Discover Your Own Musical Creativity, with Forrest Kinney

Today we’re getting to speak with someone we’ve been hearing about for years, Forrest Kinney. He’s the author of the Pattern Play series of piano books which you might remember past guests Natalie Weber and Sara Campbell both mentioned as being fantastic for helping students get “off the page” and start to be more creative in their music-making.

He’s actually the author of 35 music learning books. He’s also a highly in-demand speaker, giving presentations on all the interesting things we’ll be talking about today, and still regularly performs, including dozens of private appearances at a certain billionaire’s house – stay tuned to hear about that.

In this conversation we talk about:

  • Forrest’s own musical beginnings and whether such a creative musician as himself credits talent for that creative success
  • The 4 Arts of Music that you can pick from and blend to find your own true identity as a musician
  • The right way to think about music theory – and his opinion on scales that often gets him in trouble!

If you’ve ever felt like learning to play sheet music note by note just wasn’t the right fit for you as a musician, or you’ve felt the urge to create even though you don’t consider yourself “a creative”, you’re going to love this episode.

We should mention there were a couple of bits here where our connection got a bit patchy and you might hear a few short cut-outs – stick with it, they were very short sections and we don’t think they’ll affect how much you’ll get out of listening to this.

Listen to the episode:

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Christopher: Welcome to the show Forrest. Thank you for joining us today.

Forrest Kinney: Well thank you for having me.

Christopher: I would love to start at the beginning because I know an awful lot about what you do now and the many books you’ve published and the impact you’ve had on music education, but I don’t know that much about where you got started in music and I’d love to learn more about that early experience for you.

Forrest Kinney: Oh, boy. Do we have to go there? I might need a therapist to talk about this with you. I say that only half in jest because I had actually a wonderful start in music because I didn’t have a teacher. When I was a kid I would walk by the family piano and I’d sit down and I would just make sounds, and I always loved the sounds on that old piano. And I basically did this for years. And my older siblings had had terrible experiences with piano lessons. So I think my mother was quite relieved when I said I wanted to study saxophone. And so I didn’t actually take a piano lesson until I was nearly sixteen years old.

That’s when it because problematic, because as you might guess I was way behind my peers. I had a friend that was playing a Beethoven sonata in the first recital, and I was playing a tiny little piece from Bartok for children. And I was humiliated. I knew I was smart, I knew I loved music, but my technique was terrible, I shook; I remember my hands shaking so badly when I’d reach for the final note (which was a B) my hand was shaking so much that it was hovering over A, B, and C and finally I just took a plunge and hit it and fortunately I got the B correctly. But my legs would shake on the piano. So, that’s why I’m saying, boy, to go back to that period’s difficult for me because it was a time of nerves and frustration and humiliation because the classical approach really didn’t address who I was as a musician.

Christopher: That’s a really interesting comment. So how did the next few years go for you then if this wasn’t a good fit for who you were going to go on to become as a musician?

Forrest Kinney: Well fortunately my piano teacher gave me a great musical education. We went to concerts, we listened to music at his house, he did a remarkable job of teaching me about music. But the physical difficulty of playing the piano – I got it intellectually quickly, how to read, how to play, but what a struggle physically and emotionally to be able to perform and play. And what happened during that time is I fell in love with literature, and was determined to do a good job, but that whole ability to improvise and make my own versions of songs which now I call arranging, all that fell away when I tried to become a classical musician.

And I went on to college and tried to study, but finally I kind of crashed and burned when I realized that wasn’t who I was. So I actually quit piano for a year when I was twenty, it was kind of a, oh you could call it a metaphysical crisis or something. I wondered who I was. And then I really became who I was. I put my music books away, and all I did for two years was improvise with my eyes closed. I rediscovered that childlike love of music that I’d had as a kid, that I’d completely forgotten about in this quest to become this incredibly good musician that could play Chopin etudes at a blazing speed. And I kind of recovered that childlike love, and joy, and I started teaching again, and that’s when I decided, boy, I have to figure out a way to help others learn to improvise, because to me it was the heart and soul of piano.

