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Meet the Composer: A Conversation with Dennis Alexander

December 18, 2017


Note from the Editor: Like so many piano teachers, I have enjoyed introducing Dennis Alexander's music to students of a wide variety of levels, from elementary to advanced, children and adults. In this recent conversation, I learned more about his creative process.


Do you set aside a regular time of day to compose?


When I first started composing for Alfred Music Publishing, I was teaching full-time at the University of Montana, Missoula, and my teaching and performing responsibilities at the time were considerable. I would often arrive at the university by 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. to begin my practice routine---(there were always solo recitals, chamber music, and accompanying obligations) ----then my teaching schedule began, along with preparations for piano pedagogy classes, committee meetings, and that was followed by teaching several younger preparatory students in late afternoon. Then, most evenings were taken up with student and/or faculty recitals or rehearsals. Consequently, I would often return home by 9:30 p.m. and “schedule” my composition work between 10:00---1:00 a.m.!  That would not have been my preference, but then I found that doing something TOTALLY different from my other obligations was energizing, creative, and a great new “adventure” for me. Some of my best and most popular solos and collections transpired during those late evening and early morning hours! Once I made the decision to retire from the university in 1996, I found that I rarely set aside a regular time of day to compose, as inspiration could “happen” in many different circumstances: during a “walk in the park”, while teaching a lesson, perhaps during a conversation with a good friend, or when reading an intriguing article or even watching a movie. Once inspiration hit me, I would jot down an outline of the melodic or rhythmic pattern, underlying harmony, and then later sit down at the piano and work out all the details! This sometimes happened in the morning hours, or even after dinner if the spirit moved me. Certainly, having more free time made the creative process “easier” for me and made the compositional “process” more relaxed and free flowing!



Do you have a particular level of student in mind when you compose, or do you see where the creative process takes you?


One of the most important things for an “educational composer” to do is to keep compositions “in level”-----meaning, making sure that the ENTIRE piece is appropriate for the level intended. Consequently, I always have a level of student in mind when I begin to compose. One of the biggest challenges is writing music at each level that motivates & inspires a student to want to practice it! We all know that students tend to always practice most the pieces they really love. I sometimes see music that might start off at the “perfect” late elementary level, and then midway through, there are two or three measures (or heaven forbid) a whole section that is too hard for that particular level. It might just be a particular rhythm pattern, or an awkward technical issue that immediately creates great frustration for the student. Sometimes I’ll get a creative “urge” to write something within a piece, but then I have to put myself in the shoes of the student and ask myself “does it feel to hard for the level”? I pride myself in working to create many pieces that “sound hard, play easy,” and I’m always very gratified when teachers tell me that a particular piece “saved” a student from dropping piano!



How did you get started with composing?


When Pete Jutras interviewed me for an article in Clavier Companion in 2013 (March/April 2013 issue), he asked me this same question. I hope you don’t mind if I share my same response here.


This is actually an amazing story, and one that would probably never happen today! In the fall of 1985, my friend Amanda Vick Lethco was in Montana presenting workshops for Alfred 's Basic Piano Library. Over dinner one evening she asked me if I would consider helping her and Willard Palmer promote their new method. At first I was very reluctant—typically workshops were given by method authors. After more urging from Amanda, I flew out to California the following summer and met with Morty Manus, President of Alfred, who was most kind and gracious. A tour through their offices (which were then in Sherman Oaks) convinced me that I would enjoy being a part of the Alfred “family.” A short time later, Morty asked me if I would consider writing the duet books to correlate with their method, as Willard Palmer didn't have the time to devote to them. I was honored that he would ask me to compose, but I told him in all honesty that I had never composed music before! He said "Why not?" And my response was "because no one had ever asked me!" Morty felt that I would have more credibility with the teachers if I had something published, so at his urging I jumped into the deep end with both feet and started composing all of the duet books that correlated with Alfred 's Basic Piano Library! Luckily, Willard, Morty, and Amanda liked what I wrote, and this turned out to be the beginning of a new career for me as a composer of educational piano music. I'll always be grateful to Morty for taking a chance with a totally unknown person so many years ago!



Have certain piano students inspired you to write particular pieces?


As a musician, teaching has always been my first love! I’ve had the good fortune to be able to teach students of all ages and abilities over the past 50 years. As a composer of educational repertoire, I can’t imagine being a composer without the added component of teaching at many levels. There have been numerous instances where certain students over the years either inspired or motivated me to write a piece. A piece called “Turquoise” (Splash of Color, Bk. 2) was written for a young, favorite student who often played preludes for her church, and I wrote this piece specifically for her to share with her congregation. Another young student at the time almost begged me to write a piece for her that was more “contemporary” in nature and that went all over the keyboard. Thus, “Green Tangerine” (in the same book) was born!  There are numerous other pieces inspired by former students, but that’s another whole chapter.



