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Meet the Composer: Chee-Hwa Tan

November 6, 2017



I would like to start by sharing a quote with you from Alfred North Whitehead, a turn of the century English mathematician, philosopher and educational reformer whose writings were foundational to Frances Clark’s approach to pedagogy:


"The mind is never passive; it is a perpetual activity, delicate, receptive, responsive to stimulus. You cannot postpone its life until you have sharpened it. Whatever interest attaches to your subject matter must be evoked here and now; whatever powers you are strengthening in the pupil, must be exercised here an now; whatever possibilities of mental life your teaching should impart, must be exhibited here and now."


My good friend, Sam Holland, highlighted this same quote in his Questions and Answers column of the July/August edition of Clavier Companion. The font in bold is mine.  I would like to take the liberty to quote Sam’s translation about what this looks like for us as teachers:


Whitehead is telling us that at the first lesson the second lesson, and in every lesson all the time, we’ve got to get to the good stuff. We’ve got to enjoy the joy and thrill of making music. We’ve got to hear and revel in beautiful sound. We’ve got to feel rhythmic vitality, pulse and control…  We can’t wait for these things to happen until the mind or skill set of the student has been “sharpened.”


When Amy Glennon invited me to contribute to this blog, I reflected about how the above quotes strike to the heart of why I composed A Child’s Garden of Verses, Through the Window Pane, Circus Sonatinas, and everything else that I do in music and teaching today.


I want a vehicle to connect my students emotionally to the concepts that they are learning – be it the plain old dominant chord, 6/8 meter, question and answer phrases, or, rhythmic vitality, pulse and control.  I do not want to “postpone the life” of my students’ minds till they are “sharpened.” I want to get to the “good stuff” right away. Let’s face it: the season for lessons is brief -- “whatever interest, whatever powers, whatever possibilities of mental life” must be presented in a way that give students opportunity to relate and take personal ownership in the here and now.   We have to see our students as “complete musicians” NOW.  Not next year. They may have quit by then!


My process for composing piano music begins with the question:  “What does a student need to experience and understand better?”   I tend to sift through technical and musical concepts that students typically struggle with at the intermediate and advancing years, then I break it down to the most basic skill that would help students grasp the essence of that concept at a lower level.  I believe that playing joyfully and expressively begins at the beginner and elementary levels.  That’s where the connection to beauty begins.


The students that have inspired me to write my pieces are the fidgety boys, the note-correct-but-cautious girls, the ones that struggle with hand independence in the Bach Inventions, the students that do not hear the beauty of the phrase shape, the students that are older and crave to sound “advanced” now…  these are my inspirations. 


For me, the biggest challenge in composing educational music is to make it technically accessible and still be “music and teaching worthy.”  I don’t believe in teaching anything that does not have specific value. It is much more difficult to do a lot with less notes.  I guess that’s why Mozart was such a master! 


As a busy mom of four teenagers - all who are musicians in their own right - I do not yet have a regular time to compose every day. I do hear music in my head at night when I lie down in bed. The day that they invent a device that can scan those themes from my head to a score will be the day I truly get prolific!  


I grew up in the British ABRSM system and simple composition was actually a part of the theory curriculum. I always thought it was fun, but pedantic. However, having a lot of theory gave me the confidence to arrange music for ensemble needs, talent shows, etc. I am thankful for the required composition courses in undergraduate and graduate study as the “assignments” forced me to approach composition in a more intentional fashion.


“A Child’s Garden of Verses” came about as a result of a pedagogical composition course taught by Dr. David Karp. At that time, I had a class of six eight-year olds who needed to transition to the early intermediate level. I thought that since I “had” to compose something, then I wanted the students to “hear and revel in beautiful sound” right away while teaching them the concepts needed to transition to the intermediate level of playing. Freeing up students to emote and play beautifully has always been my goal. And yes, my first collection came about as a result of an assignment!  


I hope that what I have shared here will encourage you in your journey as a fellow musician and mentor to your students.  I “make” myself find time to attend beautiful concerts, conferences, read inspiring books, look at beautiful art work, and yes, play through piano repertoire. It feeds my soul and reminds me how much I love being involved in the music making process and how much I love helping others connect to music.

Editor's Note: To learn more about Chee-Hwa Tan, including links to performances of her compositions, visit her website here: Chee-Hwa Tan


Videos of Alan Huckleberry performing some of Chee-Hwa Tan's compositions are found below: 



 The Wind (from A Child's Garden of Verses)





 Where Go the Boats? (from A Child's Garden of Verses)


Pirate's Story (from A Child's Garden of Verses)


Looking Glass River (from Through the Windowpane)


Shadow March (from Through the Windowpane)




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This site is created by the faculty of the New School for Music Study, a division of the Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy.

February 13, 2018

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