Today we have the honour of talking with one of the top authors of piano books over the last nearly 35 years: Dennis Alexander.
With over 400 publications and recordings on Alfred Music, including Alfred’s flagship piano method Premier Piano Course, Dennis is one of the world’s most prolific and popular composers of educational piano music for students at all levels. In 2015 he was awarded a “Lifetime Achievement Award” by the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy in recognition of his extraordinary service to the music teaching profession.
Mr. Alexander provides a rich learning experience for his students by bringing awareness to the importance of musicality. Often dull topics like music theory and reading notation are brought to life with a creativity and a consciousness of musical expression.
In this conversation we talk about:
- How Dennis’ background in playing by ear and improvising feeds into how he approaches composing.
- The main difference between children and adult learners and one great way to make learning more enjoyable and improvisation less intimidating if you’re an adult learner.
- And the specific aspects which to keep in mind to bring your music from strictly-correct but unmoving through to a compelling, musical performance.
Enjoy this glimpse into what makes one of the top piano methods much more than just “playing the right notes at the right time”. Even if you’re not a piano player, you don’t want to miss all of the deep musical insight in this interview!
Watch the episode:
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Dennis: Hi. My name is Dennis Alexander, and I am one of the coauthors of Alfred’s Premier Piano Course, and welcome to Musicality Now.
Christopher: Welcome to the show, Dennis. Thank you for joining us today.
Dennis: Thank you. Happy to be here.
Christopher: It’s been really great getting a chance to talk with you a little bit by email in advance of the interview, and learn a bit more about your own back story before you began this very successful publishing career. I wonder if we could share a little bit of that with our audience? How did you first get started in music and with piano?
Dennis: Well, I grew up in a very tiny little town in southwest Kansas. My father was a farmer, and it was a little town of 200 people. I was very, very fortunate to have a fantastic first teacher. I was seven years old when I began. I actually was inspired to want to learn how to play the piano from watching a very popular TV show at the time. Now, this was back in the early ’50s. And I was, as I mentioned, seven years old. And my family and I, every Saturday night, watched the Lawrence Welk Show.
Dennis: And my favorite performer on the show was a wonderful woman, big blonde hair. She was a honky-tonk piano player. Her name was Jo Ann Castle. And every time she walked on stage during this show and sat down to play, she looked like she was having so much fun, and she just was bouncing all over the piano bench, and just playing a hundred miles an hour, and just having a ball. And I just said to myself right then and there, “If it’s that much fun to play the piano, that’s what I want to do when I grow up.”
Dennis: So I asked my parents for lessons, and they found this wonderful teacher. And one of the nicest things that she did for me as a beginning level student was to sit down next to me at every lesson, and she just made up, she improvised wonderful little duet accompaniments to go along with my simple little pieces. And it was always so motivational and inspiring to me. And that’s really where my career as a pianist began, with a teacher who just made music so much fun, and inspired me, through her wonderful, creative ability to play by ear and improvise.
Christopher: Fantastic. I’m so pleased to hear that. We often have guests on the show who have a story that starts like yours, “I saw a great performer and it was inspiring and that looked exciting,” and then they get into the lessons and it does not live up to that image. It sounds like you did find the piano was fun?
Dennis: Absolutely. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for my first piano teacher. She’s the one that really instilled a love of music in me, and got me going.
Christopher: Fantastic. And so, you were seeing her play by ear and improvise. Was she explaining to you how that worked as well? Was that part of your learning at that stage?
Dennis: No. No, it wasn’t. She just did it. Back in those days, we didn’t have these wonderful little teacher accompaniments that we have in today’s laying method books, where the secondo part is written out, or the teacher’s part’s written out for the teacher to play. And I was lucky that she had that ability back then, and it was always very impressive to me. She never talked about it. She just did it. And it just made my lessons so much more fun.
Dennis: But I realize, when I look back on those early level lessons, that what she was really teaching me was a number of things. First of all, music never stops. You keep going, no matter what. If you make a little mistake, you keep plowing right through the score until you get to the end. She taught me to listen, be very aware of sound. She was teaching me a very, very good basic rhythmic foundation. She was also teaching me keyboard choreography, if you will, which is basically having good posture, learning how to play artistically, expressively, and when you get to the end of a piece, you’ll float up slowly, or you might come off the keys with great vigor, depending on the character or the style of the music.
