What is your first memory of the piano?

My piano journey began more or less when I was 3 or 4 years old. Movers brought a 1932 5’3” Chickering baby grand to our house. It was a gift from my grandparents.

That piano eventually travelled with me from one coast to another in America, which is where I’m from. It came with me when I arrived in the UK 4 years ago.

Last summer I acquired a new Steingraeber Phoenix 205. It’s an amazing instrument. I looked at a lot of pianos in the UK and America  before I selected it. Some of them were very good but none of them had the special, personal “this is the one – this one is it” kind of feeling I was looking for. When I finally met the 205 at Hurstwood Farm Pianos in Surrey it did seem like the one. It’s definitely reaffirmed that to me since arriving in my house.

There are more than a few fascinating lessons I learned looking for a piano which I’ve written up on my blog. Meanwhile, the Chickering has moved to my neighbour’s house for new and more family adventures.

Who was your first teacher and what do you recall about your early days of learning about the piano?

My first teacher was a very nice woman in our town in New Jersey. But after not all that long I mostly taught myself. I wasn’t systematic or organised in what I learned. It was mostly the Chickering was in the house and I’d play by ear.

From the beginning I had an affinity for jazz. I don’t know why or from where or how because I remember hearing Liberace and Victor Borge but not jazz. I also recall trying to pick out bits of the ‘Rite of Spring’ after hearing a recording of it. But picking out tiny bits of the ‘Rite of Spring’ was about all I could do.

Do you remember what you liked to play?

The Joy of Boogie and Blues’ was the book that had my interest. When I played the pieces in it with the right spin they sounded like boogie and blues. But I hadn’t yet heard real boogie boogie such as Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson used to play. And I didn’t know about New-Orleans-style piano playing even though ‘The Joy of Boogie and Blues’ had pieces in that genre. And of course I didn’t know of the great jazz pianists like Art Tatum, Bud Powell, and Bill Evans.

My parents and neighbours used to say I had a “nice touch” when I played boogie-woogie-type things. That phrase resonated with me. I could feel what it meant in my hands. And I could hear how that feeling translated into sound.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

While working towards a PhD in composition at the University of Pittsburgh I taught courses in basic theory and musicianship, jazz history, class piano, and a seminar on Mozart. Teaching was part of what PhdD students did while working towards the degree. So that’s where I began with students and learning about teaching and how to do it – and finding that I really liked it.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

The important teacher who fastened my wheels to the track was Floyd “Floogie” Williams. I met Floyd in the second semester of my first year at university which was mid-1970s. He had recently moved to the area from New York City where he had been a drummer and a percussionist in jazz and studio worlds.

Learning with Floyd was immersion all things musical. I couldn’t possibly have had a better teacher. He had experience in the world I wanted to enter. Essentially he put one on the path towards that world.

Lessons with Floyd always included stories and more stories, all them colourful, about how this or that musician practiced and learned. And there was always an important point that came out of it all. With the piano Floyd boiled it down to one essential: Practice and practice some more.

What he meant was put in time and effort. Serious time and effort – as a method it was brute-force “put-your-back-into-it.” I spent virtually every hour of the day playing Bach, and Chopin, Beethoven, and Oscar Peterson piano transcriptions or picking excerpts out of the Dover editions of scores.

Another big lesson from Floyd was to the importance of being around great pianists – to see and hear firsthand how the did what they did. So Floyd arranged for me to visit to New York City to meet John Lewis, who had who played with Charlie Parker and later formed the Modern Jazz Quartet. A few months later Floyd sent me to New York City again. This time for lessons with Jaki Byard.

Jaki is among the great pianists and teachers in jazz. He played like a one-man jazz repertory orchestra, always with allusions to different pianists and styles, all of which he juxtaposed with wit and great humour.

So for example Jaki’s left hand might play in a stride piano style. But his right hand would play over it in very free bebop style – and perhaps in a different key. But the thing was, no matter what Jaki played he sounded uniquely like Jaki and never like he imitating something. Jaki was postmodern long before postmodernism was a style.

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?

