Phillip Keveren

Thembi Harris

Diversifying our students beyond the solo concert pianist

Phillip Keveren is an internationally acclaimed composer, arranger, orchestrator and producer. Co-author of the Hal Leonard Student Piano Library, and author of The Phillip Keveren Series, his work is integral to the studios of piano teachers around the globe. Phillip is visiting Australia this year as a keynote speaker for the Australasian Piano Pedagogy Conference, held in Brisbane from 8–12 July 2019. Thembi Harris sat down with Phillip to find out more about the man behind the music.

Do you remember your very first composition? When and why did you start writing music?
About twenty years ago, I found a manuscript in my parents’ piano bench. It was a very short little piece called Sonatina in G. I really do not remember writing it! But, I do remember the desire to compose from a very young age. I did not get serious about composing until my high school years.

What excites you the most about writing and playing music?
I love music. Period. I listen to a lot of music, both in recordings and concerts. That fuels my interest in writing. I play the piano in my own studio a lot, but I am less passionate about performing.

You live in Tennessee, in a city not far from the musically renowned Nashville. What is the culture like working as a musician in that pocket of the world?
We live in Franklin, which is right next door to Nashville. I work in the recording studios nearly every week, either as an arranger, orchestrator or producer. The orchestral players are world-class, and can play in most styles with confidence and passion. Although, historically, Nashville has been famous for country music, many genres are recorded here at this point in time: film and video game scores, pop, rock, jazz, etc. The Nashville Symphony Orchestra has won numerous GRAMMY Awards in the last ten years, and they commission new, adventurous works every year. I learn every day from some of the best musicians in the world.

You’re co-author of the Hal Leonard Student Piano Library series, a method of international acclaim that has been translated into six languages. What was it like to work on such a huge project? How does it feel to know that your work is in the homes of so many young musicians and piano teachers?
Being a part of that project was a blessing. When I was asked to join the writing team (over twenty five years ago, which is hard for me to believe) I was young and inexperienced. Barbara Kreader and Fred Kern were the seasoned pedagogues. I wrote pieces within the confines they directed, and I learned. It was like a post-graduate education in piano pedagogy. Our children were very young, and I was able to hear them practise these new pieces as they learned piano, which was also very helpful.
A twenty-something cellist came up to me in the recording studio recently and asked for me to sign her childhood piano book. That was humbling. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute.

Could you share a fond memory of your own piano lessons?
I had two primary piano teachers: Karen Sherve (up to age 13), and Fern Nolte Davidson (through high school). They were both great teachers, in very different ways. I’ll always remember when Fern said (about a Beethoven sonata performance), “that is the best you could have done at this point in your life,” – or words to that effect. She was helping me to understand that music is about more than the technical achievement. Life experience will bring depth and richness to the interpretation as time goes on.

You’ve arranged many wonderful duet collections. Of what importance do you consider playing duets to be for piano students?
Collaborative experience is essential for the developing pianist. Listening to other players and finding common ground is how great music is made! I have wonderful memories of playing duets when I was a student, and I hope my arrangements will help another generation along the way.

Your arrangements in The Phillip Keveren Series are very popular in my studio, particularly the Disney and Star Wars collections! Do you have a favourite style of music to arrange?
It really is difficult to say. I like whatever I’m working on at the time! Christmas music is a unique assignment because it is omnipresent to the arranger. The holiday season comes every year, and we arrange a lot of Yuletide tunes. So, I enjoy the creative challenge of keeping it fresh.

We’re thrilled to have you with us for the upcoming Australasian Piano Pedagogy Conference in Brisbane this July and the following tour. What can teachers look forward to from your sessions at these events?
I have been getting my thoughts together for these presentations recently. I have been considering deeply how it is that we can fuel creativity in students from the very beginning. I believe there are seamless ways to achieve this, and I hope to convey some of those ideas.

A few of my students have questions of their own that they would like to ask you, if you wouldn’t mind.

Lucia (16) is interested in how you start the process of arranging – do you follow a certain procedure when you arrange a piece?
First of all, I listen to a variety of recordings of the song. What have other musicians done with the piece? The next consideration is how to make the song sound at home on the piano – “pianistic” in other words. After I have written the arrangement, I set it aside for a few days. When I come back to it, I almost always find things that can be improved.

Halle (10) is curious to know what your favourite piece is that you have composed, and why?
This is a very difficult question to answer. Many composers will tell you they like the last piece they have written over everything else. This is because, I believe, we’re always trying to improve – so the most recent piece might be technically the most proficient. If pressed, I would say that “Distant Waterfall” (Hal Leonard Student Piano Library Piano Solos, Level 5) is one of my favourites .

Sienna (16) would like to know, if you could play one other instrument that you haven’t before, what would it be?
Cello! Definitely, cello! Someday, I will learn to play it.

More from Thembi Harris

The Pirate Challenge!

Each year in my studio, I come up with a new whole...
Read More