Dennis: So, by doing those duets with me in the beginning year of lessons, I learned an awful lot about just playing artistically, playing musically, and I learned that playing the piano involves the whole body, as well as the eyes, the mind, the feet. Everything goes together.
Christopher: Fantastic. And how long did you learn with that teacher?
Dennis: I was with her for about three years, and then she moved me onto another teacher who had a little bit more advanced training. And then, from eighth grade all through high school, I studied with a fabulous teacher. At the time, she was a nun who taught at St. Mary of the Plains College in Dodge City, Kansas, which was about 40 miles away from my hometown. So my parents drove me one way, 40 miles, every week for lessons. And her name was Sister Agnes Therese. And she was just a top-notch teacher.
Dennis: Then from there, I went to the university, and pursued a degree in piano performance.
Christopher: And I believe you were performing out and about during those university years. Is that right?
Dennis: Absolutely. Yes. In fact, my whole career, actually, when I went to the university, the only thing I thought about doing was performing and teaching. I had a performance degree, and then I got a job at the University of Montana, in Missoula, Montana. I taught there for 24 years. And it wasn’t until about 10 years … No, excuse me. Actually 14 years into my university teaching that I became involved with Alfred Music publishing, as a composer. It was strictly by chance. Maybe serendipity, if you will. I never planned on ever being a composer. I was strictly a teacher, performer, and I was very, very happy doing that.
Christopher: Well, you’re going to have to tell that story, because I’m sure everyone listening or watching is wondering, “How can you possibly not intend to become a composer, and then one day suddenly become one?”
Dennis: I know, it’s very funny. I would never have dreamed, when I was in college, that I would someday be making a living as a composer of educational materials. It was the furthest thing from my mind. But how that happened, in a nutshell, was that one of the coauthors of Alfred’s Basic Piano Library, which was a very popular course in the ’80s. It came out around 1980. And by 1985, ’86, it was really taking off. And one of the coauthors was a friend of mine. Her name was Amanda Vick Lethco. And Amanda asked me, when she was visiting in Missoula, Montana, once, if I would consider helping she and Willard Palmer market the method to teachers.
Dennis: And I was very reluctant at the time, because nobody really knew me as a clinician. I was simply teaching at the university, and very, very happy with what I was doing. Very, very busy. But I finally agreed to meet with Morty Manus, who was another coauthor of that course, who was the president of Alfred Music publishing. And I flew out to Burbank, California, where the offices were located, met with Morty, and he talked me into being a clinician that following summer.
Dennis: And during that particular first summer of giving workshops, he and his wife, Iris, came to a presentation I was giving, and after the workshop, we had lunch. Over lunch, he asked me, he said, “Dennis,” he said, “We’d really like to have some duet books to correlate with the method, and we think it would give you more credibility as a clinician if you had something published. Would you please write those books for us?”
Dennis: And my mouth kind of fell open, and I said … Yeah, I said, “Morty,” I said, “I’ve never written a thing in my life.” And he said, “Really?” He said, “Well, why not?” I said, “Frankly,” I said, “Because no one’s ever asked me to, and I’m a performer, a teacher. Very happy with what I do. I’ve just never thought about writing music.” And he said, “Well,” he said, “Why don’t you give it a whirl?” And I agreed. I just stuck my neck out. I somehow knew in the back of my mind that I could do this, because I had a top piano pedagogy at the university for several years. I knew the materials that were out there. I knew what might be needed.
Dennis: I also thought it was rather ironic that I was being asked to write duets for my first composition job, so to speak, because it was through duets when I was a beginner that really got me into the love of music. So I thought, “Well, this is kind of a natural thing to have happen to me.” So I wrote the duet books that correlated with Alfred’s Basic Piano Library. They ended up being very successful. And, from that moment on, Morty Manus needed to have more solo collections, and that’s where my career began as a composer. And I was very fortunate that I happened to have the background in playing by ear. I could improvise. I loved all kinds of music. When I was in college, I actually played in a nightclub every weekend, took requests. I could play, as I mentioned, play by ear, and improvise. So that was all very, very useful for me as I began this new career in composing educational teaching materials.
Dennis: I never studied composition in college. Of course, I had a very good background in theory, and in aural perception and counterpoint. But I never really took composition classes.
