Today we’re getting to speak with someone we’ve been hearing about for years, Forrest Kinney. He’s the author of the Pattern Play series of piano books which you might remember past guests Natalie Weber and Sara Campbell both mentioned as being fantastic for helping students get “off the page” and start to be more creative in their music-making.

He’s actually the author of 35 music learning books. He’s also a highly in-demand speaker, giving presentations on all the interesting things we’ll be talking about today, and still regularly performs, including dozens of private appearances at a certain billionaire’s house – stay tuned to hear about that.

In this conversation we talk about:

  • Forrest’s own musical beginnings and whether such a creative musician as himself credits talent for that creative success
  • The 4 Arts of Music that you can pick from and blend to find your own true identity as a musician
  • A creative way to approach music theory – and his opinion on scales that often gets him in trouble!

If you’ve ever felt like learning to play sheet music note by note just wasn’t the right fit for you as a musician, or you’ve felt the urge to create even though you don’t consider yourself “a creative”, you’re going to love this episode.

We should mention there were a couple of bits here where our connection got a bit patchy and you might hear a few short cut-outs – stick with it, they were very short sections and we don’t think they’ll affect how much you’ll get out of listening to this.

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Our interview with Forrest Kinney explores creativity in music, and the four ways through which you can express your musical ideas.



That was such a fun conversation. You can tell that Forrest has been true to this message of creativity in music for many years from the clarity has when he talks about it. There was a ton packed into that short conversation, so let’s quickly recap the big points.

Despite being such a well respected and hugely published music education thought leader, Forrest didn’t actually begin with a talent or a gift for music. In fact, he said it was a very painful experience for him early on because he didn’t start piano until he was sixteen, at which point his peers were already far ahead of him. His first recital was a particularly painful and embarrassing experience, he said.

Ultimately what enabled him to become the musician that he is today was in fact realizing that he had a musician in himself to become, and it wasn’t a matter of just following the path that had been laid out for him, memorizing classical repertoire and perfecting finger technique. It was a matter of returning to his original urge for music which was improvising and creating his own sounds at the keyboard. Once this clicked for him, he was easily able to translate all of the musical knowledge he’d accumulated over the years into something far more rewarding and valuable and ultimately build his career on it.

We talked a lot in this conversation about creativity and it’s important to keep in mind that you do not have to be “a creative” or “an artist” to create in music. In fact, everyone who picks up an instrument has the right and the ability to express their own ideas through music. We talked about Forrest’s “Four Arts” model, which lays out four different areas where you can express your own musical ideas. Interpreting music, meaning playing something that’s been written by somebody else, and bringing your own musical expression to it, is just one of those four ways, even if it’s the one that most of us fall into by default.

The other three are composing, arranging, and improvising. We talked a fair bit about improvising, and how it doesn’t have to be a great gulf between carefully playing prepared repertoire and magically creating amazing improvisations yourself. In fact, using methods like Forrest’s Pattern Play approach, you can give yourself clear building blocks to improvising. If you listen to our recent podcast episodes in Improv Month, you will have heard us talking about patterns as well as playgrounds and the idea of setting constraints for yourself as well as dimensions to explore. This is the way we teach improvisation at Musical U, and it’s a great match for Forrest’s Pattern Play approach, which gives you concrete building blocks for improvisation while still allowing you plenty of room to create your own musical ideas with them.

Composing, Forrest says, is analogous to writing, whether that’s emails or essays, and it requires you to put your thoughts in careful order and set them down in a particular form. Arranging, on the other hand, starts from a given musical idea such as a song or maybe just a melody, and then it’s up to you to improvise or compose the remaining pieces to create your own music based on that starting idea.

Although each of these four arts is distinct, you do not need to pick one of the four. In fact, every musician will have a blend of these four abilities, and it’s up to you which you most want to nurture and develop. I found it fascinating to hear how Forrest, despite being renowned particularly for improvising and for composing his Pattern Play books, is still dedicating large amounts of time to the interpreting part of his skill set, and I loved his explanation of how the four all feed into each other. Your improvising benefits from your interpreting, just as your arranging benefits from your composing, and so on.
Although analogies between music and language can sometimes be a stretch, I think this is one case where it works very well. None of us would doubt that learning to write well will help you speak more eloquently, nor, or learning to tell a story well out loud will help you when it comes to writing. The same is all true for those four arts of music.

As well as our innate desire to create, we as humans all have the desire to progress in our lives, and to know that we are moving forwards towards the goals that we set. I think that’s one reason why the standard music education (and I’m careful not to say “traditional” after Forrest set me straight on that one!) is so heavily structured around check boxes and yes/no right/wrong requirements because of this need for an easy, clear sign of progress in our music learning. There’s a lot to be said for that, but it is not necessarily compatible with this broader understanding of what it takes to be a musician, and in particular to be the kind of musician you want to.

For skills like improvising or composing, it’s much harder to say “was this right or wrong?” “Was it better or worse than what I did before?” But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Ultimately, that question of “am I happy with the thing I’ve created?” is the only one that needs to matter.

I couldn’t resist the chance to ask Forrest about two topics that often seem at odds with talking about more creative and free form ways to learn music. One of those is music theory, and I loved Forrest’s description of it as being at its best when it’s enabling creativity and providing options versus the more standard way of teaching it which focuses on reducing creativity and removing options.

When it comes to scales, he may get in trouble with the piano teachers for telling students they don’t need to endlessly run their scales up and down the keyboard, but I think his final demonstration of Pattern Play with that blues example was a great demonstration of what a scale can be: simply a set of notes that you use for a musical purpose.

Forrest is someone I’ve wanted to talk to for a long time, and this conversation was such a pleasure. I hope that you enjoyed it as much as I did, and I’m confident you’re going away with some fresh ideas, enthusiasm, and inspiration for finding the musician you want to be and tapping into your creativity, whatever that might mean for you. For more inspiration and insight from Forrest check out his website at

Thanks for listening to this episode! Stay tuned for our next episode where we’ll be talking about different types of scales and the musical flavours they can produce.

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