Prepare like an athlete for the game of music notation!
As a high school student, I mostly skipped gym class to help the music teacher. Little did I dream that one of the greatest experiences in my life would come from an association with the world’s best athletes. My experience as pianist and/or arranger for the U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastic Teams in Mexico City and Munich made me appreciate the value of sports and connection with music.
For example, a basketball and piano player have much in common. Little progress is made by just freely shooting baskets or identifying music notes of a favorite song by letter name on lines or spaces, then finding and playing them on a piano. Fundamentals of basketball are the foundation for every individual play and move. The basics must be mastered to be successful as a team member. Fundamentals of piano playing are the foundation for every movement and coordination of fingers to perform a piece of music from notation.
1. Daily practice to develop strength and conditioning of gross motor skills. A constant physical exercise example would be pull-ups requiring focus and discipline.
1. Daily practice to develop strength and conditioning of fine motor skills. A constant finger exercise example would be scales requiring focus and discipline.
2. A player must have the durability to be able to run up to 20 miles in a game.
2. A player has to move and coordinate fingers hundreds to thousands of times depending on the style and length of the music.
3. Fundamentals of shooting include proper foot alignment, leg bend, hand position and arm angle.
3. Fundamentals of playing include sitting with the correct distance in front of the keyboard, posture and hand position, feet on the floor and curved fingers.
4. A most important skill to learn is a lay-up, a shot where the ball is up on the backboard or over the rim and into the basket. It requires proper timing or a basic rhythm with coordination of a set body position followed by a right knee in the air called a drive before shooting the ball.
4. Timing is essential in playing a piece of music. Finger and hand change movements are coordinated with shorter and longer notes while keeping a steady rhythm in a piece of music.
5. Dribbling enables a player to move up and down the court, around defenders, and execute plays. Finger tips are used to control the ball, not the palm and one moves in straight lines. Exercises include practicing with each hand and dribbling figure 8’s through and around legs in various ways.
5. The practice of a variety of scales, chords and finger exercises enable the successful performance of a piece of music.
When I started taking piano lessons at the age of seven, I didn’t understand why my teacher would be so angry when I brought in my own arrangements of assigned pieces! I so enjoyed creating music at the piano. In addition, I was discouraged from playing “by ear.” I was told that only notated music was acceptable. Later, as a first-year conservatory student, I was most fortunate to have a great piano teacher from Hungary, Erno Balogh, pupil of Bela Bartok, a most important 20th century composer. Not only did he give me a foundation in technical skills that I sorely needed even after ten years of piano study, but he encouraged my creativity! I continued music studies in composition, my passion since a child.
Three years of radically different experiences then changed my life. They began the year I studied in Paris learning a new language and culture as well as continuing my music studies. I experienced many Vietnam war protests while I was there. In addition, since my music studies had focused only on European composers, I was surprised to hear so much American music such as Stephen Foster songs and jazz. I realized I didn’t know much music of my own country! Luckily, as my father was devoted to big band music, I remembered some of the songs he liked and played them when I received requests for American music.
I returned to the U.S. in 1967, a year with race riots and massive Vietnam war protests. I took a position as music teacher in an inner-city middle school. This experience gave me exposure to the problems of race and poverty in our country, as well as introducing me to African-American music such as gospel and rhythm and blues.
My other radically different experience would occur at the end of the school year. Through a friend’s connections, I auditioned and was then asked to be pianist-arranger for the 1968 U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics Team in Mexico City. Although I had never been interested in sports and was discouraged to take such a position by musicians I knew, I realized this was a unique opportunity to use both my creative and performing skills. After the Olympics that year, I continued to develop skill in arranging music with the coach Muriel Grossfeld. Eventually, working together with her and other coaches, I arranged the “Summer of ‘42” theme that was used as the compulsory music for the 1972 U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics Team in Munich. As I reflected on the many hours I spent creating music for gymnasts, like connections with basketball, the constant daily practice, for example, of stretches for the wrist and ankle were like the daily practice of scales in music. In addition, a gymnast had to learn and coordinate floor-exercise routines in a series of timed movements with music.
Another radical but wonderful change in my life happened that year; I married Bret Bissell. Initially he wanted me to teach him how to play the piano, but I couldn’t get past the first page of a beginner’s book. All he did was ask questions! A friend had said “Well, you know Pat, if you ask Bret what time it is, he will insist on explaining how a watch works.” He was the most impossible student I had ever tried to teach! Amazingly, his persistent interest and support for my passion in teaching piano resulted years later in our book “Classroom Keyboard: Play and Create Melodies with Chords,” published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2017.
Since I had always believed in combining improvisation and composition with music notation as a teacher, my husband and I created our first course “Enjoy Making Music” with these goals in mind. We wanted students to develop a lifelong interest and love of music. The teaching principle of sound before sight is natural. We talk for several years before learning to read. We were inspired to develop this instruction book as the beginner piano books focused on music notation. With the advent of inexpensive electronic keyboards, it was now possible to teach groups of students in schools. Our book was written for these new instruments with limited range to teach the basic elements of music in our curriculum.
After our final book was published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2017 Bret still was not completely satisfied. He started creating his own system for a book called “New Day” intended for pre-notation study of piano. My “Piano Basketball Books – Play Without Notation” are continuing his ideas in first understanding musical sound before notation. In other words, prepare as an athlete for the game of music notation.
Patricia Bissell is a keyboard instructor at Gateway Community College in New Haven, CT, and author of “Classroom Keyboard (.com) Play and Create Melodies with Chords,” co-published by NAfME and Rowman & Littlefield. She received degrees in piano and composition from Peabody Conservatory and Yale University, and was a Fulbright Scholar.
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“Why Keyboard?” CMEA News, Summer 2019
”Classroom Keyboard: Play and Create Melodies with Chords” Rowman & Littlefield, 2017
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”Tune In To Technology” Music Educators Journal, September 1998
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“How to Blues” 1997 and ”The Music of Four Immigrant Groups” 1996 Yale Teachers Institute
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“In Search of Good Gymnastic Music” Gymnastics Guide 1975