Christopher: Interesting. And you’ve answered a little bit the question I was about to ask, which was: how could you know you would be up to the task of composing these duets? And, I suppose, in a sense, when you’re composing educational materials, there are boundaries laid out for you, right, in terms of the kind of-
Christopher: … technique that needs to be covered and the ability level of the student and so on? But at the same time, you’re staring at a blank piece of paper, and you’ve got to decide what notes to put on that page.
Christopher: You’ve mentioned playing by ear and improvisation there. It was something you saw your teacher do early on. You did it in the intervening years. And then when it came to composing, it sounds like that was helpful for you. How did those skills come into being for you? Was it something you worked on over the years? Was it something that was just naturally a part of your musicianship from the beginning?
Dennis: It was pretty much a natural part of my musicianship. I think when I was growing up, my parents loved music. And they were always playing music in our home, on the phonograph. They loved Ray Conniff, they loved Percy Faith, they loved all the big band sounds. And I would hear these pieces, and then I would go to the piano and figure out how to play them. I just had this kind of a natural ability, I think, to hear the harmonies, hear the melodies. I had probably an innate sense of rhythm. And it just was fairly easy for me to do this.
Dennis: So, I was probably a little unusual when I was in college as a classical pianist, because most of my friends who were also majoring in piano performance could not play Happy Birthday without the music in front of them. But I was lucky in that sense that I could improvise. I could play by ear. It gave me all kinds of opportunities to literally pave our way through college by having those particular skills.
Dennis: So, when it came time for me to jump into being a composer, it was kind of a natural process. I just had this feeling that I could do this, and it ended up being great fun for me. And I’ve been fortunate to enjoy a really successful career as an educational piano composer.
Christopher: Absolutely. And I think what first made me keen to get you on the show was, in your Premier Piano Course, the way you tackle theory is particularly interesting. But before I dive into asking you about that, maybe you could just talk about that Premier Piano Course that’s kind of the flagship program with Alfred?
Dennis: Well, the Premier Piano Course has been a very successful venture. When we first started this course, there are five of us involved in putting the course together. Me, along with Martha Mier, who’s another well-known educational composer who writes for Alfred. We are the two people who wrote all the music for the course. And then we had a piano pedagogy team, which consisted of E. L. Lancaster and his wife is Gayle Kowalchyk. And Gayle has been my music editor for many, many years. And Vicky McArthur, who was on the faculty at Florida State University in Tallahassee.
Dennis: So they were the pedagogy team. Martha and I were the composers. And how the process worked was that they would put together a basic foundation for each level. They would draw up the pedagogical aspects that they wanted to cover. They would send Martha and I basically blank sheets of paper and it would say, “On page four, write a eight measure or 16 measure piece that uses these particular pedagogical elements.” And Martha would write her piece. I would write my piece. She lived in Florida. I lived in New Mexico. Neither one of us had any idea what the other person was writing. But it gave the pedagogy team twice as much material to examine and work with.
Dennis: But the course took about a good 12 years, I think, to put together. We spent three years working on book one before it was ever released, and with many, many, many revisions, being tested with young students. And also, we had a teacher focus group that we worked with that gave us lots of input on what they’d like to see in a new piano method. So it was a real labor of love, for sure.
Christopher: And, if you can think back to that time, what were the main things you were hearing about what would set this new course apart? What were you hearing from the teachers that they were dissatisfied with in the method books?
Dennis: Yeah. One of the things that the teachers really wanted was a new course from Alfred that did not have students playing in positions. The old, the Alfred’s Basic Piano Library was a very position-oriented course. The music was entertaining. It was excellent. But the teachers wanted something very different. And so-
Christopher: So sorry. For people who aren’t familiar with the keyboard pedagogy, what do you mean by “position-based” there?
Dennis: Students were taught, for instance, if they started a piece, it might be in a C position, so if the students would put their hands on a keyboard, and they would be in this position. If it was a G position course, they might be in that position. G major triads in both hands. Basically, in a nutshell, that’s kind of what a position-oriented course is.
Dennis: So when we did the Premier Express … or Alfred’s Premier Piano Course for children, we completely got away from any type of position-oriented program, and students were taught that the thumb could go on C or it could go on E or it could go on G, and we never associated any particular finger with a given note. So that was a big change.