And I struggled and struggled, and finally I took some Jazz lessons, and started to kind of understand music as a language of patterns. And I started inventing patterns for my students, very short simple musical accompaniments that they could use to start making sounds and improvising with. And from those humble beginnings, grew this infatuation with this series I call ‘Pattern Play’, and I’ve come up with, I think I’ve published over four hundred patterns now for people and there’s a lot more still to come. So, but that’s how it all began, with the love of improvising, the loss of improvising, and the return to it.

Christopher: Fantastic, that’s so interesting, and I think what I have to ask is, in that moment when you kind of put the sheet music away and decided to close your eyes and try improvising, did it all come super easily to you? Was it, you could always improvise and you just hadn’t tried to, or was that something that you then had to learn?

Forrest Kinney: By that point, I’d done it since I was a child, and now of course I knew a lot about music, so I kinda put the two together; that childlike intuition I had, that love of exploring and just making sounds, and then marrying it to all the knowledge I gained in college and high school. So I started improvising in the different classical styles. I remember once thinking, “oh I love Debussy, and I’m going to improvise in the style of Clair de Lune”. And so it was more of a directed improvisation. But no, I didn’t really have to relearn it, it was more just remember how to do it. Remember that kind of childlike love of exploring.

Christopher: Fascinating. I am such a fan of the Pattern Play approach, I think it’s so smart the way you’ve put it together, and the reason I say that is I’m sure a lot of the people listening have felt that pain of being put on the sheet music route and told to just play the notes on the page, and felt that urge to improvise.

Forrest Kinney: Right.

Christopher: And kinda felt like if I could just make it up and play freely that would be much better. But sometimes there’s a really big gulf there, and it sounds like for you, you’ve kind of been nurturing that improvisation along the way, and you were able to kind of challenge, channel the knowledge and vocabulary you’ve built up, but for someone who is feeling like I want to dabble but I don’t know how, I think the way you’ve put together Pattern Play is really elegant. So maybe you could just explain that for someone in that position of wanting to improvise and not knowing where to start. Or even just more broadly wanting to create. What have you put together with the Pattern Play approach?

Forrest Kinney: Yeah you know, I think you said it very nicely, that people have an instinctive desire to want to do it, and I always compare it to speaking. When we were children, our relationship with language is that we spoke it spontaneously, and that’s actually how music used to be in the Baroque period. In the time of Bach, before it was printed. People don’t realize it but, only eight of eighteen hundred works of Bach were printed in his lifetime. There just really wasn’t printed music available. It was all either improvised or written by hand. And so music was conceived of as speech, and it was meant to be done spontaneously.
But once literature came out in the nineteenth century and the publishing industry, that’s when this whole shift happened, and music became about reading scripts and reciting scripts. A lot of us come into piano lessons and think, there’s something wrong here. It isn’t just about reciting the notes of another person; isn’t it supposed to be about creating your own? Isn’t that what art is about? When you study creative writing, you’re supposed to create your own stories, or you study painting, you’re supposed to create your own painting. So, wait, isn’t something wrong here that in music we learn the music of others and stop there? And so, I agree with those people who feel that.

To me, they’ve got a natural feeling that, hey, music should be a spoken language and you should be able to sit down at a piano and say, you know, I’m in an A-flat Lydian mode today, or, you know I’m in an E-flat minor kind of mood. They should be able to just sit down, and play in that key, and find the music that fits their feelings. And so, the Pattern Play approach is basically very short accompaniment patterns that are in countless different styles. One of the issues I had with approaches to improvisation that I saw was that they were all based on Jazz idioms.

Now, I have things in Jazz and Blues idioms, but some of the favorite patterns I’ve ever taught people are in New Age styles. There’s one called Persia that I teach all the time with pencils in the piano that, people just love it. I teach an Irish pattern, some music from Africa. You can improvise with anything. So the Pattern Play approach is basically the short, very short, like usually twelve notes or less, patterns that you learn and then you’re given a set of keys to create with. Like, just create on black keys. Or just create melodies on white keys. Or just create with D, E flat, F sharp, G and A, the first notes of a Persian scale. You begin with these increments, these small bits of music, and explore and feel successful, and then you keep adding in more layers, but all along you’re exploring like a child, just listening and responding and speaking. So there’s really no reading involved except for basically reading the pattern from the page. But even then I’ve created videos now that you can learn from the videos without any reading required.

Christopher: Perfect. I wonder if you wouldn’t mind giving us a quick example of what kind of music would be produced when you take this approach.

