Joshua Tanis is a Lecturer in the Department of Music Theory at the University of Michigan. As a collaborative pianist he has worked on local, national, and international stages with artists from the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, and other major companies.
Josh, do you have any opinions about piano method books in general?
It’s been a long time since I visited them. I imagine that piano method books are much like music theory textbooks: some will enjoy them; others won’t. They probably all bring a certain something, or a certain vantage point.
What are three or more solo keyboard compositions or recordings, in any genre, classical or popular, that you think every piano student should get to know? Three or more that are foundational to a particular style, or to the instrument itself, perhaps.
I think Chopin’s “Heroic Polonaise,” the Polonaise in A-flat major. And I love listening to recordings of Arthur Rubinstein because they are often littered with errors – and I say this very kindly, but also full of a lot of musical expression and understanding. And for me, it is immediately sobering and reassuring that such a big name can record a piece with errors. I think that’s wonderful. I enjoy that so much more than the crisp, clean, “perfect” recordings. And I think about this particular Chopin Polonaise that it includes so many different styles of playing at the keyboard, right? It asks you to move about the instrument, in many cases. It asks you to be very nimble in terms of scalar passages. It asks you to attend to elements of articulation and rhythm. There are a lot of characters, if you will, that are visited in this one Polonaise. So I think it asks of the pianist an awful lot, and that one definitely comes to mind.
I can’t choose a single Mozart piano sonata off of the top of my head, but I would say most Mozart piano sonatas should be played by all pianists simply as their vegetables, so to speak, focusing on articulating clarity and musicality simultaneously through Mozart’s very crystalline writing.
Gosh, any composition that is composed by an underrepresented composer, whether that is a female composer, a composer of color, or otherwise. I don’t want to start going into categories because I don’t like categories, but any composition by an underrepresented composer. Why? Because they’re probably not being performed or talked about very much, so I think that there’s a moral duty there and I think that we need to bring these compositions to life. I also think there’s a rich opportunity for interpretation of these pieces that have not been solidified, if you will, by other performers. Whereas any of the Mozart piano sonatas are going to have a million recordings.
How can theory be helpful both generally, and perhaps specifically and practically, in an adult music student’s first efforts as a composer?
Any preliminary music theory exercises that one completes can be taken into the realm of composition immediately. For example, let’s say that a piano student has been studying cadences, or there has been some emphasis on cadences in their lessons lately. Maybe the emphasis has been on how to shape cadences at the end of a phrase, maybe it’s talking about how the shaping of an entire phrase ultimately leads to a cadence, either fulfilling or thwarting musical expectations, etc. When you’re focusing on these kinds of things, you can ask students, compose a phrase now that ends with this kind of cadence and leads up to this kind of cadence in a way that seems to be stylistic, or in line with the style that we’ve been looking at lately.
One could just be studying melody, for example. If one studies actual melodies, their contour, the way that they move through time, the way that they can ascend and descend and how generally these things happen, one can then begin composing or improvising their own melodies. The same thing can be done with bass lines or chord progressions or richer textures, or, for example, a piece of music that’s in a relatively simple texture, and ask for the student to embellish upon that simple texture. And really, at the core, that is composition. And probably for students it will seem much less intimidating than giving them a blank piece of manuscript paper and saying okay, come up with a 16-measure composition fully developed and wonderful and so forth.
Do you have any thoughts on how piano teachers generally can be more creative in their teaching?
Improvisation is one way to get students engaged with music in a particular style. In fact, it asks them to internalize, with their ears, what particular musical styles sound like. For example, if you asked me to improvise a melody in the classical, big C, style vs. a melody that you could feasibly hear on the radio today, those melodies will sound very different.
And maybe something else, too, is to use a variety of different exercises and not be so focused on constantly doing one thing over and over again. My own training as a pianist was just constantly playing – reading and playing, and then going back and talking about phrasing, articulation, form, etc. But one thing that I could imagine is instead of me playing something, let’s listen to various recordings of the piece that I’m working on and analyze those recordings. Or, let’s do a little bit of written analysis on the score. Or aural analysis, where maybe the teacher plays a particular phrase and shapes it a particular way and emphasizes one musical element or another.
In your opinion, what constitutes a comprehensive, all-around musical curriculum for piano students? What would you include?
Big question. The nuts and bolts of being acquainted with the piano as an instrument. A really, really good understanding of reading treble and bass clef. Especially a good understanding of recognizing and note identification with ledger lines. This will be so important when working on certain kinds of compositions. A little bit of music theory training by way of some of the things we’ve talked about today. Definitely aural training, I think this is so important. The ability to listen to perhaps a particular recording, and then maybe even mimic that recording. I think that this is so important for being able to shape with our hands what we hear with our ears. And it’s no easy task. I’ve tried countless times mimicking the phrasing of one particular artist or another because I’ve enjoyed their recording so much, and this can be a really difficult thing to do.
And I also think that elements of music history and the social contexts that go along with music should absolutely be addressed, such as the history of the instrument, or the history of the composer.
And some element of collaborative engagement with other artists, whether that’s pianists working on learning the accompaniments for the song literature, or working on being part of a trio. I think this has to factor in, and it probably doesn’t happen too terribly much in private settings, for practical purposes, I’m sure. Can you always get a trio together for a lesson? This takes a lot of work and time, and probably money, actually. But that kind of collaborative experience, I think, should factor into the broader, private piano curriculum.