Dennis: We also introduced rhythm in patterns, and that was a rather unique approach in the Premier Course. So we found that when students saw a group of notes, or a group of rhythm patterns, and then they would see the same rhythm patterns in their music that followed that introduction, they tended to read across the page easier. They would see maybe a whole major or two majors at a time, rather than just seeing an individual note and reading that way.
Dennis: So that, I think, has been a very, very wonderful aspect of the course. We also used what we called music links, learning links, in the children’s course, which linked all kinds of things, dealing with history, science, technology, bits of information that would go along in the theory books that made learning theory a little more fun, or a little more universal, so that students were not just learning about music, but they were learning things about architecture, history, art. All of those aspects that bring, I think, all different aspects of music together to complete a whole musician, so to speak.
Christopher: Got you, yeah. And that’s what stood out to me, I think, was the theory, the way the theory books were much richer than one might assume. For my own part, growing up, the piano method books taught you technique and repertoire, so it was basically just pieces and scales. And then separate from that, you had your theory book, which was a very abstract, intellectual explanation of concepts in music theory. Talk a little bit about the theory books in the Premier Course and how they’re a bit different from that?
Dennis: Well, in the theory books, we’ve introduced, for instance, all kinds of, as I mentioned, the learning links. We have all kinds of little games that students can play, that’s all music-related. But instead of just having them draw out their letter names, for instance, the musical alphabet, they could do them in many different ways, incorporate little crossword puzzles, or little musical stories where they learn the musical alphabet through a story. And just lots of different little ways of bringing theory alive without it being so regimented and so black and white, so to speak.
Christopher: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Even to the extent of including, I believe, ear training and composition exercises in there alongside the theory. Is that right?
Dennis: Yeah. We encourage students to improvise a little bit all the way through the course, in both the lesson books and the theory books. We want them to understand that music is exploring. It’s getting out of the box. And it involves much more than just playing the right notes at the right time. But it’s the ability to eventually put your personality into your performance. And I think the more different ways that a child learns theory and that it involves being creative instead of just playing a chord progression like this, they might want to play it with different rhythms, different patterns, and just, again, have more fun with the process.
Christopher: So I’m always amused when I talk to music educators who work with children, because they’re so quick to talk about games and fun and enjoyment and keeping the student engaged, and that’s stuff we so rarely hear about in the adult world, and particularly for the adults in our audience who would be trying to teach themselves from books or going on YouTube. We all tend to take it so seriously. And I know you have adult beginner students yourself, so I was really keen to ask you, how do you work with those adult beginners? Or, how are you able to adapt to these ideas from the Premier Piano Course to the adult learner?
Dennis: Well, I’m so happy that we now have what’s called Premier Express books, which come in four levels, which combine … It’s an all-in-one method that combines some of the best aspects of our performance books, our lesson books, our technique and our theory. And we’ve taken out, in those books, the little pictures that are very appealing to children, not so appealing to adults or teenagers. And although the Premier Express books work very nicely for, say, a very sharp, quick eight year old, they can be worked, or used, very, very easily with teenage beginners, certainly with adult beginners.
Dennis: And now, at this stage in my life, I’m only working with adult students. I’ve taught children my whole life, and I’ve taught university students, performance majors. I feel lucky that I’ve had such a wide range of teaching experiences. But, because my schedule is a little chaotic at times, I feel like teaching children doesn’t make sense for me like it used to, because I travel quite a bit, and my adult students are a little more aware of the flexibility that I need as well as they need. So, working with adults is a very happy project for me in this stage of my life.
Dennis: Adult students are very, very different from young students. Adults tend to be very hard on themselves. They’re very self-critical. They sometimes, they want to sound like Liberace after five lessons. So they’re a bit impatient. Children tend to just dive into it and they’ll do whatever you want them to do, and adults are more inquisitive, which I love. They want to know why we do certain things, and why they call it the one chord, why they call it the four chord.
Dennis: And one of the nicest things about the Premier Express books is that they come with what’s called T&T 2 software, which they can download on their laptop, or desktop. It’s easiest on the laptop, because then what they can do with this T&T 2 software is use four different versions of sound files that go along with the music that they’re learning in their course. So they can play their pieces with a general MIDI orchestrated accompaniment, or they can play along with just an acoustical piano version.