At New England Conservatory I continued studying with Jaki and then I switched over to William Thomas McKinley who’s a composer and a jazz pianist. Whereas Jaki’s approach to the piano was based on play, play, and play Tom’s way – because  he was a composer – was write, write, write. So I wrote excerpts and examples – I filled notebook after notebook – of what I wanted to improvise.

I also took lessons outside of NEC from Charlie Banacos who had his own fascinating teaching niche. Charlie was a great jazz pianist but he gave up performing to focus exclusively on teaching. And he was well-known as a teacher – as perhaps “the teacher. All his students first went through his two-year waiting list before lessons began. Many of Charlie’s students went on to play with fabulous jazz musicians. And Miles Davis said he wanted to study with Charlie!

Most of what Charlie taught was simple in concept – for example transcribe a McCoy Tyner solo. But to do that required a lot of focused work with a tape recorder. Once the solo was transcribed, the next step was to play it at speed.

With Charlie simplicity of concept definitely wasn’t the same as ease of execution. Some  of the “simple stuff” Charlie showed me a long time ago is still among what I practice now.

The big picture I synthesised from all of that which is right at the centre of how I teach is “Experiment: cast the net freely and widely.” In other words explore, explore, explore – as Robert Frost said very well:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

I moved to New York City in the early 1980s after New England Conservatory and Boston. New York was exhilarating because it was populated to beyond bursting with fabulously-skilled musicians. If there’s a genre or a style of music anywhere in the world someone in New York is exploring and playing it at some unbelievably high level. Probably along with an entire community of equally-skilled practitioners.

After several years of freelancing there and all sorts of gigs I completed a Masters’ degree in Jazz Piano at the Manhattan School of Music. One of the classes I took there was an introduction to composition. The solo piano piece I wrote for it – along with Tom McKinley’s prescriptions to write, write, write – launched me on to composing.

So I went from the Manhattan School of Music to the University of Pittsburgh for PhD studies in composition and theory. But at the time – mid-1980s – composition there was focused narrowly on serialism through the lens and teaching of Milton Babbitt. Which wasn’t uncommon at that time. But it wasn’t the direction the interested me so I moved on to the Hartt School of Music where there was more plurality of approach and style. That’s where I completed the doctorate.

Beginning in the 1990s I taught composition, music technology, and jazz piano at the University of Maine at Augusta. From there I went to Central Washington University where I directed the music composition and theory programs. During that period I had short and long-term residencies in the United States and Europe – at the Crakow Academy of Music, STEIM in Amsterdam, the Banff Centre in Canada, and the University of California Santa Barbara, among others. And I was always playing jazz.

How do you teach?

Everyone comes to the piano and improvisation with their own interests, strengths, and abilities. So how I teach depends on the interests and experiences my students bring with them. It’s very much based on what they want to learn.

I’d say what I do as a teacher is help students acquire a musical voice. That means on the one hand exploring what, why, and how we do music- and piano-related things. And being creative with whatever comes back from those questions. On the other hand it’s about building as much technique as we can to support creativity. Creativity and technique are the two sides on the same coin.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

I’m keen on teaching improvisation through Skype to students around the world. What’s amazing to me about Skype is it works without getting in the way. So looking into my studio from a distance literally means looking through Skype.

For me, there’s magic and the miraculous in working with students who literally are all around the world. Because with Skype connections to distant places don’t feel distant.

From time to time I’ll think “Well we’re working together in realtime but there’s a 12-hour time difference between us.” Which to me is mind boggling. I’ve had some improvised, interesting two-piano duets with students on Skype.

I’d say what Skype brings out is it’s the creativity and enthusiasm we bring to the learning process that counts. Which is the same for everyone really – without or with Skype. Creativity and enthusiasm are essential.

The biggest challenge with Skype has been managing clock shifts and timezones around the world. So, for example, I’ve since learned some countries – Iran is one and I have a fantastic student there – set their clocks to the half-hour rather than to the hour.

What do you expect from your students?

The first thing I teach is relaxation helps improvisation and playing the piano enormously. Because when we’re relaxed it’s easier to play and make music.