Forrest Kinney: Well I’ll give you one example or two examples, but really there are hundreds of different styles in my books, and that’s what I like most about my books is the diversity. Let me start with one of the most exotic patterns, and it’s not that hard. With your right hand, you can simply start by playing D, E flat, F sharp, and G. First four notes of what’s called a Persian scale. Now what I like to do is put a pencil, lay a pencil on top of the strings, if you have a grand piano, and then it makes it sound like this. Gives it quite an exotic sound.
And what’s nice about that is, you’re not ever going to make a mistake because it sounds so weird that nobody knows what’s right or wrong. Who cares. And in the bass, all you do is play a D and an A. Now what you can do is place a book, preferably a Pattern Play book, over the top of the bass strings to create this sound. And that makes it into kind of a drum. Now I left the book off the lowest string so it would ring, but then I put the book over the upper note, the A, so it gets a percussive sound. All together. Now, I’m playing that D and A in any way I want. For example, if I’m a beginner, I might just do simple quarter notes. But if I’m a more advanced player, any pattern can be adapted to who I am, so I might play it like this.

Now, the complete scale is actually D, E flat, F sharp, G, and then A, B flat, C sharp, D, so you can make quite a lot of music. One of the things that I love about Pattern Play is that everybody can adapt it to their own mood and their own abilities. An advanced player could do something like this. A beginner could do this. And a beginner can come back two years later and do this. So, that’s one example, I don’t know if you want another one or not.

Christopher: Wonderful, maybe we can come back for another later in the conversation. I’d love that.

Forrest Kinney: One thing I should mention, I just made a short 40 second video that shows how you do this with a grand piano, and it’s on my YouTube channel so people could look at that. Now I’m always asked if this could work with an upright piano, but sadly there’s something in the universe called gravity, well actually maybe it’s a good thing we have gravity, but if you put pencils on the strings of an upright piano, gravity just sends them right down, so no it doesn’t work on an upright piano.

Christopher: And we should probably put in a legal disclaimer to not go off and put random objects into your piano teacher’s piano when they’re not looking.

Forrest Kinney: Yes exactly, no dairy products for example. But there are things that work really nicely, like aluminum foil makes an interesting foil. I like credit cards. Sometimes that’s the best use for credit cards. I like paper. I’ve explored a bunch of different things. And I’ve been assured by piano technicians that these kinds of things, lightly placed on the strings, is not going to damage things. You have to be careful though to use long pencils, because if you use a short pencil, I one time had it drop between the strings and land on the sound board, and that wasn’t a good experience.

Christopher: I see, well, lest our audience think that your Pattern Play books are only about strange exotic sounds, we’ll definitely have to circle back and give another example later, because as you said there’s a huge variety there, most of which I imagine don’t involve putting pencils into your piano.

Forrest Kinney: Yeah actually, that’s the only one. Maybe I should do a blues pattern, since probably a lot of people would expect it to be about Jazz and Blues.

Christopher: Sure, so that slightly touches on something I was really keen to return to, which was you made a very interesting remark when talking about your own musical journey which was that it was very much about your identity and who you were or wanted to be as a musician, and I think we have all of these words that come with baggage and I, even, in the conversation so far have been slightly hesitant to say improvise or be creative because I know for a lot of people listening those ideas just seem out of reach. I’m a geeky guy by background, I don’t consider myself a creative person, and it took a while for me to realize I could create things in music even though I didn’t consider myself an artist. I’d love if you could just share a bit about your four arts model and how that can help people realize there are different identities available in music.

Forrest Kinney: Yeah, I think that’s really my main focus is to share what I call the four arts. We’ve talked about improvising, but that’s only one of four main ways I think there are to be creative in music. A second way is arranging. Now, arranging is often confused with improvising. But arranging is when you start with somebody else’s melody or theme, and you take your knowledge of chords and styling chords and things like that, and you make your own version of a song. Now traditionally, people were taught to do that first.

For example, Bach taught something called figured bass, which was basically an understanding of chords and harmony, with the understanding that once you knew how to do that you could take a hymn tune or a folk tune, and you could make your own version of it. And then, on the repeats, you would vary it, and that was called improvising. So the art of improvising was actually taught after the art of arranging. Now, what I’ve done is created a series of books called Chord Play and now my new series Puzzle Play, which just teaches this without any improvisation. Just an understanding that, here’s chords, here’s techniques of what you can do with them, here’s ways you can make your own versions of tunes.