Dennis: But there’s four options for them to use when they’re going through the course, and it makes the whole practice routine much more fun. They’re going to be much more apt to play it with the right rhythm. They’ll hear a good role model for what the piece should sound like on acoustical piano. They’ll have the opportunity of playing with the band, so to speak.
Dennis: So it gives our students all of these options to work with when they’re at home practicing. And of course, we all know that it’s at home where all the habits start, and if the student has this option of listening to the pieces that they’re working on, it just makes the whole process so much more fun.
Dennis: Can I show you just one little example from the very beginning of the series?
Christopher: Please do, yeah.
Dennis: Where they’re learning to play on just the black keys? Can you see Hey Rock ‘n’ Roll Man?
Christopher: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Dennis: Okay. In the course, the students will have the option of bringing up these accompaniments. Through the T&T 2 software, they can choose whichever these they might want to work on. But first this little piece starts students off on just the black keys. One of the nicest things about starting off on the black keys is that there is a lot of wonderful tunes that can be played on just those five notes. We have those five notes. And if they were to play this little piece, Hey Rock ‘n’ Roll Man, with the accompaniment, it’s going to sound like this. They’ll hear a little two bar introduction of rhythm pulse, and then they’ll begin to play. I’ll put it all together, it’ll sound like this. As simple as that.
Dennis: But what I like to do in my lessons is I like to have them, right off the bat, get used to improvising their own little melodies along with the background accompaniment. So I might, for instance, do something like this. See if they can go something like … Pretty simple. Very, very basic pattern. But it’s fun and it’s all on the black keys.
Christopher: Fantastic. And for those in our audience who wouldn’t be familiar with the theory, can you explain why the black keys are a good starting point?
Dennis: Well, for one thing, when you rest your hand with fingers two, three and four, on the three black keys, and you have your thumb and your fifth finger on the white keys, it forms a very natural and beautiful hand position. We have a nice little arch in the hand, and this is exactly what we want to see when students are playing the piano. But mostly, there are so many tunes that students know, folk tunes or Negro spirituals. In fact, almost all Negro spirituals are pentatonic melodies that can be played on the black keys.
Dennis: So for instance … Okay? Things like … So it’s very easy for beginning level students to get acclimated to melodies if they can play those just on the black keys, okay? Then we move from there very, very quickly into reading on the staff. But we have anchor notes, so we teach first reading skills through anchor notes. For instance, D is right between the two black keys, so that’s easy to find on the keyboard. And G and A are other anchor notes that are right between the three black keys.
Dennis: So just by starting on the black keys, it helps to form a really strong, I think, reading foundation. But mostly, becoming aware of melody and improvising.
Christopher: That’s wonderful. And I think that gives us a glimpse of how improv can be part of their learning from such an early stage. How do you think about improvisation? I ask because we’ve had various people on the show who improvise, or who specialize in teaching improv, and there’s such a variety of ways people approach it. How do you approach it in your teaching?
Dennis: In my teaching or in my composing?
Christopher: I’d be curious about both.
Dennis: Well, in my teaching, what we just demonstrated was one way. Another way is, if I have a student playing a simple piece. Let’s say it was a piece that had a simple melody, a very simple left hand. For instance, let me just play something short just as an example. Let’s say they had this simple little piece they have just with the left hand, simple melody in the right hand. I might have them look at that score and see if they can make up their own melody based on that foundation of what they see.
Dennis: For instance, this could be, instead of … sort of stuff like that, I might ask them to see if they could use different rhythms and keep that same general outline. But I just take what they see. I think it’s easier for students to learn how to improvise if they see something printed on the page, and then use that as a vehicle for adding more to it. Some adult students, especially, are very inhibited when it comes to something by ear, or something that they’ve never seen on the page. But if they’re comfortable with a piece that they’ve learned, then expanding on that piece and showing them how they can use the same basic melody but add new rhythms to it, or putting in passing tones, neighbor tones, whatever, so that they create their own piece from that example, I think is a good way to start that improvisation process, especially with adult students.
Dennis: So I like to have them improvising on black keys. I like to have them improvising in a five finger position. Sometimes that might just be taking three notes and using those three notes so that they’re not feeling like it’s too complicated as far as the range of the melody goes. It all kind of depends on the adult and the student. You can tell almost immediately what kind of adults are going to be more apt to branch out faster with improvisation, or ones who need to have a very, very conservative start in improvisation.
