It was a normal day of briskly trotting through the abnormally cold, rainy weather last Friday, March 20th, when I decided to cut through Sutherland to escape the rain. Expecting business as usual when I entered the lobby outside of Room 9, I was surprised to see refreshment tables full of soda, hoagies, and lays chips lining the wall with one of the piano instructors, bright-eyed and joy-stricken, ushering the students vigorously into Room 9. I approached her, hoping to find the reason for the refreshments lining the wall and the source of the smile that streaked across her face. “His name is Forrest Kinney”, she began, gesturing excitedly towards the door. “He’s the personal piano player of Bill Gates.”
Intrigued at the thought of listening to someone who had been handpicked to play in the home of a man as influential as Bill Gates, I entered, and was never, even for a second, disappointed.
Opting to avoid an “I play, you shut up and listen” classical concert format (which I don’t mind, but I had had wayyy too much caffeine that day to sit through that style of concert), Forrest instead gave a very engaging presentation on the four main musical practices: Improvising, Arranging, Interpreting, and Composing. First up, composing.
Rather than merely sit down and play off the top of his head for a few minutes, Forrest decided to involve the audience, asking students to come up and play any 2-6 notes of their choosing, at random. He would then take those notes, and repeat them, while adding accompanying notes to build a piece and create beautiful improvisations. Being one of the students that got called up, I let my inner devil’s advocate get the best of me and tried to pick notes that I knew would not be very pleasant. Then, the unthinkable happened. He slowly repeated the unpleasant notes over and over, as a boogie woogie bassline began to erupt from his left hand as he launched into an up-tempo ragtime improvisation he later titled, “Jim’s Blues”. We were stunned, but he wasn’t done with the idea of improvising just yet.
He paused from playing briefly, to talk about how music is often taught out of students. They are inundated with knowledge and this often kills the joyous spark that most music students begin with. “Music is like a language”, he said, going on to speak about how students must learn to “speak music” naturally, like a language if they’re to maintain that joy. To demonstrate, he would call students at random to come accompany him on the piano, telling them which keys to try to tend towards, and then letting them improvise freely as they accompanied him. They were amazing to watch! Everyone who went up sounded amazing and returned from the stage beaming with pride! He finished this portion by re-iterating that this is how music should be taught, allowing even beginners to “speak music” and cultivate their creativity, not smothering them with information before they learn the joy of playing an instrument. Next up was Arranging.
Kinney described arranging as taking a known melody and changing the notes surrounding that melody in order to create something entirely new and unique, but as he had done with improvising, he decided to yet again engage the audience with a “guess that composer” game based around Happy Birthday. Each time, he would play Happy Birthday, but each time, there would be blistering, mindboggling, dumbfounding, brain-melting, oodles of noodles of notes and difficult passages in the style of various composers. After each one he’d pogo out of the piano bench energetically asking the audience for their guess at whose style he was imitating. He had a magic way of making classical music, which is often pegged as being very uppity and stuffy, very approachable and dare I say… FUN! Next up, Interpreting.
Interpreting was the most cut and dry of the topics, but definitely just as interesting! Interpreting is a manner of playing a piece in which all the notes are exactly the same, but the tempo and volume of the performance are entirely up to the performer. To demonstrate he played a traditional dance song, each time varying the intonation, speed, and dynamics of the notes, and to our amazement, each time the song sounded entirely different! Forrest believed that this is the best way for students to keep pieces fresh and always exciting, because it allows you to truly feel the music each time you play it, and vary it each time as well. Interpreting allows you to play the music through your emotions and thoughts of that given day, rather than a robotic regurgitation of notes every time you play a piece.
The last of his talking/playing points was composing, which is of course when the pianist writes a piece of their own. To introduce his piece he first played the piece that had inspired him to compose his piece, which began as a melody that diverged from a melody of the piece that inspired him. His original piece was very beautiful, well-composed, and a great way to close what had been a pleasant bright spot in the very rainy Friday.
by Jim Cannon