be to find a teacher who will put you on your own two feet, guiding you through the levels, but ensuring that in the end, you the student, can work out the music for yourself.
Make sure that you fully comprehend the sounds on the music, and only play the pieces if you understand the harmonic structure, whether it be the key and modulations only, or preferably writing in the chord(s) for each bar. This will aid your interpretation of the piece - where the tension and release is to be felt. It will also help to discover the shapes and patterns the composers use, so that you can decode the music more quickly, for both sight reading and general learning. For advanced pieces it is good to be aware of other musical devices beyond the Major/Minor system that composers may use.
PEP: What advice would you give to teachers of piano or music generally?
Be open to a cross pollination of styles, and realise that student's interest can be kept by including music of today in their repertoire.
PEP: What does it take to be a "successful" musician or music educator?
A love of music, a good ear, an ability to impart knowledge, a passion to convey music to the student/ listener, and inventiveness, so that individual problems can be solved on the spot. The aspect of teaching that keeps me interested is that even after teaching the same piece for some time, I often find another angle for a particular student so that I am continually learning the art of teaching.
PEP: Can you give us your reflections upon music as a career?
Music as a career is a very enjoyable way to spend one's life especially if you have a versatile training and can adapt to market forces at the time. In my own career, I have had to vary the emphasis on one aspect or the other, depending on the economic climate, and my status as either child-free (lots of performing and writing along with teaching), mother of young children (mainly teaching and writing, from my home studio), or now mother of older children (back to performing, lecturing, writing, recording and teaching).
PEP: What are your views on competitions and what should teachers and students expect from that experience?
From my perspective, I regard competitions (in this country we have many Eisteddfods) as performance opportunities. We have an examination system for grading students, so I encourage students to learn about performing by watching others and by competing themselves. However, competitions are not for all students. Others do better without the pressure.
PEP: What were your best and worst: teaching experiences, performing experiences
I would like to say that my best one-to-one piano teaching experiences occur almost every day when students arrive with pieces learned quickly and easily and, as a result of our lessons, are full of interest and fun. It is the every day experience that fires my own enthusiasm to continue teaching. One of the best class teaching experiences I've had was teaching composers and school teachers at Goldsmiths University of London in 1996. My worst teaching experience involved taking high school music classes, with a mix of abilities, some of whom should not have been enrolled in the classes.
One of my most interesting performing experiences was for concert of piano music composed and individually performed by twenty Australian composers at a major venue in Sydney.
PEP: What kinds of things can the teacher do to maintain the interest of children in piano in the face of all the distractions modern society provides?
Point out to parents and students, what most music teachers have known for many years - that music is a life skill that will stand you in good stead through all ages of your life. As I mentioned before, music skills can enhance many abilities in many non music related fields. (mathematics, language)
Activities such as sports may only be possible in the early and middle years of life, whereas it is possible participate in music well into the twilight years. Other aspects for maintaining interest in the piano include programming music that is relevant to the students interests, such as popular and jazz pieces, and organising duet playing or ensemble situations so that playing the piano is not regarded as a 'isolationist' art. The social aspect of music making is well-documented. My own child has found joining a band a wonderful way to make friends and we, as parents, know where he is - that is rehearsing with his band rather than roaming the streets.
PEP: Do you have a favorite pianist(s) and, if so, what attracts you to that person's performances?
I have several favourite pianists whose performances I enjoy. At last years European Piano Teachers Association conference in Manchester, UK, I had the pleasure of hearing two excellent performances, one by Argentinean pianist, Pia Sebastiani, and another by UK performer and music educator, John Peace. Sebastiani played a varied program including Bach and several Argentinean pieces. I was particularly attracted by the rhythms and harmonies in these pieces. John Peace has embraced the teaching and performing techniques of the late American educator Abby Whiteside. Whiteside recommends outlining a piece at the correct speed to achieve an aural picture of the piece, before filling in the detail, and works with developing a basic rhythm. John Peace's performances are extremely secure technically, but further to this, in my view, truly 'speak' to the listener.