Are there special obstacles in composing educational music?  Do you ever encounter “writer’s block?” If so, what helps you to overcome this obstacle?


I think the biggest “obstacle” (or perhaps “challenge”) is a better word, is making sure that the entire piece is at the same level.  Once those creative juices start flowing, I find that I can sometimes get carried away with “developing” an idea that perhaps started off the piece, and I have to remind myself constantly to “stay in level” as the piece unwinds and develops.


And yes, I think everyone who is involved in the creative process experiences “writer’s block” from time to time. For me, the best solution is to simply move away from the piece, do something entirely different, and then come back to it a couple of days later. Invariably, I find the “answer” to what I was wanting when I step away from the project. I often feel that writing a good piece is like putting a jigsaw puzzle together!  The pieces are all “inside my head” instead of laying out on the table, and it’s simply a matter of finding and assembling all the pieces that finally create a wonderful, big picture.



What advice would you give composers interested in writing educational music?


I would encourage them to study numerous good pedagogical pieces by well-known composers and to analyze how the pieces are constructed. What makes a good melody line, and how does the composer develop an opening motive? Work to discover that "less is more"— so often, young composers get so excited about all the "ideas" that pour out of their heads that they try to cram too many different things into a single composition, rather than being content to develop one or two very good themes.


In addition, check out some of the excellent materials that are available today for helping to understand this creative process.  Alfred has a brand new series of six books by Wynn-Anne Rossi called Creative Composition Toolbox that goes from early-elementary through late-intermediate levels. I would also encourage budding composers to take a look at another publication by Carol Klose, Piano Teacher's Guide to Creative Composition, published by Hal Leonard. Another good resource is published by Alfred, called “Write it Right”, by Dan Fox.  These materials are written by wonderful and talented composers who are also dedicated teachers. And then, lastly, if the composer is interested in trying to get some things published, don’t send a publisher anything at the late intermediate—advanced levels.  They are going to be much more interested in something that has a much larger potential market.  Elementary---Late Elementary pieces are much more likely to be received well. Put together a nice variety of pieces (5-6) that are beautifully notated, with phrasing, fingering & dynamics.  And then, be patient and be prepared to wait for what might be several months before you hear anything back. It’s a busy world, and keyboard editors often have LOTS on their plates before they can respond to new inquiries.



Is there a mentor or other educational composer who has been particularly instrumental to your own success as a composer?


Oh yes! Three, actually. Since my composing career actually began by being asked to write all the duet books for Alfred’s Basic Piano Library, Willard Palmer was very instrumental in my early days as a composer. Of course he was such an esteemed music scholar, but he also wrote so many “magical” and clever pieces for young pianists at all levels. I studied so many of his original pieces and also learned a great deal from him personally, as I accompanied him on several tours before I started doing my own workshops. Willard had a terrific sense of humor and he shared many ideas with me with regard to composing educational music! In addition to Willard, I owe a great deal to both Lynn Freeman Olsen and William Gillock, who were such giant “forces” in the educational music field when I was just beginning in the mid 1980’s. Having taught piano pedagogy for a number of years at the University of Montana, I was quite familiar and very inspired by their wonderful and pianistic pieces for young pianists! While I deeply regret that I never had the opportunity to meet Gillock in person, he featured my “Planet Earth” collection in Clavier magazine and his excellent review gave me a tremendous boost in self-confidence. I met Lynn Olsen numerous times at MTNA conferences and he was also extremely kind, supportive and encouraging in my early years as a composer. 



Is there any particular collection, or collections, or a particular piece you have composed that is particularly close to your heart?  If so, why?


Wow----this is kind of like asking a parent “which of your children is your favorite”? Having composed so many collections and solos over the past 30 years, I have to admit that I have a number of “favorites” and all for different reasons.  But, perhaps one of the collections that is “particularly close to my heart” is one called “With These Hands," which I wrote about 9 months after the sudden death of my 23 year-old son, Darren. It was SUCH a journey----truly a life-changing experience and one that I wouldn’t wish on any parent. In the “foreword” to this collection, I shared a few words from a letter I received from a dear friend which truly moved me: “…..through all of your hard work and effort you have given young people the gift of music. Music will be, for many of your students, one of the ways they develop their own spirit and soul. It will also be a way your students will be helped and healed during the hurts and losses they will inevitably face in their own lives.” And so, after months of mourning, I got my “act” back together and wrote this collection in Darren’s memory, each piece representing something significant and meaningful in his life. Another personal “favorite” is the collection entitled “24 Character Preludes” --- short preludes in all the major and minor keys. I’ll admit that Gillock’s “Lyric Preludes” were a big influence in my decision to write this collection! They’re all purposely short----one or two pages----and I found it to be one of my biggest challenges, but also extremely gratifying. I also recorded a CD that accompanies the collection.



