Christopher Norton Composing Improvising

Discover 5 Tips on How to Start Improvising & Composing - one step at a time. 

Watch Glory St. Germain & Special Guest Christopher Norton explore how to break things down into bite-sized chunks to develop improvising & composing skills. 

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Christopher Norton - UMT Interview

Christopher Norton - Composing - Improvising

Christopher Norton is a Canadian-based composer and presenter who is one of the world’s most popular composers of contemporary popular music, including the Microjazz series, Connections for piano and American Popular Piano.  

Christopher Norton is well-established as a composer, producer, arranger and educationalist and has written stage musicals, ballet scores, piano music, popular songs and orchestral music as well as jingles and signature tunes for TV and radio.

Christopher Norton - Composing - Improvising

Christopher Norton is Glory St. Germain's Special Guest on the Ultimate Music Interview Series.

Glory: Well good morning. I am so excited to have my very special guest Christopher Norton today. I wanna welcome Christopher. My name is Glory St. Germain from Ultimate Music Theory and today we are talking about how to discover five tips on how to start improvising and composing, and Christopher's gonna lead us through that one step at a time, so I wanna say welcome, Christopher. Thank you for joining me today.

Christopher: Thank you very much, lovely to be here.

Glory: Well Christopher Norton, of course, he's kind of a famous, famous so probably all know, but I do wanna tell you that he is now a Canadian-based composer living in Ontario. He's a presenter who is one of the world's most popular composer on contemporary popular music including his Microjazz series, Connections for Piano, and American Popular Piano, and thousands of other ones. I don't know how you manage it all. Can you start us off, Christopher, with how did you start in your music lessons?

Christopher: I started my lessons a nun, actually, in New Zealand. The local teachers who were regarded as good were from a convent. I was obviously very musical and my mother took me along to see if she could get me in for lessons. We didn't have a piano at that point, even. It was so obvious I was musical, she had to hire, you know, rent a piano and get me lessons. I started at the age of eight, but I was already playing by ear.

Christopher: I had a church background, my father was a minister, in fact, so I could play the whole repertoire of church pieces by ear in any key, so without realizing it, I was already kind of on the way to improvising and composing, although I didn't start composing 'til I was 14. I listened to lots and lots of music, classical music in particular, and only then did I suddenly think I'd like to have a go myself, so quite a late started.

Glory: Sometimes it's just your passion, and your path is already mapped out for you, and we're so glad that it was because, obviously, piano teachers such as myself, and I should give a welcome out to all of our piano teachers, and our Ultimate Music Theory Certified Teachers that are joining us today. For our viewers, if you just wanna jot a little note in the chat box to say yes, I love Christopher Norton's music, and I wanna learn how to improvise. Just share with us where you're at in your musical journey, because it's one thing to teach piano, but it's another thing to get started with composition. Unlike yourself, Christopher, for many teachers we sort of teach the book the way we see it, and if we haven't had that gift as you have in improvising, we just don't really know where to start. Can you give us our first tip on how can we just get started with composition? What's the first thing we can do?

Christopher Norton - Composing - Improvising

Christopher: Funny enough, when I have a group of children with me, or a child, one of the things I say to them is, "Can you play me a middle C." And I say, "You've started." Because when I'm writing, anything is a starting point. In fact, the moment I play that, I'm thinking of something quite lyrical starting on the C. Do you know what I mean? And of course the moment you play that.

Christopher: What I'm saying is everything you do is a starting point. It's like trying to write a piece of prose in a way. You say to somebody, they say to you, "I can't think of anything." So you say, "Could you write the word The?" And then what follows that. Children generally find that they can think of something if they're trying to write a piece of prose or if they're trying to sing a little tune where you start the first phrase, and they try and continue it.

Christopher: Often you've just got to start somewhere where they child is, something they can do very easily, and then say let's just gradually pull it away from there. It's a funny thing to say, but don't start complicated, start as simple and basic as possible and just let them, in a way, do something which they feel comfortable with and say now that you've done that, let's do this.

Christopher: In fact, taking C again, just playing C to D, there's suddenly a relationship between those two notes and students like that. In other words just say to them, "Let's just use two notes and make up a tune using only two notes."

Glory: When you say it that way, Christopher, it does seem like, okay, well that's easy. Anybody can do that, so it is a really good starting point to say let's just begin, begin with C and a step or a skip or a slight pattern so now we have those steps, and how would we get started sort of feeling the beat? So we've got a-

Christopher: I use backing tracks. You mentioned some of the series that I've worked on, Microjazz, American Popular Piano, Connections, all have tracks. I'm very pleased with the tracks for those series, they tend to be quite authentic sounding, and also, particularly American Popular Piano, quite kind of friendly styles, if you like. Not too jazz, in inverted commas. Jazz, I've heard defined recently as a lot of men showing off. What I mean is it can be a bit esoteric as a feel for children to be delving into, jazz, like popular songs from the forties, or whatever. A lot of the material which I do is actually a lot more straightforward than that. I've got a little track set up here, it's a piece called Toledo from American Popular Piano Two. I hope you can hear this okay on this broadcast, but here's a bit of the track. Here's a little counter and it plays like this.

Christopher: That actually uses two chords. It's A minor to D minor sixth as it happens. Students don't really know what the chords are, but when I ask them to play something, if it's in A minor as this is, I say, "Don't play middle C, let's play A." The keynote. You don't need to explain even that that's the keynote, just note A seems to be a nice one to play with the track, and then I say to the student, "Let's try just playing whole notes on A." Actually more than whole notes. I'm going really slow for them. Now stop.

