Teaching at ‘The Con’

Teaching at ‘The Con’

Have you ever wanted to have a peek inside a conservatorium high school?

We had the delightful opportunity to do just that with Brenda Jones at The Conservatorium High School in Sydney. 

Brenda Jones and student

The Conservatorium High School is the secondary arm of the Conservatorium of Music in Sydney, NSW and the State’s only specialist music high school.  An integral feature of their vibrant and holistic program is that every student in years 7 and 8 has weekly Keyboard Musicianship lessons with an expert specialist tutor.  The program aims to give students the wide range of skills they need to be well-rounded musicians and is quite different to the traditional advanced piano study that focuses on technique and repertoire development.

Brenda Jones is the teaching coordinator of the Keyboard Musicianship program.  She is highly regarded as a pedagogue for her commitment to piano teacher education, for teaching students of every ability level, and the success of her students in competitions at the national and international level.   Brenda is known for her performing achievements both as a soloist and with leading artists from the ACO and Sydney Symphony.  She also teaches in her private studio, Forest Piano Academy, and is on the piano faculty at Sydney Grammar School. 

Conservatorium High School
Photo: Paulscf at the English-language Wikipedia

What’s it like teaching at the Sydney’s Conservatorium High School?

The students are very bright, so it keeps you on your toes! However, all students, even those who are advanced players at a young age, have gaps in their knowledge. Highly intelligent students are often adept at “masking” their knowledge gaps too. Our experienced and innovative teachers can spot the gaps and quickly fill them in at an optimum beneficial pace for these students.

The thing I love most about the school is how supportive and encouraging the students are to each other. It’s okay to be a total music nerd, and there is no need to hide it. I teach piano majors as well as students in the Keyboard Musicianship program. My piano major students are what you would expect, with most of them completing AMusA/LMusA diplomas in their early teenage years and winning prizes in prestigious international competitions. 

What happens in the Keyboard Musicianship program?

It is a program I designed, with valuable input from my highly respected colleagues, for all students in years 7-8.  Students who are non-piano majors have a private lesson with expert tutors each week to learn “musician skills” on the piano.  At age 13, they gain diverse skills that students at top music universities worldwide only begin studying at age 19.

A well-rounded musician has expertise in their major instrument study area, as well as a solid grounding in skills such as the understanding of harmony, figured bass, transposing, sight reading open score SATB, arranging, improvisation, knowledge of musical styles, and healthy piano technique.  The lesson content and progression order changes for each student and is guided by skill level and student interest.

An example of a typical goal is for a student to analyse and understand a section of a sonata movement, play the various harmonic progressions, transpose the progression to all 12 keys, improvise over the bass line, and write their own mini-composition using aspects of the work as a foundation.  

It’s important to understand that the reason students benefit is not because of the sole development of these skills – tying it all together is key.  There is a greater purpose for understanding music at this deep level, because doing so produces richer, engaged musical interpretations that they bring to any piece of music they study in future.  

The skills that students learn in this program help them with any instrument of study and makes other performance tasks such as solid memorisation easily attainable. 

How did you design this program?

I wanted to give the students the best possible skill set so they can thrive as complete musicians for their entire lives. I first reflected on my own diverse career and all the hats I’ve had to wear.  I asked myself, what have I learnt that was most useful?  What did I wish I’d learnt sooner?  I came to the conclusion that for a young musician to flourish in the 21st century, practical keyboard skills related to a solid foundation in keyboard harmony are essential.

This program, along with the Keyboard Scholars program, is a pilot program – an opportunity to capitalise on the artistic musical potential of keyboard instruments and their theoretical/pedagogical potential for all aspiring musicians.  From speaking with colleagues at major institutions I believe it is rare to find this type of program designed for this age level, anywhere in the world. 

What were the high points of your music education?

I was fortunate to study with renowned pedagogue Professor John Perry at University of Southern California for my Bachelor and Master of Music, where I was surrounded by pianists with phenomenal capabilities.  Most of us have won prizes in major international competitions and nearly all of us are teaching at universities worldwide.

John Perry’s students were given a rigorous education in “being a good musician” as it applied to technique and interpretation, having several lessons a week in addition to a weekly studio class, where his wisecracking style kept us entertained.  We learnt so much from watching him teach each of us in front of each other.  This gave me an excellent grounding as a solo pianist, and participating in summer festivals across the USA and Europe gave me a wonderfully rich education in chamber music.

What influenced you most in designing the Keyboard Musicianship program?

One of the best classes I took in my undergraduate degree was the Functional Skills course required for all piano majors, taught by Professor Dennis Thurmond.

Prof Thurmond told us that we needed more diverse skills than playing piano concertos to make a living as a musician.  It was the first time anybody had said it so plainly and we were grateful that he did.  If you have not come across Prof Thurmond before, he is an astounding musician who can play the Liszt Sonata and improvise any style of music with equal mastery and ease. 

In our two years with him we learnt figured bass, how to improvise a cadenza, an introduction to playing the organ, how to transpose, jazz chart basics, how to be a church musician, and explored the universe between improvisation, arranging, and composition. It was a life changing experience because of the musical worlds it opened up, although at the time I felt so much pressure to be producing that many brand new skills in a short time.

We appreciated and respected him so much that us “poor university students” took up a collection to buy him a big gift at the end of the year.  He was very emotional and nearly cried when it was presented to him! 

What are some key points to remember when teaching extremely bright students?

One of the most important mantras comes from my brilliant colleague Dr. Michael Bradshaw:  You may know it, but can you show it?

We constantly ask the students this question, because understanding a concept versus being able to apply it are totally different levels of skill.  Musicians have to be able to “show” what we know by connecting all of the skill areas together.

Students with these skills can learn music quickly, can create meaningful interpretation based on harmonic understanding, can compose music, and can enjoy the full range of what being a musician really means.

You can learn more about The Conservatorium High School on their website here

Legend has it that little Brenda Jones started piano lessons after her parents discovered her practicing all of her older brother’s pieces completely by ear.  Nowadays, she performs all over the place, but if you are lucky you can find her onstage disguised as a celeste player.  She is an experienced cat wrangler and especially loves Australian pianos with extra pedals and extra keys.

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