An Interview with Doug Hanvey, piano teacher, composer & arranger RSS
An Interview with Doug Hanvey
Doug Hanvey offers online piano lessons for adults with a strong focus on musical creativity. He’s the founder of Creative Keyboardist and the composer/arranger of hundreds of piano pieces and songs.
Hi Doug and welcome to E-MusicMaestro. Could you please give a brief overview of your particular interests and ethos as a piano teacher?
My overriding interest as both a teacher and musician is creativity. Not long after starting piano lessons (at age 5) I was “composing.” I think that belongs in quotations since I didn’t possess the genius of the same-aged Mozart! As a teenager, my career dream was to become a professional composer/songwriter. When I began teaching piano in my 20s, I was being mentored (as a teacher) by my jazz teacher, so I was teaching improvisation from day one. Not long after, I started to create my own methodology and a series of teaching pieces based on the blues, which in my opinion is the foundation of most American popular music. My goal was to create a method for adult students that wouldn’t require learning classical music, since not everybody is interested in it. Over time this developed into the Creative Keyboardist Adult Piano Course, which is similar in many ways to other adult piano methods, but differs in its emphasis on creativity and range of repertoire. It does now include classical music. It is only available (as an online course) for Creative Keyboardist students
Why do you prefer teaching adults to teaching children, and in what ways do you think adults learn differently from children?
I’ve taught kids on and off through the years, but early on I realized that my preference was adults. I think my interest in teaching adults is due to several factors. One is that as a child I was “required” to study music, including violin which I never really enjoyed. I have never been interested in teaching students who are taking lessons because their parents want them to. I also don’t have much energy for behavioral control. Lastly, I prefer relating to students who are at a similar intellectual level.
Adults bring different motivations and capacities to the experience of learning music. For example, adults are by definition internally motivated. Also, unlike children, adults usually have identifiable learning goals. They’re focused on results.
Do teenagers have any particular needs as piano learners, that don't fit into the category of either child or adult learner?
Great question! I do teach a few teens, but they have to really want to be there. Like adults, teens are more motivated if they can play music that interests them (e.g. pop) vs. younger kids who will generally learn the music they are given without questions. In my experience, teens are often more open to being creative with music than adults. I think this is because the education system doesn’t encourage creativity, and by the time many people reach adulthood they have lost touch with their inherent creativity. Teens are often still in touch with it. Teens also have strong needs for self-expression and being musically creative is a wonderful outlet for that.
What are the advantages for the student and teacher of having a pre-structured online course, and are there any drawbacks?
The Creative Keyboardist Adult Piano Course isn’t essentially different from a typical book method, which also by definition is “pre-structured.” A good method systematically covers all the basic skills, concepts, and symbols that just about any piano student needs to know. The teacher can feel confident that they aren’t leaving anything out. Also, a really good method provides music that is motivating and fun to play from the very beginning stages. (I can tell you that composing and arranging such easy-but-fun music was an immense but satisfying challenge.)
Since they tend to be results-oriented, beginning adults also profit from using a systematic, step-by-step curriculum that gives them a clear sense of progress, which helps to sustain their motivation and interest.
Of course, structured materials such as book methods or online courses should ultimately give way to repertoire and learning material that is tailored to the needs and interests of the individual student.
Could you please say why you use the term, 'creative' and explain what this means for you in relation to learning the piano?
Well, just playing the piano is inherently creative. Even piano players who simply play classical music from the page and have never attempted to improvise or compose are creative when they choose how to interpret a Beethoven sonata, for example. So I include this definition in the meaning of “creative.” However, there are more explicitly intentional forms of musical creativity that can be a wonderful and meaningful source of self-expression for piano students. These are composition (that Beethoven sonata had to be created before it could be performed and creatively interpreted!), arranging (changing and/or elaborating an already-existing piece of music to create a unique version of it), and improvising (creating music spontaneously in the moment).