Christopher: I see. And is that about their abilities or their mindset, would you say, that difference?
Dennis: It’s both. It’s their ability. It’s their personality. It’s their mindset. Yeah. Every student is different, and I’ve had adult beginners who are just so quick to pick up, and eager to improvise, and then I’ve had adult students who I have to just work really hard to get them to play, or to feel confident enough, to play even five finger melodies that are not written out for them.
Dennis: They’re all so different, which is what, I think, makes teaching fun.
Christopher: Great. And you mentioned there that improvising is very closely tied to composing for you as well, and then we talked about how it was, maybe, one of the reasons composing didn’t seem as intimidating as it might seem to other people. Could you talk a bit about how those two relate and how you use improvising when it comes to composing something new?
Dennis: Well, when I start to compose something, first of all, I sometimes like to start off with a rhythmical idea. It kind of depends on the style that I’m going to write in. If it’s a fast piece, I like to have some kind of a rhythmical idea first, although there are times when I find that having a good melody line first works better. So it works both ways.
Dennis: For instance, if I were going to write something that I knew was going to teach students how to play first inversion chords with a little more success, and they were playing … Those are your first inversion chords that they might be doing in the right hand. So I might improvise for a minute and just play around for a few minutes until I hear something that makes sense to me, that I think a student might like.
Dennis: For instance, one of my biggest hits for intermediate level students is a piece called Toccata Brilliante, which uses those … in fact, those exact chords. But it goes down the hill. So it’s very catchy. It has just broken octaves in the left hand, but the right hand is all over the keyboard, but it keeps their hand in that same position, so it feels good in the hand. It’s very, as we call it, pianistic. And, as a composer of educational materials, that’s primary consideration. It’s got to feel good in the hand. And I like to write pieces that sound harder than they really are. Teachers love that and students love that, too.
Dennis: But, for instance, that’s just one example. If I’m going to compose something that’s very lyrical, of course, then melody comes first. You’ve got to have a good melody if the piece is going to work. I recently came out with two new books of nocturnes for piano. That Romantic style is probably my favorite style to write in. So I wanted to write pieces that would help prepare students for the beautiful nocturnes by Chopin, and these two new books that just recently came out have been very, very successful, and it seems that teachers are loving them a lot.
Dennis: But, of course, those are all very melodic pieces. So in that sort of situation, I would improvise a short melody that makes sense to me, and then I’m hearing the harmonies in my head, really, underneath those melodies. And then, I’ll sketch it out. I’ll get something started. And once I get a start, then it takes off.
Christopher: Terrific. And you mentioned there you were composing these two books of nocturnes, and actually, there’s some wonderful videos on the Alfred Music site of you demonstrating these and talking through them a little bit.
Dennis: Oh, you’ve seen those?
Christopher: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Christopher: I’m sure some in our audience would be curious to know, how does one sit down and say, “I’m going to compose a bunch of nocturnes”? And you have this wonderful book called Keys to Stylistic Mastery, which actually kind of approaches the topic of, what does it mean to write or to play something from the Baroque era versus the Classical? Could you talk a little bit about that book and how it works?
Dennis: Sure. The Keys to Stylistic Mastery, that’s an older book. There are three, actually. Three volumes of those books. I have to give my friend, Ingrid Clarfield, primary credit for those books. They were really her idea. Ingrid is a fabulous teacher, and she has had award-winning students at all levels for many, many years. She teaches at Westminster Choir College, and is a very well-known, a nationally-renowned teacher, and often gives presentations at our national conferences and state conferences. But she wanted to have a series of books that would demonstrate to students all of the various stylistic elements that go into a piece of music.
Dennis: So what we did in the Keys to Stylistic Mastery, we put together a repertoire of original, that I wrote, as well as a standard teaching repertoire, that emphasized the various styles of each period. So we have pieces in Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Impressionistic and Contemporary styles. And, as I mentioned, there are three books available, and the very first book is basically kind of late elementary to early intermediate. The second book is intermediate repertoire. And the third book is late intermediate repertoire.
Dennis: But the nicest thing about the books is that we have all of these stylistic elements that go into each style period, and we show them at the beginning of each section, in each stylistic section, how they’re different. For instance, in the Baroque period, we have aspects of technique, dynamics, texture, pedaling, rhythm, harmony, ornamentation, that’s unique to that style period.