But after that expectations can easily become “it-has-to-be-this-way” or “it-has-to-be-that-way.” If we can reduce “it-has-to-be-this” to as few instances as possible we’re that much closer to relaxation where music and everything can seem easy. So removing expectations is about learning to play and practice in the moment with the skills we have instead the skills we wish we had.

A different example of a removable expectation is the idea that knowledge of theory – scales and chords  – precedes meaningful improvisation. The reality is thinking about theory when improvising is about as helpful as applying theory to playing anything.

Of course later or sooner theory is among the great extra stuff that broadens and deepens how we play. But as a prerequisite to improvisation – and particularly for students who come to improvisation with technique already – it’s not the start point.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

I’m mostly interested in the quality of experience of the individual – instead of the quantity of quality competition judges have to quantify. The thing is, quality of experience doesn’t depend on prescribed skill levels. A different way to say that is I’m focused on processes of music-making – because experience is process.

On the other hand I competed in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition which is the huge international one of the jazz world. I was a finalist in the the Great American Jazz Piano Competition. My Robots-in-Residence installation which I built in Denmark was a prize-winner in a competition in France. I learned a lot by being in those events and I’m glad I had those experiences.

And many pianists know competitions and such to be exactly what they want to enter into. In that case of course I’m happy to assist and support. But to the question of “are competitions and such things fundamentally part of learning to play an instrument?” my opinion is, no, they’re not.

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?

Being in the moment with the music we’re making. Focusing on right now. To do that we have to relax. Which isn’t a question of “Are we relaxed? Yes or no?” It’s that relaxation is a continuum. Which means we can always bring it to deeper and deeper levels.

Also important is listening to the sound that comes from the piano. Listening to how the piano resonates. How it projects. One way forward with this  play and listen to single, sustained notes – long tones at the piano.

It’s like magic but ears and mind usually then go right to the moment – because they’re listening to the attack, sustain, and decay of each note and then each note after that.

How do you approach the issue of performance anxiety/tension?

We all deal with it in one way or another. I wish I knew how to banish it once and forever. But the reality probably is that’s just part of music making and not really all that unusual.

My approach is to work with it in small increments – instead of looking to conquer or suppress it once and for all. Small increments could mean learning to use specific relaxation techniques of which breathing is one of them.

Breathing meaning focusing on and recognising the importance of breath while we’re at the piano. And of course listening to the sound of the piano. Focusing on sound as it floats out of the piano. The more we focus on breath and sound the more we go to those worlds and then on to relaxation and the moment of “right now.”

Differentiating between “practice” and “performance” mode can be helpful. Practice mode is about working out details and looking to improve “this thing” or “that thing” or both things or all things. It’s intentionally focused to things such as “play these notes” or “perform that passage softly.”

Performance mode on the other hand doesn’t require analytic thinking. It doesn’t require that we try to do something better today than yesterday. It’s sitting down at the piano and being in the moment: Comfortable, and relaxed with the music we make, the sound we hear, the ability we have. Then “letting” everything flow together into a performance. Instead of “making” it flow together into the performance.

Are there any books you’d recommend to pianists or musicians or anyone interested in improvising?

The book for the desert island, assuming the piano’s already been delivered, is The Listening Book: Discovering Your Own Music by W.A. Mathieu. It has listening exercises and philosophy for everyone at every level of ability and experience.

How can we contact you?

My Mark Polishook Studio website is a blog about improvising, jazz, and all things of interest to pianists. My email address is mark@polishookstudio.com.

Dr. Mark Polishook, a pianist, composer, and music technologist, teaches improvisation in his studio in Leicester and on the internet through Skype. Among his compositions is Seed of Sarah, an electronic chamber opera that was made into a film seen across North America, Europe, and Australia. As a jazz pianist Dr. Polishook has performed with many eminent artists. 

To the experimental side of sound art Dr. Polishook has worked with graphics tablets, robots, and open-source software. His Robots-in-Residence installation which he created in Denmark was a prize winner in the 2004 International Bourges Electro-acoustic Music Competition in France. 