Now, it’s a very fun and creative art, and I consider it to be the most practical of musical arts. I made my living as a musician, I quit teaching for a few years and made my living entirely as a musician just playing my arrangements at events.

So, what I was hired to do was provide music for events. But people did not wanna hear a Beethoven sonata. They wanted to hear Elton John, or they wanted to hear the Beatles. They wanted to hear familiar melodies. They didn’t even want to hear that much improvisation. They wanted to hear things they know. So the art of arranging is what I learned, and basically learned how to arrange a piece like Girl from Ipanema or a standard like Georgia or Summertime or even play Pachelbel’s Canon or Vivaldi’s Spring in my own way. And that’s a tremendously useful art if you want to work as I’ve done in churches or on cruise ships.

I don’t know if you know this but I’ve played at Bill Gates’ house twenty six times, and the reason I get asked back, and I’ve been told this, is because Melinda Gates likes the fact that I play a diversity of styles and my own arrangements. I don’t play scores; I go in and play my own arrangements of these pieces. So that’s a very useful art to have, and an enjoyable one.
The third art is composing, and this includes songwriting, which I’ve done a lot of. I have a vocalist friend and he and I compose a lot of music together. Basically, composing is writing musical essays. There’s a whole craft that comes with that of understanding notation and such. And then the fourth art is the art of interpreting. This is not merely reading a musical score, but bringing yourself into it. So I can pick up or somebody can pick up a score and say, how do I feel? How can I shape these notes to express who I am?

And this kinda goes against a lot of the notion that there’s a correct way, one way in which you must play a score. And that whole ethic goes against this co-creative idea. I believe that if we’re playing a score, as an artist, as a creator, we need to bring ourselves into the score and add who we are to it. Otherwise, it becomes a skill rather than a creative art. So these are the four different ways of being a musician, and I’ve met some people who are natural interpreters. But people like me, we are natural improvisors, and we’re not happy unless we’re improvising every day. So I share this model with people to remind them that if you’re not happy with music, it’s probably because your teacher asked that you be a kind of musician that you’re naturally not.

Christopher: Interesting. And I noticed that you didn’t mention there the identity of “playing like a robot, never making any mistakes, and always playing things in exactly the same way according to the sheet music”.

Forrest Kinney: But see, exactly, and that’s because that’s not an art, that’s a skill. A robot can be absolutely precise and skillful, but that really has nothing to do with creativity. Somebody can listen to a robot and say, wow, how artistic, because it’s really programmed skillfully. And, okay, it might be artistic, but it’s not creative. For it to be creative, by nature it has to be different every time. So the true interpreter of a Chopin nocturne, will, like Chopin did, play it differently every time they sit down and play it. That is a historical fact. Those who heard Chopin play say that he never played his pieces the same way twice.

In fact there’s a funny story where he was at one of his salons and he played one of his nocturnes, and somebody came up to him and said, maestro, that was lovely! Could you please play it again for us? And he said yes, after I take a little break I’ll play it again. So he goes off and he comes back, and he sits at the keyboard and plays quite a different piece. The audience member comes up afterwards and says, maestro, that was lovely, but I kind of wish you’d played the other piece again. And Chopin said, well, I did!

That’s what a creative person does. It’s always going to be fresh and different.

Christopher: I think what I love about the way you talk about these things and the way you teach them is it provides such variety of entry points to musical creativity, and like I touched on before, I think for a lot of people there’s a real barrier there because they don’t think of themselves as a creative, and even if they picked up the instrument because they had that urge to put something out there into the world, we have such a cultural assumption about what it means to be a composer that it makes a lot of people feel like they don’t have permission to or they don’t have the gift they would need to. So I love the way you provide lots of different ideas about how you can express yourself in music.

Forrest Kinney: Yeah, I think you’ve touched on something so essential. I think a lot of people walk away from music lessons feeling like they don’t have what it takes. It’s because education is so limited and based on such narrow assumptions. My understanding is that music is just like language. That anybody can learn to speak it and anybody can be spontaneous making different sentences all the time. The reason we can all do that is we were not educated. Our intuition was trusted, we were interacted with, we learned to speak. If we’re introduced to music in a certain way, then I think we can have those same kind of creative free ranging abilities.