While you might be best known as a composer of educational materials, you have also taught piano to students of all ages your entire life.  How do you teach students to interpret music and perform artistically?  Can this be done at a young age?


I’ve always considered myself a teacher----first and foremost! But, I also happen to write lots of educational teaching materials. Personally, I can’t imagine composing for this genre and not teaching at the same time. One really has to understand the details of technique at all levels, in addition to having a creative mind and the knowledge of many different styles and levels of traditional piano repertoire! I actually answered this question in my interview with Pete Jutras when he did the “Clavier Companion” interview with me, so I’ll simply repeat what I shared then. 


I’ve always believed in training the young pianist to play artistically from the very beginning.  For me, delving into the child’s imagination is so very important. I like to ask lots of leading questions about the music they are learning, such as:  “Why do you think this piece is called The Cantankerous Kangaroo?" “What do you think “cantankerous” means?" "Where are the sounds in this piece that sound “cantankerous” to you?" I fear that too many teachers spend most of the lesson on very specific “terminology” issues that relate to rhythm, reading, technique, etc. and miss out on the more creative and imaginative aspects of music making. Of course, all of these elements need to be dealt with, but appealing to a child’s imagination invariably brings about a better performance, good sound, and more expressive qualities. Several years ago, I did a series of books with my good friend and co-author Ingrid Clarfield. The books are called “Keys to Artistic Performance” and there are three levels ---from early intermediate to late intermediate/early advanced. The books are designed to teach students the skills that will transform average performances into polished, artistic ones. Much of the repertoire is by standard, classical composers, but I have also written numerous compositions that highlight the various “keys” of artistic playing that include color, pedaling, rubato, characterization, and choreography. Both Ingrid and I believe that young students need to have a good “descriptive vocabulary” at their disposal----they need to be able to describe the appropriate character of each piece they are playing. I often tell students that they need to be able to “paint a picture” with the sounds that they make with their fingers, hands, arms and body---it all goes together to create an overall, artistic impression!



What is your focus, or your compositional “process” when writing pedagogical works?


This is another good question that was posed to me from Pete Jutras, and I’d love to share my response with your readers in this column as well, as I have been asked this question numerous times over the years!  


            When I write pieces for any age level, my main focus is to create something that I myself would have enjoyed practicing as a child. I feel that every piece needs to have a good “balance” of rhythm, harmony, and melody. I also feel very blessed that I’m able to improvise and play by ear. In fact, I’m so grateful to my first piano teacher for never discouraging me from improvising at the piano during my early years of lessons! There must have been times when my tendencies to “improve on the written score” must have driven her crazy----but she always took it in stride and forgave me for occasionally adding new chords and/or melodies to a Clementi sonatina. However, she made sure that I understood that it was taboo to do this to a piece in a public recital! I should share with your readers that I never intended or aspired to be a composer. My advanced degree was in piano performance, and I always planned to make performing and teaching my life vocation. I never studied composition in college, but my abilities to improvise and play by ear were instrumental in forming a foundation for the composition work that was to come my way. Of course, having taught all levels of students as well as piano pedagogy also helped to give me some very important tools that would guide my work as a composer of educational materials. It’s difficult for me to verbalize about how I approach the composition process---it’s very personal and quite different depending on the style of the music and it’s character. If I’m looking to compose a more “romantic” style piece, then melody is of the utmost importance, and I will improvise on the keyboard until that special melodic motive makes its magical appearance. Jazzy and/or contemporary pieces tend to have very strong rhythmical foundations, so with these types of pieces I usually try to visualize an interesting rhythm first and then the melody line grows from that. But then there are many times when I’ll simply “hear” a complete piece in my head (or at least the beginning of a piece) which of course is melody and rhythm all at once and then I’ll try to get that idea down on paper as quickly as possible before it evaporates!  Sometimes I need to have a good title first, and then that particular “image” conjures up a rhythmical/melodic motive that paves the way for the rest of the piece.  So, as you can see, the “process” is truly a real mix of several things and it’s usually different with every piece that I write. I’m often inspired by something that I see in nature, or perhaps something that I hear being performed!  Lately, I’ve been very inspired by tango music----it’s SO very rhythmical and melodic at the same time. I wrote a piece called “Tango a la Mango” in my “Splash of Color,” Bk. 3.  It’s totally fun to play and I think it will be a favorite with many students. A few years ago I was commissioned by MTNA to write a piano trio for piano, violin, and cello to be premiered at the national conference in Anaheim and once again, the tango has made it’s appearance in the 1st movement of this work. 



