Pianos in Five-Part Harmony
by Aimee Young Hopkins,
Artistic Director, Aimee Art Productions
“Part four has the melody here so let it sing out,” advises David Cutter from his spot at a grand piano. “Again, measure 36.” And 5 pianists commence to play in 5-part harmony at the Steinway Store in West Hollywood early on a Sunday morning. Flashback to about 5 years ago when a colleague of mine approached me and introduced me to composer and music educator N. Jane Tan.
Raised by Chinese parents from the Philippines, and now based in Arizona, Ms. Tan has created a sequential series of books and music literacy materials designed to instruct students in an oral tradition begun with Beethoven, passed down to Bela Bartok and all the way to students today.
The technique focuses on hand gestures and wrist flexibility in order to enable pianists to get the most variety and beauty of sound out of the piano. “Shaping the phrase” is a term used commonly in the Tan teachings, which refers to beginning a section of Music with a downward wrist motion and circling the wrist like a smile downward, half circling upward and ending with the wrist to the sky. This way the sound tapers from loud to soft, from strong to gentle, like a sentence with a beginning, middle and end.
I started experiencing this technique first-hand a few years ago after having had my first child. I was overwhelmed with responsibilities of being a first-time parent, and yet wanting to continue challenging some of my piano students who were reaching new levels. Learning from another human being with live face-to-face lessons in an age-old oral tradition, though it was hard to find the time, seemed more pleasant and feasible to me than reading a book or watching a how-to video. Through patient coaching, first by Aaron Abraham and then by David Cutter, willing to go at my snail’s pace, I have just scratched the surface of all that this technique has to offer and to pass it on to my students.
Since our mission at Aimee Art Productions is to build self-esteem and literacy through the arts, and to teach the “whole child” – mental, emotional, kinesthetic, auditory, visual, verbal – my teachers and I will continue to use an ecclectic approach to music instruction – using the literature of Faber and Faber, Hanon, John Thompson, Hal Leonard, Bastien Alfred’s and a varied repertoire of musical literature from Mozart, Bach and Bethoven to the Beatles, Coldplay, Scott Joplin, Phillip Glass and Gershwin. We also encourage children and adults to read and write music of their own as they study the works and to compose for the entire range of the piano. And we will also incorporate Jane Tan’s teachings in what we do.
One of the most exciting and gratifying parts of N. Jane Tan’s work is the repertoire of music she has written for 5 pianos or 10 hands! The “Piano Teams,” as they are called, present a unique opportunity for pianists to play together with other pianists. Except when accompanying singers or in the rare case of getting to play piano with an orchestra, most pianists never get to experience the community of a musical ensemble. Jane Tan started a team in the Las Vegas area and now there are national Piano Teams Competitions.
David Cutter, local musician and teacher (and featured Teaching Artist of the month with Aimee Art Productions) has started a Piano Team here in Los Angeles this this past fall. Since Steinway had sponsored N. Jane Tan’s work in the past, he approached the Steinway Store in West Hollywood as a place to rehearse. Steinway is a company with a rich history in music education. The West Hollywood Store has withstood the pressures of 21st century commerce and maintained the Old World tradition of closing its doors to customers on Sundays and remaining open only for music educators. Their recital hall seats 45 people and their grand/pianos range in price from $3,500 to $350,000 or more. Their concert piano in the recital hall is magical to play and to hear.
Through the generosity of the Steinway store, our Teen Team and our Adult Team have been able to practice once a month at the store. In the weeks when they are booked for recitals, we’ve been able to rehearse at Pianos Wholesale in Temple City, another fantastic place run by Jack Herring and John and Ivan Tudor and a great place to purchase a used or new piano at a discounted price ranging from $2000 (or even less) to $12,000 (or even more.)
When we rehearse, we push the pianos together to face one another and follow the cues of our leader, in this case, David Cutter. If you are a teen or adult interested in joining, please let us know. David is also interested in forming a cadre of adult music educators and musicians who are interested in delving more deeply into this technique, perhaps attending national trainings, getting certified in the method, and even competing in national Piano Teams festivals with other teams.
We invite you to join us if you’re able at our upcoming concert on this Sunday, February 6th at 11:00am at the Steinway Store, 314 N Robertson Blvd. West Hollywood, CA 90048-2415.
Please RSVP to me at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can set up enough chairs. Concert is free and features our Teen Team with Aimee Art Productions student, Grace Rosenman, teacher David Cutter, and with me filling in on one part as well. Our adult team with AAP student, Emerson Picazo and teachers, David Cutter and myself. For me, it’s the first thing I have done for myself just for fun since having children, a chance to just enjoy music with other musicians. For our students it’s a chance to practice their technique, note-reading and ensemble work, and grow as musicians and as citizens of this world.
and thank you for building self-esteem and literacy through the arts!