Would you say that reading by interval is the best approach for teaching adults to read, or are there other approaches you would recommend?
Of course the end goal is just to be able to play at the keyboard what we see on the page. In early stages, maybe instead of reading by interval, I might offer reading by scale degree within a particular key, because reading by scale degree could then engage some music theory aspects of thinking about the relationship of scale degrees to each other and the ways that scale degrees relate to underlying harmonies and harmonic progressions. So intervals will always work, but I think that reading by scale degrees could be useful.
Of course reading by scale degrees requires an understanding of scales. So, practically, what would you tell a student to do to do that?
A student would have to know their scales before this could really happen, but I’m also someone who teaches intervals by way of scales. So for me, scales come first, then intervals come second, and scale degrees are just peppered into all of this. If students do not know their scales, or if they’re in the midst of learning their scales and becoming familiar with different keys, then I think that interval training actually works very well.
Do you think that writing music down, notating music, whether exercises or compositions or whatever, is helpful for becoming a better reader?
I definitely think so, because it often engages the aural elements of being able to audiate, to hear in your mind, or even sing if you would like to, what it is that you’re writing. So I would highly recommend that there is an even exchange between seeing music and playing it, and then also writing music and audiating what you’re writing.
Audiating meaning playing or singing or both?
Audiating meaning looking at the notes on a score and being able to hear exactly what it is that’s on the page in front of you. Really standard audiation would not even allow you to utter a sound. So just being able to hear in your mind what it is that you’re looking at.
And of course that requires – prerequisites would be a really good musical ear, or a trained musical ear, at least in terms of intervals and rhythms.
Yes, and I think one way students can develop these things is to be constantly singing along with different elements of what they’re playing. Sing along with the melody while you play it. Sing along with the bass line while you play it. Sing along with inner voices if you’re working with such a texture.
Right. This is a little bit redundant with my previous question, but is there a genre or era of keyboard music that you consider important for most piano students to study at some point, and why?
If one truly wants to pair composition with piano studies, then I think probably music of the Baroque period is a great place to start because of the emphasis on counterpoint. And I think that if students become very comfortable navigating even very complex, detailed counterpoint at the piano, then what grows from that would be a lot of other things, right? The embellishment of that counterpoint comes into play. Improvisation based on certain patterns of counterpoint and contrapuntal passages and patterns is available to them. There are also elements of rhythmic features that are of interest, like hemiola, for example, which appears in a lot of Baroque literature. And it would also expose students I think, to figured bass, so that skill would be developed. I think of these earlier keyboard compositions as the vegetables for piano students.
What is composition? Well, a lot of composition teachers talk about how composition is an outgrowth of a basic contrapuntal structure, which is then elaborated either by way of patterns or free improvisation.
Fantastic. Are there any keyboard composers you think are so important or foundational to the instrument that their music is essential to learn?
I would say no because I don’t like playing into the “every music student must learn Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven’s music.” They are not the only three composers that have composed wonderful music. So I can’t say that I have a particular one in mind, but I think that it’s important to get a feel for keyboard compositions through each style period in music’s history, and to have a broad sense, by serving the music of many composers, for what was happening. Was it an emphasis on true counterpoint? Or was it an emphasis on, in the Romantic era, much more effusive practices at the piano, where things can become a bit more, let’s say, textural. So I would say survey each of these style periods, but don’t single out one composer, because then you’re not really getting a true survey of a particular style period.
Is there a status quo, or unquestioned assumption, in music teaching that you think might be worth reconsidering or turning upside down?
One comes to mind immediately, and that is to study classical music and classical music only. There is a practicality to becoming quite familiar with classical music. But this depends on what a particular student wants to do with their music education. If they’re looking to play in a little band that hits up certain venues on weekend evenings, then probably it’s not going to be of great service to be memorizing Bach fugues. But for a musician who wants to accompany for an opera company, then classical music makes sense.
What might be some of the most important factors, i.e. personal qualities, aptitudes, attitudes, focuses, etc., for optimal success as an adult piano student generally? So, as an example, for me, some of the qualities that I notice that characterize students that succeed in achieving their goals are patience, detail orientation, things of that nature. Do you have any others that you would suggest?
I think patience, for sure, a detail-oriented person, both of these things you’ve mentioned. Someone who is self-aware in terms of best practice strategies, but also in maintaining the way that their body interacts with the instrument. For example, your hands and wrists have to be in great condition. Having the respect for the actual mechanism of playing the instrument. Obviously someone who is enthusiastic, but someone who is also ready to challenge the norms of music studies. Someone who is thoughtful, someone who is inquisitive, and I think someone who is committed to knowing how to balance their studies with their enjoyment of what they are doing, because sometimes studying something in a very regimented way causes people to lose enjoyment, and that’s one thing that I had to be very careful of in my own studies. At what point does being so dedicated to what I’m studying take away all of the enjoyment in what I’m actually doing? And I always said to myself, the day that I lose my enjoyment of music, or my enjoyment in performing music, is the day that I have to completely reconsider how it is that I’m approaching studying or practicing.
I love that answer. That’s a wonderful place to end. Josh, thank you so much for your time today, it’s so much appreciated. Really, really interesting and thoughtful ideas about so many topics.