Dr. Polishook directed the music composition and theory programs at Central Washington University. He’s been a professor of jazz piano at the University of Maine at Augusta and a Senior Fulbright Lecturer at the Crakow Academy of Music in Poland. Dr. Polishook has been a resident artist in the Aarhus Computer Science Department, at STEIM in Amsterdam and at CREATE at the University of California Santa Barbara. 

He has a DMA in Music Composition from the Hartt School of Music, a masters’ degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and the Manhattan School of Music. His undergraduate degree is from the New England Conservatory of Music.

What is your first memory of the piano? 

My mother always played the piano. We had an old Aldrich upright that she played while she was pregnant with me and that I played until I was 13 years old. She was my teacher at that time.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

I was a performance major and first taught some students for a friend in her absence. I enjoyed teaching but did not have the training for it.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

I studied with Franceen Downing, who took me through my early teen years and then with Dr. Bob L. Bennett through my last two years of high school and four undergraduate years at California State University, Fresno.

I studied with Ena Bronstein while working on my Master’s Degree. She had a beautiful way of imparting the Arrau technique. I also studied accompanying with Tait Barrows, a wonderful and humorous collaborative pianist and wife of the late John Barrows, horn player.

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?

By far the most important influence on my teaching was a one-year internship with Margaret Talcott who gave me a teaching curriculum specific to piano that introduces concepts and skills at appropriate age/cognitive levels.  Curriculum-based teaching enables anyone who practices regularly a chance to play the piano with confidence.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences? 

Most lessons I teach are memorable (to me anyway). The only lessons I find difficult occur when a student loses interest and stops practicing for a period of time. Fortunately, this does not happen often.

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults? 

I find it exciting to teach adults when they progress. Adults are a challenge because the business of life can easily get in the way of practice. Their time is not protected by their parents as a child’s would be.

What do you expect from your students?

I expect regular practice, the ability to work out a piece independently with correct notes, rhythms and dynamics, regular attendance at lessons, performance on some recitals, and a solid understanding of the theory behind their music.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

They are fine if they don’t interfere with the process of learning skills and concepts. If the extra activity throws off the curriculum or forces concepts to be taught before I would normally teach them, then it is not worth the imbalance it produces in my teaching. I have no personal stake in whether my students impress adjudicators or other teachers by their playing and I am more interested in how well they are learning. They are happiest and want to continue piano lessons when they feel confident in their ability to teach themselves.

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?

To beginners: solid rhythmic playing, reading skills, the use of creative improvisation to reinforce concepts

To advanced students: persistence, technical ability to play what they want, freedom to choose the type of music they like to learn

What do you consider to be the best and worst aspects the job?

I think it’s wonderful to begin a student when they’re young and watch them grow up. The worst aspect is the pay.

What is your favourite music to teach? To play?

I like to teach any music and prefer to play “classical”, especially chamber music. I also enjoy singing and playing my own songs accompanying myself on the piano or  guitar.

Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why?

Claudio Arrau was my all-time favourite because he often took slower tempi, enabling the listener to hear everything that the composer wrote. Ena Bronstein is my favourite pianist-teacher.

Janet Jones began piano lessons at age four and has taught many students of all ages, preschool through adult. She also teaches Musikgarten, birth through age five. She grew up in Fresno, California and received her Master’s Degree in piano performance from CSUF, Fresno. She also has a Master’s Degree in Education, Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Phoenix. She currently teaches at her own small piano studio in Madison, Wisconsin. She also enjoys performing folk tales and original songs and stories for children and adults.

What is your first memory of the piano?

My bare feet cooling on the cold pedals of the piano during the hot summer. Another is playing the piano and singing to my grandfather and grandmother on a Sunday afternoon.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

Teaching has always come naturally to me. I found that when I am passionate about something I can explain it comfortably. So when I started teaching during my undergraduate studies I realised that I enjoyed teaching and learned a lot about my own playing at the same time.

I suppose I also subconsciously took in a lot about teaching techniques from the way my teacher taught me when I was growing up.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

Johan Cromhout was my teacher for ten years when I grew up in South Africa. He has taken me from learning to properly read music (I started by playing by ear) up to performing and being able to comfortably discuss my programme in the viva voce of my DipABRSM. He always managed to find a balance between allowing my spontaneity to flourish whilst shaping my progress in the right direction. We listened to a lot of music as well. A part of my two-hour lessons in later years included a cup of tea and listening to CDs.

