CBD Interview with Mark Almond

CBD: You are a self-described piano “quitter,” yet you now teach the instrument. What events in your life led you to a career in music after such a rough start?

MA: The first spark was a friend in high school who played by ear. My best friend was his drummer in a jazz trio, so I listened to them play by the hour. At age 16, I was an envious onlooker who couldn’t play anything, even though I had four different piano teachers as a child. Next, an adult friend in my racing pigeon club loaned me a recording of Errol Garner, the great jazz pianist. After many hours of blind guessing, I was able to re-create one of the stylistic sounds from the album in just a few phrases of Autumn Leaves. You don’t want to know how many times I played this short little section of music! This was somehow enough to inspire me to major in music all the way through college, even though I finished in philosophy.

Two very special books have been instrumental in my progress over the years. The first was discovered in the college library my freshman year—Great Pianists on Piano Playing by James Francis Cooke. The author traveled the world to interview the greatest pianists alive during the golden age of performance just after 1900. I thought he was exaggerating when he claimed he had spoken to all of the top pianists in the whole world, but he absolutely was not! The second book is Speaking of Pianists by Abram Chasins. Chasins was one of the few students of Josef Hofmann, the greatest pianist in the 20th century. His personal recollections of direct encounters with Hofmann, Rachmaninoff, Godowski, Paderewski, Horowitz, and others are beyond invaluable.

The last great event, or series of events, in my musical life that I will take time to mention has been listening to piano music both at live concerts and on recordings. Even during a busy schedule in college, I would hide away on Friday and Saturday nights, when the music building was completely empty, and turn the volume up on Oscar Peterson, Errol Garner, Peter Nero, Roger Williams, Horowitz, and a number of classical pianists, but only the ones who could play with spirit. The Russian Ivo Pogorelich has been especially influential in recent years. He is from the same school of thought as the classical pianists from the “golden age of performance” listed above.

CBD: Piano for Life and Piano for Quitters have received rave reviews, especially from those who have repeatedly tried to master the instrument and failed. How does your method of teaching differ from “traditional” instruction? Why do you think people have had such success using your techniques?

MA: These unique results are achieved by what many would call a “right brain” approach. Yes, we are receiving a steady stream of success stories. We now have students of all ages, throughout the world, who are practicing voluntarily. Most are not only reading notes but also playing songs from chord sheets, improvising independent of music notation, and even composing. Another interesting measurement in the response is the high percentage of people who have upgraded their piano, or, in some cases, bought their very first piano as a direct result of this kind of instruction.

As for the instruction itself, we believe in explaining up-front, in the very beginning, all of the most important concepts without using technical language. To avoid creating another strange new method or system in conflict with traditional lessons,we concentrate on the most practical elements of what is traditionally called music theory. These elements, or “building blocks,” are isolated and explained in terms that even very young children can understand. Then, apart from “scales” and prior to learning the various scales, we use two standard concepts in music—two very important “intervals”—that enable every student to play advanced sounds that include lively rhythms.

It is critically important to first start with a practical understanding of harmony before anything else is attempted. This allows students to play impressive musical sounds right away, on a solid educational foundation, usually on the first day of practice. In music, there are certain tones that sound good together. All music flows from just a handful of patterns that can be explained in a matter of minutes. There are, for example, only four basic three-note chords (all built from two simple intervals) at the base of all the various harmonies we recognize as music. (This was, by the way, explained for the first time in the year 1490!) Using clear analysis, these structures can be taught even to 4- and 5-year-old students. With a building block approach, these various sounds can be built on any key, black or white. Next, we place these “chords,” or “triads,” in musical families. These natural sequences sound so good that students will practice enough to actually have a realistic opportunity to absorb these fundamental patterns and “progressions” that permeate all of the various kinds of music. These sequences using standard chord symbols are lifelong possessions. Also, options for both left-hand playing and right-hand playing can be developed in this context using a step-by-step process. The real hook, however, and this literally hooks people for life, is that this approach allows students to play with strong confident rhythms right from the very beginning.

We use the same strategy when we teach reading music notation. The “layout” in its totality is explained before we learn the individual parts. There are certain features of the musical staff that appear mysterious and confusing. Some historians believe this was done intentionally to guard the musician’s territory during medieval times. It is absolutely essential to eliminate this confusion at the outset.

One of the main goals in designing the series was to create materials that piano teachers and schools could respect and utilize. There have been many “partial” methods that are difficult or even impossible to reconcile with the traditional note- reading approach. We are now getting reports that the series is inspiring some to teach piano who would not have taught otherwise.

As for direct comparisons with other methods, I would prefer to quote Nancy Monovon, who taught piano in New York for 20 years and currently teaches in Colorado. Nancy has her Masters in piano performance from Juilliard and has worked with many famous musicians I will probably never have the privilege of meeting. She uses our series in special classes and for individual students in private lessons. One of her recent comments about Piano for Life was, “There is nothing like it anywhere in the world.” From a Juilliard graduate, we take that as a compliment!

CBD: Because they have had no musical training themselves, some homeschool parents may feel inadequate when it comes to encouraging their kids’ interest in music lessons. What type of support does your video/DVD program offer parents to help them feel more confident in teaching piano to their children?

MA: A solid foundation for success is presented in the first video, Piano for Quitters. This video or DVD is also designed for absolute beginners. That, of course, would include parents who want to help their children. There is one and only one real obstacle to this approach. Those who skip too quickly over the lesson that teaches the names of the keys on the keyboard will struggle throughout the series. If brand-new beginners will just take enough time to really absorb both the material and the suggestions presented in this lesson, the entire series will unfold over time.

The other key for parents is to make sure the younger children continually pause or stop the program in order to try the various ideas as they are presented. This will help them follow the printed material that comes with the program. Even 3-year-olds can use the program if they start by playing the bottom two notes of each chord learned, rather than all three of the notes. I started my daughter when she was 2 1/2. In contrast to this, it should encourage parents to know that there are also numerous reports coming in from senior citizens who are enjoying the series. Some report practicing for up to two hours a day!


 

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Piano for Quitters, DVD
Piano for Quitters, DVD
Mark Almond

Piano for Life, 3 DVDs
Piano for Life, 3 DVDs
Mark Almond


 

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