Making an IMPRESSION: Summer Sizzle 2015


Last weekend, I had the privilege of attending Summer Sizzle, a piano pedagogy symposium, hosted by the Canadian National Conservatory of Music, in the rural, beautiful community of Mount Forest, ON.  If you’ve never heard of the conservatory, or the town, don’t worry. This was all new to me too.

The Canadian National Conservatory of Music (CNCM) was founded in 2002, with the goal of promoting Canadian content and music to rural communities. One of the fantastic things it does is connect Canadian composers with teachers and students. I am frequently asked by parents and students to make piano lessons “fun and exciting” and I believe that having a personal connection with the music, and feeling like you can express yourself through music can help students and teachers achieve that goal.

Summer Sizzle is not only for teachers. Running concurrently with the symposium is a “Keyboard Kamp” for students and parents. The workshops are all led by composers and teachers, with programs running for the teachers and students at the same time. The students get to learn improvisation and composition with real live Canadian composers (we get to meet the composers!). And on the last day, the students perform their new compositions! Meanwhile, teachers were treated to music by the many composers at the symposium, and attended workshops with topics ranging from rhythm to preteaching to polyrhythms to improvising.

The main focus for this year’s Summer Sizzle was Impressionism. Impressionism was a style or movement in art (painting) originating in France in the 19th century. Painters associated with the style included Monet, Manet, Degas, Sisley, Pissaro, and Renoir. Below are some typical Impressionistic paintings.

Water Lilies by Claude Monet
Water Lilies by Claude Monet
Impression; Sunrise
Impression; Sunrise

Characteristics of the style include short, thick, visible strokes of paint with not much blending, scenes of nature, bright colors, and capturing a general sense or feeling or experience instead of an accurate depiction. This artistic style was later adopted by composers such as Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Impressionistic music is also similarly mysterious. Here is a typical impressionist piece called “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair”. While listening to the piece, imagine a girl sitting in a sunny field in Scotland, the sun gleaming in her hair. Debussy uses musical devices such as the pentatonic scale and unexpected chords and harmonies.  

Other characteristics of Impressionist music include the use of whole tone and pentatonic scales, modes, chord extensions (7ths, 9ths, etc,), open chords, polychords, variations in time signatures, and layers of harmonies. Composers began to treat harmonies differently, instead of resolving them in the traditional sense. The sense of a tonic, or home key is less evident. The trend toward exploring wider sounds and harmonies can already by found in the music of “Romantic-style” composers such as Frederic Chopin:

Below is Oiseaux tristes (Sad Birds) by Maurice Ravel, played by 16 year-old George Li (he is nearly 20 yrs old now). George Li won 2nd place on July 1, 2015 at the XV International Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia.

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