Dennis: And then we get into the Romantic style, and we show in the book how those same elements are quite different. So that’s basically the gist of those collections. They’ve been very well-received by teachers. In fact, a lot of pedagogy programs throughout the country are using those books as part of the required reading for their college students, so that when they go out to teach, they’ll have a better understand of style in each period.
Christopher: That’s fantastic. Yeah. And, I mean, obviously these books are piano-specific, but it’s one of those things where once you see it, you wonder why all books of repertoire don’t do this kind of thing, because it’s so valuable, I think, to introduce the student to those mental frameworks for understanding, “Oh, okay. These are the things that happen differently with rhythm between these different eras.” Or, “Here’s what sets apart the ornamentation of the Baroque versus the Classical or Romantic.” And I so enjoyed looking through that book in particular, just because it is so clear for the reader how they could be thinking about these pieces, both to listen and to perform.
Dennis: Absolutely. Absolutely. I do have examples from the books, if you’d like to share those with your audience?
Christopher: Fantastic. Yeah.
Dennis: That’s book one, Keys to Stylistic Mastery. Because I have my … label on the front because I take it to work. I have to make sure I get home with it. But that’s what the cover looks like, and you can see the different style periods there on the cover. And then, inside, you’ll see printed here, the Baroque period, and this is the left side of the page, where we show elements of melody, rhythm, harmony. And then, on the right side there, we have other elements of style. Tempo, texture, of course, we talk about counterpoint and how that’s frequently used, with each voice being equally important. Technique, dynamics, expression, ornamentation, and peddling.
Dennis: So those are the basic elements that we show within each style period. And, as the books progress in difficulty, by level three, they’re going to be more detailed information underneath each of those basic categories. This is a little example of a piece in the Impressionistic period that I wrote, and this is in book one of Keys to Stylistic Mastery, called The Lonely Sparrow.
Dennis: It’s very, very difficult to find easy impressionistic pieces. Debussy and Ravel didn’t ever do this. But for younger students, when they’re needing to learn about style, there’s no reason why they can’t learn some of these elements of Impressionistic music. And, on this little piece, it’s only a one page piece, but it uses the whole tone patterns. It uses lots of long pedaling. Could I play just a little bit of this for you?
Christopher: Please do.
Dennis: That’s a very, very simple piece. You could almost teach this piece by rote, actually, because it has those nice little patterns that repeat in different registers of the piano. So it’s a piece, I think, that very effectively shows, at a late elementary level, the aspects of Impressionistic style. And these are the things that we wanted to share with teachers and students when we wrote these books together.
Christopher: Wonderful. I so admire the clarity of the framework you’re equipping students with there, and this jumped out at me, too, with another book I believe you wrote with Ingrid, which was Keys to Artistic Performance, where again, you lay out this framework for thinking about, as you referred to earlier, how to go from just playing the right notes at the right time to something more musical. Could you just give us a quick idea of how that book works?
Dennis: Okay. Those books came out about five years later. I believe the Keys to Artistic Performance books came out around 2008, whereas the Keys to Stylistic Mastery, I believe, were around 2003. But, as I mentioned a while ago, Ingrid is a fabulous teacher. She has students, very young students, through college-age students, that all play very, very artistically, with beautiful technique, beautiful choreography, beautiful artistry. And she often likes to give workshops to teachers on these elements, how do we get our students to play with more artistic expression? How do we sell a piece to make it totally convincing, no matter what level the piece is?
Dennis: So that’s why she really wanted to do these books with me on the Keys to Artistic Performance. So what we’ve done in these three collections is we’ve stressed elements of color, choreography, rubato, pedaling, and characterization. But all of those elements go together to really create a completely musical and convincing interpretation.
Dennis: So, throughout the book, what we’ve done is, again, I’ve written some original pieces that really demonstrate these elements. And then we have lots of standard classical repertoire that Ingrid always finds the really unusual pieces, too, that nobody’s ever seen before, and includes those. And then, in some of the pieces, there might be words that go along with some of the music that helps to give it characterization to the music itself. And there’ll be elements where we will show students where they might need to lean to the right or lean to the left, or if they need to come off the keys with a dramatic gesture, or if they need to create graceful arcs with their choreography in certain places. There’s all kinds of little elements in each piece, where we simply give instruction to the student on what will make this piece work artistically to the greatest advantage.