Improvising is one of the creative activities you include. What advice would you give to students – and teachers - who find it easy to improvise in a very basic way but need ideas for developing the skill at a more advanced level?
One of the most effective ways to develop one’s improvisation skills is by learning about chord scales. This means learning what scale(s) are most appropriate to improvise with over a given chord. When improvising over a chord progression, you spontaneously switch to new scales as needed. Naturally this requires a fairly extensive knowledge of harmony including the basic chords and scales in all keys. Chord scale improvisation is a basic skill that every jazz piano player learns, though it can be used with any style including classical, pop etc. That said, there is much more to improvising than what scales to use. Learning how to compose an attractive melody, for example, can improve one’s ability to improvise an interesting melodic solo. This is why and how the creative disciplines of arranging, improvising and composing are intimately related, and improving one develops the others.
In my experience, students find playing by ear incredibly difficult and most are reluctant to even try it. Do you have any practical tips for motivating them to begin?
Students can become more motivated to play by ear if they’re successful on their first attempts. But that initial success is highly dependent on their ear skills, in particular relative pitch – given a note, being able to recognize and/or sing intervals up or down from that note. In my experience, though, many students need to learn how to match a pitch with their voice before starting relative pitch drills. Fortunately this is something that nearly anybody can learn. Because the piano makes such a complex sound, it can be easier to teach a student to match pitch by singing a pitch for them to match. Once they can do that, they can begin to match pitches played on the piano. There are also apps that can help. And once they can easily match pitch, they can begin relative pitch exercises as needed.
How do you approach teaching adults who come to you able to play a few advanced pieces from memory but who can barely read music?
I feel it’s important for piano students to learn all the musical fundamentals including reading. I would first ask how they learned those pieces if they can barely read. Perhaps they learned them by rote, i.e. by watching a YouTube video of fingers playing the piece. In my opinion, rote learning doesn’t lead to the kind of musical independence that good musicians should cultivate. So I would encourage them to learn to read. This can be humbling for students who think they are beyond the level of simple pieces, and potentially discouraging. Some students may also feel they just don’t have what it takes to learn to read music. But my experience is that just about any adult can learn to read music proficiently. I will often allow them to play more advanced material while they work on their reading skills.
Do you ever enter adult students for piano exams? What are your reasons?
I would if they wanted to, but I would never require it. I feel it is one of the privileges of being an adult piano student to have input, and perhaps even “final say” over what one learns and practices. This is also a core tenet of adult learning theory. Of course, not all teachers want to give their students, even adult students, this kind of latitude. So this may sometimes lead to the recognition that a given student and teacher aren’t a good fit. That’s how it goes.
In what ways do you think aural development and knowledge of music theory and history are important, and do they enhance students' playing?
Answering the last question first, definitely! I try to get most students doing ear training exercises. My school’s methodology has a strong focus on theory, which is formalized in the Creative Keyboardist Key Mastery Course, which aims to help students understand, learn and practice the basic vocabulary of music – scales, intervals, chords etc. Once this basic vocabulary has been learned, a student can begin to analyze music and/or use the vocabulary to expand their abilities as a creative musician via composing, improvising etc.
There are several points at which children typically stop having lessons. At what point do you think adult piano students should stop having lessons?
I think one of the overarching goals of any teacher should be to create independent learners, i.e. make students ultimately independent of the need for a teacher. Of course, the piano is so complex and subtle that one can benefit from many years of lessons. But at a certain point it may be useful for an adult to discontinue formal lessons and see how they do on their own.
What are your main, over-riding priorities as a piano teacher?
The development of “compleat” musicianship, i.e. ear, reading, rhythm, technique and practicing skills. Understanding music theory as deeply as desired and/or needed for attaining one’s playing and creative goals. And learning to be musically creative via interpretation of repertoire, improvising, arranging and/or composing. This is what I call the Creative Keyboardist “Play Understand Create” approach.
Many thanks for your time, Doug, and for your insights into the art and skill of piano teaching.
Sandy Holland 2023