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SPONTANEOUS
COMPOSITION
JAZZ COMPOSER, MUSICIAN BEN SCHWENDENER TAKES AN
UNTRADITIONAL APPROACH TO TEACHING PIANO AND
COMPOSITION
Monday, January 17, 2000
By Linda Matchan / Globe Staff
The Sunday piano recital, an invitation-only affair, was about to start. The guests,
who included Nobel Prize-winning Harvard chemist William Lipscomb and
prominent jazz composer George Russell, took their places and studied the
program, all original compositions. Hmmm, interesting. There was one piece
called "The Evil Genie" and another intriguingly named "Pancakes on Mars."
There was "World Peace, Food and Presents," a nod, evidently, to the holiday
season, and the postmodern-sounding "Floured Child."
Amid silence, the first performer, Jenna Lipscomb, daughter of William, took her
place confidently at the Steinway grand piano, and with great composure
rendered a rhythmic version of "Wild Horse Dancing." The audience burst into
applause.
After all, it's not every 11-year-old who writes her own music, albeit with major
assistance from her teacher, Ben Schwendener of Jamaica Plain.
But then Schwendener, 37, is no ordinary piano teacher. A jazz composer and
member of the jazz-rock group Falling Objects, he offers students what he calls a
"customized education" in piano. You won't find any standardized beginning-level
piano method books in Schwendener's third-floor home studio, with their pictures
of cute frogs hopping over notes, or clowns juggling clef signs. You won't see any
smiley-face stickers proclaiming "Wow!" or "Good job!" on students' music after
they've tackled a new piece.
Instead, Schwendener's piano students (four adults, 14 children, ages 7-15) all
receive a blank composition book. The rest is up to them - and their teacher.
During the first lesson, he talks to them about their musical interests and abilities,
figures out their strengths (strong rhythmic sense? melodic inclination?), and he
helps them write their own pieces, based on themes they plunk out on the piano.
"Basically, I'm the artistic director" as well as piano teacher, Schwendener says.
"I have yet to buy stickers for my students; they can stick anything they want to
on their music, because everything they do is a work in progress."
Yes, his students learn how to read music and the rudiments of theory, and are
gradually introduced to the musical masters. But they don't start their musical
training the traditional way, through scales or finger exercises. "I don't go down
that road," says Schwendener.
Instead, aiming to broaden their musical experience, he goes the improvisational
route, indicating even to the youngest students that their musical instincts are
worthwhile and relevant, and that they don't have to be a Bach or Bartok to
compose a meaningful musical theme. He might throw a scale into the lesson
now and then, but it's a scale on which to improvise.
"I want to demystify the compositional process and encourage improvisation and
ear training," said the upbeat, boyish-looking Schwendener in an interview after
the recital, which featured 11 enthusiastic students playing an assortment of
tunes from blues to a tango, a Celtic dance, a new arrangement of a Burt
Bacharach tune, and variations on a song by John Lennon.
"Ultimately," he says, "it's the organic process of creating new music that appeals
to me. I love the way all students are all different, and every student has different
ideas about how the themes develop."
He maintains that every child has an innate creative ability that can be expressed
musically (though piano may not be the perfect outlet for them at the time, he
allows), and that profound ideas can be conveyed in the simplest terms, even by
a little person. Witness the creation of "Flower Fox," a happy little folk ditty he
wrote last year with his daughter, Elodi, then 3. It is based on three notes - E, F,
and C - that Elodi picked out on the piano. She might not have been aware of it,
but her dad harmonized her notes, using the inner modal harmonies of the F
Lydian scale.
"That's `Flower Fox'!" she said to him excitedly, spontaneously naming it.
On the day of the piano recital in Jamaica Plain, everyone seemed excited.