I think anybody can, and I think that one of the things that’s really kept people from feeling creative is this notion of talent. People think, oh I don’t have the talent. I didn’t have talent either when I began. I was a total klutz. So I don’t believe in talent. What I believe in is love. I loved music. So I stuck with it, and I learned talent, I developed talent out of that love. So I always say, the amateur musician, the word amateur comes from the French or Latin meaning to love. The amateur who loves music can develop over time all the talent they need to do what they want to do if they just stick with it.

Christopher: I really wish I could play what you just said on the first day of them picking up an instrument. I think that would go a long way to fixing some of the problems in music education. I think what’s been clear from our conversation so far is that you and I both agree that the traditional methods of teaching music or at least teaching an instrument leave a lot to be desired, and I think a lot of people in that will point to the grading system and the need to pass exams and give recitals and kind of have check boxes for whether you’re improving or not. What I wanted to ask you was, if we move completely away from that model, are we losing something particularly for the adult musician who wants some clear indication that they are getting results from their efforts. Is there an equivalent in this world of more creative music learning?

Forrest Kinney: Before I answer that question, let me give you a prelude before I get into the fugue here. When we say traditional, I always laugh, because traditional only goes back as far as basically the nineteenth century when the printing industry really kicked in and method books really kicked in. Literature became available for the first time. It was only in the middle of the nineteenth century when performers like Clara Schumann began playing the music of other people. Prior to then, someone like Mozart or Chopin, they wouldn’t dream of giving a concert and playing the music of others, just like a pop musician today wouldn’t really get up and do covers of Beatles songs during their concerts. They’re expected to play their own music.

And so, the rise of conservatories and music schools in the nineteenth century began to promote this idea of what I call the actor metaphor, of playing the music of other people. And that’s when the modern ways of teaching began, and now that’s called traditional. But if you look back before that, the tradition of teaching was totally different. It was teaching improvisation, it was teaching composition. You couldn’t be a musician in Bach’s time if you didn’t improvise. You just couldn’t! There was an audition in 1725 in a church in Hamburg, six different requirements at this audition, five of which involved being able to improvise. It was just, that’s the way it was.

So I always laugh when people talk about tradition. So anyway. Now let me answer your question. I’m sorry I had to get on one of my soapboxes.

Christopher: I’m glad you did.

Forrest Kinney: Yeah. There’s a lot to be said for the traditional approach since the nineteenth century, as long as we remember it’s only about one art. The art of interpretation. And often times it gets derailed with the idea of the urtext, of the correct, of the only way. If teachers won’t get too stuck on that concept of polarizing creativity and correctness, then I think there’s a lot to be said for that way of teaching. However, again it’s only one facet, and there aren’t really comparable benchmarks when you’re teaching improvising. It’s just so personal and so multi faceted, you can’t talk about a level two or a level three. Somebody might have a tremendous feeling for swing rhythm for example, they might really have an inability to have a sensitivity of consonance and dissonance. Or vice versa, they might be wonderful at playing new age spacey music, but they can’t keep a beat. So it’s so personal, that I’d hate to put it on the same kind of strict levels of gradation.

Christopher: And so is it purely a matter of judging for yourself, am I better than last year?

Forrest Kinney: I think that’s really all that matters in art. I’m not a real fan of competition in art. Here’s the philosophy I live by. To me, art is all about discovering what makes you unique. In other words, why do we admire Beethoven so much? Because there was only one Beethoven. Why do we admire Scarlatti and Debussy and Chopin? Because they were incredibly innovative. Nobody did what they did. We admire people the most when they are willing to be themselves, when they’re willing to be unique. And so, to me, the only meaningful question ultimately is, have I discovered who I am? Have I discovered what’s made me unique?

That’s kind of why I’m so at ease with myself as a musician. I don’t play as well as Keith Jarrett, I never will, but I don’t care because I play my music, I play what I love, and as great a musician as Beethoven is, he doesn’t play Boogie Woogie as well as I do, or he doesn’t play New Age piano as well as I do, or he doesn’t play Persia music, because he never knew of those styles. I feel like, when we come into who we are and what we love, all that comparison and all that just falls away.

