Earlier this year, I was watching television and came across the presentation of the Gershwin Prize, honoring Billy Joel. The Gershwin Prize is a newly established award by the United States Library of Congress, honoring a songwriter who has made significant contributions to the popular American song. (http://www.loc.gov/about/awards-and-honors/gershwin-prize/) Previous honorees have included Carole King, Paul Simon, and Stevie Wonder.
The award is aptly named for George and Ira Gershwin, American songwriters of the Tin Pan Alley era, whose songs such as “Embraceable You” and “I Got Rhythm” are still well-known today.
The award is given during a concert in Washington D.C. each year featuring the songs of the honoree, often performed by other well-known artists. The concert honoring Billy Joel was a real treat—the band tightly wove wonderful arrangements of the well-known hits, the singers executed the vocals beautifully. The highlight of the concert was when Billy Joel himself came to the stage and played several numbers with the group. I was so impressed with his technical prowess at the piano and his musically sensitivity to the songs. After the concert, the 2013 concert honoring Carole King was aired, and I was glued to the television. Again, I was moved and inspired by Carole King’s effortless piano technique and ease at the instrument. An added bonus was the pleasure of hearing so many familiar songs from the 60s-80s.
As one does these days, I began researching these artists online. I learned that both Billy Joel and Carole King had an extensive background in classical music. Joel comes from a musical family—his half brother is a classical conductor in Europe—and studied classical piano from an early age. He also is a composer of classical music, and released a classical album in 2001. Likewise, Carole King studied the piano since age four and had early experiences in conducting.
As I enjoyed these concerts, I couldn’t help but think about my own students. As I work with young people, I have no idea what the future holds for them. They may become a professional musician in a variety of musical styles or genres, or they may be professionals in another field, enjoying music for life. Regardless of my students’ future career path, I found myself wanting to give them the following messages:
- Work to be the best musician you can be in all areas—don’t limit yourself! I doubt that when Billy Joel was a young piano student, studying Mozart and Beethoven, that he imagined himself playing “Piano Man” every night. Maybe he did, we don’t know! However, I do know that he worked to master his instrument. He likely spent many hours at the piano practicing scales and arpeggios—his technical facility at the piano proves it. He is also deeply familiar with a wide variety of styles and genres. If he had limited himself as a youngster, determined to focus only on one certain style, he likely wouldn’t be the amazing musician we know him to be today.
- Challenge yourself. We all have areas of music that come more easily than others. Some students have wonderful ears, but need to work harder to read music effortlessly. Others are the exact opposite. Some students compose and improvise readily, while others shy away from these activities. Some students transpose without giving it much thought, while others have to work much harder at it. Cultivate your strengths, but don’t neglect a focus on the musical elements that are your weakness. Commit to a steady, diligent practice in these areas, set regular goals for yourself and hold yourself accountable.
- Explore ALL musical styles and genres. We all have our preferences for certain styles of music. Some prefer major pieces to minor ones, or vice versa; others may be drawn to music of the Romantic Period, popular styles, or Bach Inventions. It is common to want to focus on the styles of music that are our favorites. Again, we can learn from Billy Joel. As a young musician, he immersed himself in a variety of musical styles. I want my students to immerse themselves in all kinds of music. Listen to classical piano music, symphonies, opera, and chamber music, as well as popular music—both current and past—folk music, and any genre you can! This vast musical knowledge has certainly helped Billy Joel throughout his career, and it will do the same for every piano student.
So, to today’s students I say: listen to every type of music you can get your hands on—Beethoven, opera, and Billy Joel; focus on your weaknesses and challenge yourself to improve on the areas of musical skills that are hard for you. In addition, always strive to be the best musician that you can be to set yourself up well for a lifetime of enjoying and experiencing the transformative power of music!