• Nikhil Hogan

Partimento students used to all sing and play the Keyboard. Should we do so today?

Updated: Feb 21


According to the Peter Pullman biography of Bud Powell, Wail, a common maxim among Bebop musicians was that if you could hum something, you should be able to play the notes on your instrument.

This was corroborated in an interview I conducted with the great jazz saxophonist Dr. Charles McPherson who commented that he could sing "pretty much anything" he could play, at timestamp 0:24 in the video above.


Bebop jazz musicians were known for their rapid, virtuoso improvisations over complex harmonies and fast tempos. The Bebop era was popular through the 1940s to the middle of the 1950s and incontrovertibly altered the direction of jazz music.


Another example of a bebop musician singing melodies is this excerpt of an interview with Bud Powell with a French journalist where he sings the melody to his tune "In the Mood for a Classic" at timestamp 0:30 in the video below.

For the Neapolitan conservatories of the 18th century, Italian Solfeggio or singing was a foundational core skill that taught note reading, reading multiple clefs, counterpoint, improvisation, composition and ear training.


Every student was expected to sing for a minimum of 3 years before they were to be able to touch an instrument. My recent interview with Professor Nicholas Baragwanath explores the rich Italian Solfeggio tradition:

Today it is rare for instrumentalists to approach singing with that same concerted emphasis. Students who take singing seriously tend to be singers and generally, instrumentalists don't sing if they don't have to.


One of the concerns of music education today is that students have become quite segregated according to their primary instruments. Pianists play piano music only, violinists play violin music only and so on.


This would have been at odds to what Frederic Chopin, one of the most performed composers of piano music today, told his private students. According to his student Maurycy Karasowski, he encouraged his students to listen to Italian singers. To another student Madame Rubio he told her that in order to play, one must sing and made her take singing lessons. Incidentally, Chopin was a huge admirer of Vincenzo Bellini, the famous Neapolitan-trained Operatic composer.

Perhaps it is time to re-evaluate the importance of singing and reintegrate it back into a place of prominence in music education.

So we've discussed the importance and prevalence of singing. What about the Keyboard family, which encompasses the Piano, Harpischord, Organ and Digital Keyboard and Synthesizers?


Should every student play a keyboard instrument?


If we model after the Italian Neapolitan conservatories, then we see that the students also learned keyboarding skills in addition to their Solfeggio, Partimento and Counterpoint studies. See video below, timestamp 3:58.

I think one incredibly positive aspect of playing the keyboard is that you are able to quickly create music with the ease of simply pushing keys. Playing multiple notes simultaneously is much harder, if not impossible on a stringed instrument or wind instrument. On other harmonic instruments like the guitar or harp, it's possible to play multiple notes at the same time but nothing compared to the keyboard, which is much easier and more a common instrument for this type of musical exploration.


Whereas other instruments would require a learning curve before being able to produce clean tones, the keyboard allows students to immediately hear the tones. Students can pick out melodies and simple harmonies easily on a keyboard. This is all to assist with the development of composition and improvisation.


With electronic keyboards and even upright pianos being quite affordable today, it's highly recommended to have a keyboard in your house for your children.

So there is it, a recommendation for your child's music education. In addition to the practice of their primary instrument, consider including singing and basic keyboard skills to aid their development in composition and improvisation.

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