Christopher: Wonderful. I love the clarity of your four arts model. I think the way you have those four categories is really nice and clear. But I would hate for someone listening to feel like they need to pick one of the four. I wonder if could you maybe talk about how each of them might influence the others, or what a combination of them might look like?

Forrest Kinney: That’s an excellent, excellent question. I’m so glad you said that. The way that I understand the four arts is, I compare them to language arts. So improvising is like what we’re doing now; we are just making it up as we go along, and it’s coming out pretty well which I’m pleased about because sometimes you wake up in the morning and your words don’t flow as well. So improvising is speaking. So composing is basically being able to write essays and emails and things like that; it’s using language in a written form to put your thoughts together. Interpreting is basically being an actor, being able to read aloud and interpret and say it meaningfully.

The art of arranging is like storytelling; being able to take a joke you’ve just heard or a story or an idea you want to convey and being able to put it in your own words. All these abilities in language support one another. For example, my literacy, well let me put it this way. People always say when they talk to me, Forrest your ideas flow quite clearly! Well you know why? It’s because I’ve written thirty five books, and I’ve spent twelve hours a day for years getting my thoughts super clear. That’s because I wrote, that’s because I composed, and so that’s helped me as an improvisor of language by composing. So all the four arts, just like in language, support one another. The more you compose, the better you are at improvising. The better you are at improvising, the better you are at composing and arranging. And the more literature you study, the more it helps your ability as a composer and as an improvisor. For example, my ability as an improvisor to improvise like Scarlatti or to improvise like Fats Waller are because I’ve studied so much literature.

Christopher: Perfect, I think that’s such a great description, and I’m sure that helps people imagine what is the usefulness of learning all of that repertoire if I’m just going to sit down and do my own thing. I think those two illustrations really help bring that to life.

Forrest Kinney: Yeah, I think the beauty is that all these paths are available. Now most of the time I spend improvising, but I go through phases, where recently I wanted to learn a piece by Ravel from Le Tombeau de Couperin suite, and I just worked on that like crazy. I have a duet partner, we’re working on a Brazilian composer’s piano duet, so I’ll spend weeks sometimes just doing literature, and then I’ll spend eight months doing nothing but improvising, and then four months doing nothing but composing. So what’s wonderful is to have all the options so we can follow whatever desire we have.

Christopher: So I wanted to ask you about two kind of anti heroes of this creative music world. Two topics that are kind of held up as the antithesis of creativity in music, one of which is music theory and the other is scales, and I’d love to get your perspective on those two and whether they’re useful and if so how?

Forrest Kinney: Okay, well good let’s start with music theory because that’s less controversial. What I have to say about scales has gotten me into a lot of trouble over the years. But here’s the thing with music theory. I love music theory, and I know it inside out. I know how to write motets in the style of Palestrina. I know how to sharp fives and flat fives and sharp nines and sharp elevens and play in the Lydian mode with sharp elevens. I love music theory, but I think generally it’s taught poorly, and here’s why I say this.

Music theory is usually taught as a system of rules or prescriptions about how it should be done, and to me that really misunderstands the higher purpose of music theory. To me, music theory becomes a wonderful, beautiful thing when it’s used to reveal hidden possibilities. So for example, a student is playing and improvising for me in the key of D major. And I say, you know, you might enjoy, I hear you wanting it to be an even brighter sound. Do you know what a Lydian mode is? And the student will say, no, and I say, well that’s when you sharp the four of any major scale to give it this uplifting, spring like bright quality. Here, let’s try that. And the student will try it and they’ll say, oh I love that. And I say, okay, now let’s try to do it, try playing an A flat Lydian, and we’ll do that. So I’m teaching them theory but they don’t even know it because we’re exploring the possibilities of music.
And so if music theory is used as a tool for exploring possibility, then it becomes this powerful tool. But if it’s used to deny possibilities and say to people, like I once heard, don’t go from a one chord to a three chord because that’s a weak progression. Well what a bunch of *bleep*! Going from a one to a three chord has a particular beauty to it. And so, I would say music theory is a great thing if taught properly, but it can be damaging if not taught properly.

Christopher: That’s a beautiful way of putting it and I love the description of it being used to enable possibilities rather than deny them. I think that’s exactly the right way to think about it.