Three other favourites are firstly, jazz pianist Bill Evans, whose music has been extremely influential in my own interest in jazz. Evans pioneered an individual harmonic style which is fresh any time one listens to it. I hear the influences of Chopin and Debussy in his work. Evans' own career included lessons in classical piano. I was fortunate to attend a concert given by Evans in New York in the late 1970's and to meet with him backstage. I like the way many musicians who play excellent improvised music can also demonstrate an ability to perform the classical repertoire with great depth. Keith Jarrett, the second of the Jazz pianists whom I admire, is one such performer Recently, I have also been listening to his superb recordings of the classics, including the Bach Well Tempered Clavier. The third of my favourite jazz pianists is Kirk Lightsey who frequently tours Europe and USA with the band ROOTS. Lightsey, who is now based in Paris, was for many years the pianist in Dexter Gordon's band. Kirk plays with an amazing energy and vitality. Following the aural tradition of many Jazz pianists, he is able to extract the most amazing sonorous harmonies and intriguing counterpoint lines from chord structures, especially in ballads.
There are many other pianists whose music I enjoy, and to list them all would take far too much space. So I will move on now to the next question.
PEP: What can we do as musicians to interest more people, children in particular, in good music?
Continue to educate more people in the art of music, so that they become informed listeners of concert music, even if they do not continue playing themselves. On this topic, I think it would be advisable to steer teenagers away from music with negative influences, such as heavy metal music with lyrics about suicide. Australia has recently banned air-play of any popular material with references to suicide, as we have a growing problem in this area with young males in the 16 to 24 year age group.
I think we as musicians and teachers would find it interesting to delve into the information now available on sound for healing and for relaxation or enhanced study ability. An example is music which promotes Alpha waves in the brain, for optimum relaxed concentration. The music recommended for this is the slow movements of the Baroque era, which move at 60 beats per minute (i.e. one beat per second). I have recently pondered on the synchronisation of this with the way we measure time and our connection to the rhythms of the planet. This is a whole area through which we can interest people in good music which makes you feel well.
PEP: What influences do you think music has for society in general?
It seems to me that one of the most striking uses of music has been for raising awareness for social and environmental causes. The protest against Vietnam at the Woodstock festival, the Feed the World campaigns, and the Rainforest concerts to name a few. In my view, music and all those who share in it have the opportunity to improve conditions in which we live.
In recent years I have come to the realisation that for me, music and healing cannot be separated. In a purely practical sense, this means when my student arrives at lesson feeling ill, s/he cannot study at the optimum level. If illness plagues a student's life, practice will be minimal, and progress very slight. I was fortunate to find an expert and caring Naturopath who educated my family in nutrition and simple ways to maintain my family's health. I pass on her 'sound' advice to my students, so that they too remain healthy and can maintain a continuity of practice and lessons.
As I mentioned earlier, making music itself is very healing, as there are various tones which affect our bodies in positive ways, and many pianists, particularly those who play an instrument in contrast to their field of work, find the emotional outlet that music provides a good way to relieve stress.
On the topic of healing with sound, in the Tomatis program, the music of Mozart and Gregorian chant is used with filtering to remove the low frequencies. By stimulating the ears to receive high frequency sound, the neurones in the brain are 'fired' up. As brain patterns change, they increase the efficiency of information processing and concentration.
As a life skill, particularly for those in the 'University of the Third Age' (elderly), playing the piano involves a motor skill which will keep on making new brain connections as you get older. I know of many active musicians in their 80's and 90's. Kendall Taylor (aged over 90) the well-known performer/teacher and editor of editions of Beethoven in the UK, recently performed two entire Beethoven Sonatas at a concert I attended at the European Piano Teacher's Association's International conference in Manchester, England. In Australia, last month, the 89 year old Stephan Grappelli performed in a concert in Sydney. The reviewer commented, "Clearly music gives him strength and indeed Grapelli seemed to grow in vigour as the evening progressed". So to students, parents and teachers, I would say, 'Play on' and enjoy all the benefits music can bring to enhance life and well-being.
You can pose your own questions to Ms. Brandman by e-mail to email@example.com. You can also visit Margaret Brandman's Music Home Page for more information about her, her methods, and her teaching and writings.
Last updated: 01/30/15