Martin Katz was my teacher during my study at the University of Michigan. He is a fascinating teacher and the way he can put every scenario in context of today is inspiring and admirable. Charles Owen taught me about focus and economical use of technique to acquire a better result.

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?

The teachers I studied with influenced me greatly as I mentioned above. I am also very much influenced by Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) where (said in an immensely simplistic way) the imagination is used to build an awareness of what one wants to achieve and then following that path your imagination has set out already. I am not giving it its best explanation, but it is fascinating to learn how we can open up various avenues for ourselves by imagining it all in as much detail as possible first. I try to introduce visual art and literature in my teaching as well. It just helps to get students thinking a bit differently about all those black dots.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

I was teaching a very talented 6 year old. He had been taking lessons for a year and I introduced B major to him. He experimented a bit and worked out C major and D major on his own. I shall never forget the excitement and marvel that he was filled with. He realised that he can create things on this white and black maze. This reminded me of the importance of not only to always try and convey this to my students, but also to remind myself of this lesson.

It has been said many times before, but it is also very true for myself: I constantly learn from my students.

What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults?

I enjoy working with adults because they often have their own ideas from the beginning and then open themselves up to more ideas. Challenges can be that old habits die hard and as teacher one has to find an individual barometer for each student to keep the balance between encouragement, alteration and guidance. Where children often take things at face value, adult students often ask more questions, challenging the teacher. I like that – it makes both of us think!

What do you expect from your students?

A motto I try to instill in my students is to have dedication and discipline in accordance to one’s goals. Some adults I work with want to play for relaxation and do not have careers as a musician in mind. For me it is important that they still have certain expectations of themselves and live up to them. For my students studying music degrees I expect them to aspire to the same motto. They are often in a place in their careers where they are trying to find where they fit in in the musical world and so it is important to keep one’s head. I think this motto can help them to be inspired, but also impresses upon them the responsibility associated with their work. The children I teach (often second study pianists) often have this motto naturally build in, but I think it is the result of the fact that they have learnt the lesson by learning one instrument already.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

Any experience of performance is important and influences the development of anybody learning a musical instrument. Each of the above brings up its own challenges as a performer, but I think students are not often enough reminded of how different these experiences can be. Competing against oneself in an exam vis à vis competing against others in competitions and some festivals often make performers react when in the heat of it all. Performing in a concert is also different. Some people prosper better in some scenarios than others. I think it is important as a teacher to find which of these different performance setups work best for each student and then encourage them accordingly.

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?

For beginners I think the most important lesson is to be disciplined and meticulous – count, check rhythm, play correct notes and learn sensible fingering as (hopefully) set out by the teacher.

For advanced students I would actually say the same and on top of it to read as much and as widely as possible, trying to put the works they play in social and historical context.

What are your thoughts on the link between performance and teaching?

Both performance and teaching is a way of communication, similar to two dialects of the same language. Some are well-versed in both dialects, others are fluent in one and proficient in another. It is the individual’s responsibility to find his or her feet in either or both dialects.

Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why?

Argerich for fire, Barenboim for colour, Schiff for philosophy and Perahia for surprise.

South African-born pianist Nico de Villiers is an accompanist, teacher and coach, based in London. He holds degrees from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, the University of Michigan and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Read Nico’s full biography here

Recently, I had the very great pleasure of interviewing GéNIA, Russian pianist and teacher, and creator of innovative piano technique, Piano-Yoga®. We met at London’s prestigious Steinway Hall to talk about many aspects of piano teaching and performing, and, in a departure from the usual format of the At the Piano….. interviews, our conversation was filmed.

The videos will be published in six short instalments. In the first, we discuss GéNIA’s musical heritage, her first piano, the influence of her great-grand uncle Vladimir Horowitz, significant teachers and other influences that affected GéNIA’s musical development.

For more information on Piano-Yoga® please visit

www.piano-yoga.com

More At the Piano…… interviews