Forrest Kinney: That sums it up in one sentence, right, right there.

Christopher: So it’s time to get yourself in trouble and talk about scales.

Forrest Kinney: Oh my god, look at the time! Okay. Here’s the thing. What is a scale? I always joke and I say a scale is basically a dead melody. Somebody years ago looked at a bunch of melodies and said wow, they all have the same pitches in common, and if I organize the pitches in order, step by step, it’s kind of like going up a ladder. The word ladder in Latin is scale. So that’s really what it is, it’s a ladder of pitches. In the nineteenth century, somebody came up with the idea with running up and down the keyboard to learn these in all the keys. It really wasn’t done in the Baroque period because scales weren’t really thought of yet. People still thought of melodies.

So my issue with scales is that they basically kill the melodic instinct. And so, yeah, your fingers get fast, but if you’ve killed your melodic instinct in the process, not such a good thing. So I teach scales very differently now. I have people improvise in them for quite a while before they ever do it in a mechanical way, if they ever do. For example, I can play in any mode in any key, but I’ve never practiced them mechanically. So that’s my issue with scales. If we do them mechanically, we dull our musical instinct. So I’m always saying, look, if you’re going to practice scales, do it in musical ways. Improvise with them! Create melodies! Play them in a context where you’re musically engaged, so you’re bringing in phrasing, you’re bringing in touches, you’re bringing in pedaling, you’re bringing in musical sensibilities, not killing them.

Christopher: Fantastic. I find it hard to imagine who could argue with that, Forrest.

Forrest Kinney: Oh you’d be surprised. Because scales are a sacred cow. Scales, if you’re a piano teacher you wouldn’t think of not teaching scales. I teach my students to play in all the keys and different modes, but I just don’t do it in a mechanical way anymore. It is quite controversial. I’ve had teachers get very mad at me, very heated, during my workshops. I actually kind of enjoy the discussion, but it’s gotten me in a lot of trouble.

Christopher: I see. Well I’ll avoid getting you in any more trouble and be respectful of your time. This has been such a fascinating conversation, thank you, and I think there is so much there for everyone listening to think about and apply in their own musical life. There’s lots of avenues to explore in terms of creativity and finding your own identity, whether it’s a blend of those four arts or something you come up with yourself. I know that the ideas you’ve shared today, Forrest, are really going to help people on that more creative path.

Forrest Kinney: I appreciate this conversation and I appreciate your clarity and your questions, and I think you’ve really helped me get to the essence of it, that art is really about discovering who we are, what we love to do, and there are so many different ways in music that haven’t really been encouraged. I’m glad you allowed me the chance to share them.

Christopher: Terrific, well we did promise everyone listening one more demonstration of Pattern Play, so if you wouldn’t mind could I ask you to take to the keyboard again?

Forrest Kinney: Yes!

Okay, so here I am at the piano and I’m going to demonstrate another pattern from my book, a very popular one. So in the Pattern Play books, there’s always a pattern and a vacation, which is a contrasting pattern. So that way your accompaniment has a lot of variety and you keep moving between the two. So here’s the pattern of a blues piece called Blues on Black. It’s E flat, B flat, D flat, and E flat. Sounds like this.

I’m just playing quarter notes. I’m going to do that four times, and then move down and do pretty much the same thing starting on A flat. E flat, G flat, and A flat. So what I’ve got here is a pattern made of eight notes. So there, third time, and fourth time. And then I go to A flat. And I keep repeating that. Now, in my right hand, I’m just going to create on any black key, and any A natural. Now, together, this makes what’s called an E flat blues scale. So all I’m doing here is playing that pattern in my left hand and adding a melody using those notes. Now every pattern after a while gets tiring, so it needs what I call a vacation.

In this case, the vacation is B flat, F, A flat, B flat, going back to that A flat pattern. And then the pattern repeats again. So that’s the materials, and I can create for the rest of my life with that scale and the pattern. I might play notes together. I think it’s time for a vacation, so here I go. And there you go.

Christopher: Wonderful! Well I have no doubt that will inspire everyone listening to go and learn more about Pattern Play and discover all of the good things waiting for you at We’ll have a link to both of those of course in the show notes for this episode. Thank you again Forrest for joining us today.

Forrest Kinney: Thank you. I really enjoyed this.

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