Do you have any new projects that you’re currently working on that will be of interest to teachers?


I’m very excited to announce that two new books of “Nocturnes” will be released sometime in January by my publisher, Alfred Music Publishing. I’ll be featuring them in a showcase at the MTNA Conference in Orlando this March. As a teacher, I have always longed for original nocturnes similar in style and form to the Chopin nocturnes, but easier in technical difficulty. I wanted them to sound sophisticated yet be suitable for recitals and competitions. Consequently, when the opportunity to write some collections of nocturnes was presented to me, I immediately accepted the challenge.


I composed 14 nocturnes ranging in levels from early intermediate to late intermediate. Divided into two books, the first book contains eight nocturnes for early intermediate to intermediate pianists. The second book features six nocturnes at the intermediate to late intermediate levels.  Each piece has its own unique character and mood. I hope that these nocturnes will inspire students to better understand the beauty, elegance, and magic of the Romantic period and especially the genius that Chopin displayed in his nocturnes.



Are there any other thoughts you’d like to share?


Over the past 30 plus years, my compositional process is constantly evolving, and I find myself inspired and influenced by so many different things. I feel so very fortunate that God has blessed me with this ability to compose! In addition, I’m grateful to all the teachers and students who have enjoyed my music over the years and am especially thankful that “the universe” introduced me to Alfred Music Publishing so many years ago and that it resulted in a fulfilling career that has allowed me to share my music with teachers and students all over the world. I feel very fortunate to have enjoyed a long career that combined my love of teaching with composing pieces for students of all ages!

Since his affiliation with Alfred Publishing Company in 1986 as a composer and clinician, Dennis Alexander has earned an international reputation as one of North America's most prolific and popular composers of educational piano music for students at all levels. Professor Alexander retired from his position at the University of Montana in May 1996 where he taught piano and piano pedagogy for 24 years. Upon moving to California, he taught privately in addition to serving on the faculties of Cal State Fullerton and Cal State Northridge. He currently lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico where he maintains an active composing and touring schedule for Alfred Publishing Company.


Professor Alexander is a native Kansan, having graduated from the University of Kansas where he was a student of Richard Reber. In 1972, he was invited to join the faculty at the University of Montana and served as piano department chair in addition to his teaching duties in applied piano, class piano and piano pedagogy. In 1987, he made his New York debut at Carnegie Recital Hall with violinist Walter Olivares and continues to be active as a soloist, accompanist and chamber musician. He has served as a collaborative artist for numerous internationally recognized soloists, instrumentalists, and chamber groups. A former president of the Montana State Music Teachers Association, he is a popular clinician at state and national music teachers conventions. In 2009, he was invited by MTNA to conduct the intermediate level master class at their national convention in Atlanta.  In 2014, Professor Alexander was invited to judge a national piano competition in India called “Musiquest” and has toured twice to the far East where he performed recitals and workshops in Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia and South Korea.


Over the years, numerous organizations and state associations have commissioned him to write compositions. His "Concertante in G Major" was commissioned by the Montana Music Teachers organization for their state convention, and his 2-piano work, "Fanfare Toccata Rondo" was commissioned by Goshen College. Many of his compositions are included in the National Federation of Music Study Clubs Festival required list and his music is being performed by students throughout the United States, Canada, South Africa, Australia, Asia, and Europe. One of Mr. Alexander's most significant contributions to the repertoire is "24 Character Preludes" in all major and minor keys which includes a CD with Dennis Alexander as soloist. He is also a co-author of an exciting and innovative piano method entitled "Alfred's Premier Piano Course". MTNA commissioned him to compose a chamber music work for piano, violin, and cello entitled “Dance Suite” and this work was premiered at the 2013 national conference in Anaheim, California. In the summer of 2015, the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy in Chicago honored Mr. Alexander with their “Lifetime Achievement Award”.   Mr. Alexander’s personal website, www.DennisAlexander.com, has become a favorite with piano teachers and features recordings, videos, teaching tips, and much more!

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