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Q&A with David & Kathy Blackwell

3 months ago

David and Kathy Blackwell

Music educators who have co-authored over 60 books together.

At this year’s Music & Drama Education Expo in London we gave delegates an exclusive peek at our upcoming Piano Star Theory book. We were also lucky enough to catch up with the authors, David and Kathy Blackwell, to find out more about them and the latest instalment in the Piano Star series.

How did you get into playing the piano and why do you enjoy it?

Kathy: I started learning the violin before the piano, so I was a late starter to the piano. I started just before I did O Level but I seemed to make quite rapid progress because 5 years later I did my Teaching Diploma. But I did have a background in violin before that.

David: I started playing the piano when I was five. My mum was very keen that my sister and I would learn. My sister is a bit older so we had a piano in the house and I just found myself tinkering away at the piano, and I’ve always enjoyed it.

What inspires you to write piano books and how did you get into it?

David: I’ve always enjoyed composing. I’ve always written music, either for piano or string instruments, and quite a lot of music for choirs. When I was learning the piano I sometimes felt frustrated with not finding the pieces I wanted to play. I try to write something that’s tuneful, interesting and different that I hope will grab a player’s attention. That’s what I set out to try and do.

Kathy: My background comes from teaching and trying to find ways of explaining concepts to children in an engaging way and something that works.

David: In our pieces together, we try really hard to get the technical level right. Sometimes a piece can be spoiled by something that’s just a little bit too difficult, or there’s a knotty bar that students have to spend a lot of time practising. We try to get the level exactly right and embed a teaching point within the piece as well, so that the teacher can see the value of the child learning the piece.

What was the inspiration behind Piano Star Theory?

David: Within the series there are now five repertoire books from six months in to a good Grade 1, and it was felt that this would be a useful complementary book to go with those. We tried in this theory book to cover all the theoretical concepts found in Five-Finger Tunes and Piano Star Book 1, so it makes a nice companion book alongside those. Kathy: Also, it takes students quite a long time to absorb all of the information that is required to perform a piece of music, and we hope this book will help consolidate some of the theoretical things that children need to know. There are lots of fun activities to fire their imagination and the teacher could extend some of these in different ways to suit different students.

How can learners feel less daunted when approaching the theoretical side?

Kathy: One of the things to do, and this can be guided by the teacher, would be to break the processes required down into various steps. Perhaps focusing on the rhythm of the piece to begin with, or focusing on the pitch as a separate activity before putting the piece together.

David: One of the things that students find difficult in sight-reading, and in playing generally, is keeping a steady pulse. In the theory book we’ve tried to encourage good habits to address this in two ways: many of the exercises have little drum beat symbols that mark the regular pulse, and we also encourage students to count in each little piece or exercise. The idea is they will look at the time signature and work out how many beats there are in a bar, then count themselves in and keep or count a steady beat all the way through.

Kathy: I think it is just showing the children a visual aid – a speech bubble with the count in and the drum beat symbol underneath – to reinforce the importance of a steady beat.

Do you have any practice tips for learners?

Kathy: Here’s one practice tip! You take a dice and you identify six things, perhaps with your teacher, that you want to do in the course of the week. Number 1 could be play the scale of C, number 3 could be find the trickiest part of your piece and play those bars three times, number 6 could be your favourite thing. Then you roll the dice and do whatever activity comes up.

When you’re practising anything you just have to make yourself listen in a way that is probably not the way we listen generally. It has to be a special type of listening that informs what we do, including at the beginner level.

David: Slow and steady wins the race. One quite nice thing to do, when you have the rough shape of the piece, is to practise the last bar and then work backwards. Often students do it the other way around, learning a piece from start to finish, and then they are always moving from the familiar to the less unfamiliar, whereas if you start at the end the more you get into a piece the more familiar it will feel.

Do you have any advice for learners?

David: Do a range of musical activities. I would always encourage learners to join a choir, because not only does this feed into the aural and singing activities required in any piano exam, but it is in any case a really good way of developing good musicianship.

Kathy: I would encourage people to join an ensemble. It’s harder to do as a piano student, but if possible find someone to play duets with, for example. The Piano Star series has a number of duets and some trios. This is what music is all about, the social side of things.

Piano Star Theory is now available worldwide – ask your local music retailer or visit our online shop.


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