Dennis: In a nutshell, that’s basically what the books are all about. But there’s a wonderful repertoire in all three levels, and again, they’re really, really good books, especially, I think, for pedagogy courses, as well as for students at all ages, depending on their levels, to supplement their learning.
Christopher: Excellent, yeah. And I think we’ve kind of hinted at what each of those mean. So choreography we talked about, how it would be your movement at the piano with your whole body or your arms or your gestures.
Christopher: I suppose rubato, our audience may be familiar with, it’s where you’re playing around with the exact rhythm and the tempo in your own way. And you mentioned characterization there is about taking a word that might be provided, to kind of give the feel for the piece. Pedaling, I suppose, is quite piano-specific and it’s going to be about dampening some of the notes, or it’s about sustaining them. I suppose the mystery, then, is maybe color. Could you explain what the color part of it is, if it comes to artistic mastery?
Dennis: Color is something that is sometimes very difficult for some students to comprehend if they’ve never had a teacher who talked about color in playing. This could be a very, very new thing for a lot of students. But to me, color, playing with color, involves articulation. Kind of a combination of articulation, of pedaling and sound. For instance, I sometimes … I could give an example of what I would consider good color connotation.
Dennis: If I had a student playing a … let’s say a Bach Invention. This is a very popular Bach Invention. If they were playing it like that, which is kind of very smooth, very legato, it doesn’t really have the character that this particular Invention should have. It doesn’t have the color that it needs. So I would tell a student, “What you played sounds kind of brown-ish to me, or green or brown. And what I’d like to hear is a bright orange color in the sound.”
Dennis: So in order to create a bright orange effect, they would need to use … It instantly changes the character of that piece and gives it the kind of sound that it really needs to have to convey to the audience really what the color and the style and the character should be.
Dennis: In fact, I have written three collections of music for students called A Splash of Color, and three different levels, and all of the pieces have color connotations in them, the titles. For example, Turquoise, Forest Green, Blue Boogie. And all of those titles help, I think, students to understand more what color is all about in music. But it’s a complicated thing, but it simply involves combining touches with pedaling and certain chords, combinations of sounds, all create what we call beautiful color in piano performance.
Christopher: Fantastic. What a great explanation, thank you. Dennis, you’ve written such an extensive range of books over the years, but that’s actually not even all you have to offer. At your website dennisalexander.com, there’s plenty more for people to find. Could you tell us a bit about that?
Dennis: I’m sorry. Are you asking me to share the website?
Christopher: Sorry, yeah. Maybe you could our audience a little bit about what they can find on your website?
Dennis: Okay, yeah. I started this website, actually, many, many years ago, and if I could bring it up here.
Dennis: what I’ve done here, I have lots of different links on the homepage, but you’ll see third key widget down from the top, where it says “compositions”. So if students or teachers were to go to that particular link and click on it, it would bring up a whole list there of compositions in all different levels and categories. I have duet sheets, solo sheets, solo collections, duet collections, at every single level. And then, toward the bottom there, you’ll even see a link there for Christmas music, various ensemble works.
Dennis: And then, if they were to click on, for instance, let’s just click on intermediate solo collections, that would take us to these various collections. In fact, there you see Keys to Artistic Performance, books one and two. And we keep going on down. Here’s the new nocturne book, book two. Unfortunately, on the iPad, we can’t play the recordings that I have. You’ll see the music, but the iPad doesn’t allow certain Flash players. But if you go to my website on a desktop or a laptop, you’ll always see the little play button’s right next to each PDF, where the students can open up and see, actually, the score. Here’s Nocturne No. 13. And then they could play that recording, and hear the entire nocturne.
Dennis: So I have free recordings for every single collection. There is also, there are videos, where if teachers or students want to see videos of me playing the piano, or giving instruction from our Premier Piano Course, that’s available. Reviews of the music. There’s a photo album. My schedule of events is on the website. So it’s a very extensive website. And some of your audience might enjoy going to that sometime.
Christopher: Absolutely. Well, for any piano players, or aspiring piano players, or indeed teachers, in the audience, I’d definitely highly recommend checking out all that Dennis has to offer. It’s been so fascinating, Dennis, thank you, to talk to you today and learn a little bit about the man behind this amazing range of piano books. Thank you so much for joining us and sharing so much with our audience.
Dennis: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
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