Christopher: The moment a student does that with a track, in a way, they're creating a relationship between the notes they're playing and the track. Of course, it gets super exciting when you add B. In other words, you've got two notes. What I'm saying is I'm starting with some very straightforward things that they can easily play with a track. That's the thing I like to do. This piece, like many of the pieces in American Popular Piano, has a teacher accompaniment as well, a nice teacher accompaniment which is not hard to play, which you can use instead, but the track has got the whole reference points, if you like. It's got an acoustic guitar, bass and drums, and percussion. The child feels like they're part of an ensemble, but they're also, it's those relationships between the pitches that you're playing and the track, which actually, jazz players really enjoy. In other words, when you suddenly play a B or C with that track, how it sounds as the chords shift around it is part of the pleasure of improvisation.

Christopher: What I'm saying is starting very, very simply with just whole notes and then perhaps going to half notes and then going to quarter notes, and of course, at a certain point the student thinks, "This is a bit plain." And they start to add their own little rhythms in. This happens with just about every student I've ever come across. Of course, at that point you say, "I didn't tell you to do that, but now that you are doing it, let's do that." In other words, let's try a bit of your own tune. I'll give you an example of that.

Glory: Yes please. I've actually used your track to do that.

Christopher Norton - Composing - Improvising

Christopher: If you just take the whole note, here's the whole note. Half notes. Now quarter notes. The moment I said quarter notes, I started playing a mixture of quarter notes and half notes. In other words, if you tell a student to do just quarter notes, they're going to end up thinking, "This is not really sounding that great. Let's have some half notes as well." It's basically using the track to guide the proceedings. You can tell, there's a nice little tune developing there, which you can make into something quite nice, and I've only used two notes so far. I think we're going to talk in a moment about the idea of using more than two notes, but my starting point it to say play one note, and then put a track on and say let's play that note with the track, and now that you've got that note, let's play different note values, and once you've got note values, let's use more than one note. It's sort of common sense, isn't it?

Glory: I've used your tracks, obviously, with all of my students, and you met some of them when you were doing a workshop here in Winnipeg, and autographed their books and they were so thrilled that they had your autograph in their book and they love that composing. I think the wonderful thing about you providing the backing tracks for those, Christopher, is that when you start to do improvising and composing, if you have those backing tracks, then there's a pulse, there's that rhythmic feel that almost keeps you in time, because otherwise if you're just noodling around, you don't feel as successful as if you're using the backing track. You're already guiding into it.

Glory: I know you talked a little bit about a one note rhythm. Can you share a little bit about what's a one note rhythm and how can we use that?

Christopher: What I tend to do with students is the second step, if you life. Having done that kind of stuff with one note and effectively a pulse, doing the pulse as half notes, as whole notes, as quarter notes, even excitingly as eighth notes, you then suggest that you can clap a rhythm to the backing track. What I do is I just clap one. I'm gonna clap one now, I don't even know what I'm gonna do until I do it. I do the same thing with students, I say, "Could you try and clap a rhythm?" But I demonstrate first. So here's me demonstrating. Here's my rhythm, it's gonna be exciting, isn't it? You like that?

Glory: Yes, I like that.

Christopher: Okay, then I'll say to them, "You're still on A" And interestingly enough, you're not just talking about playing a rhythm on the piano, you're talking about phrasing as well because I'm not just going (vocalizes) I'm actually going (vocalizes). For some reason, I've started to introduce some staccato notes and some legato notes, and students do the same thing. Why that is, is 'cause you're working in a particular style. This piece here is a slightly Spanish-sounding track, if anything. It's only got two chords, but it has that kind of Spanish feel, and therefore (vocalizes), and you expect castanets and so on.

Christopher: What I'm doing is giving them a rhythm, getting them to clap it back to me, and then getting them to play that rhythm on the keynote. The moment you then say, "Let's play that rhythm on the keynote." But use two notes, use A or B, you're starting to compose. In fact, if I then say we're gonna go to the wilds of C, we're gonna have three notes.

Christopher: Did you notice then, I immediately do what students do, I added another rhythm in (vocalizes). Suddenly, something occurred to me, which would be nice to do, and this is what happens by using this approach. You're kind of letting them guide the proceeding slightly. It's a funny thing to say, but so often, students don't get the chance to do that.

Christopher: When I work with students, I was working with some yesterday, I discovered that everybody has something different to bring to the piano when they're making something up. They've all got subtle differences in what they've listened to, what sort of music they like. You're finding the individual voice of each student quite quickly through these simple little exercises.

Glory: One of the things too, and you just said something that really, the light bulb went off in my head because when you are doing that composition and improvisation and just sort of exploring, it is amazing what children will come up with, because their imagination, they'll just try it. They always say, you're just a semitone away from the right note. There's no mistakes, it's just exploration and in fact, sometimes you'll take that little semitone and turn it into a grace note and one of the things I wanted to share with our viewers was that Christopher actually has created a PDF for us, which is 10 Terrific Tips on Composing, so if you wanna just type the word "composing" into the chat, we'll be sure to send you the link, and we'll put that in there after in the show notes. Go ahead and just type in composing and well make sure that you get that download PDF because there's a lot of great tips in there.

Christopher Norton - Composing - Improvising

Glory: I think the first step too is just to get started, not to be afraid, right? Because you can create a one note rhythmic pattern and just explore and evolve from that. What would be the next step? We've taken those, now we're up to three notes, we've learned a one note rhythmic pattern. What would be perhaps a musical structure, or how could we use this to now, we're excited, now we wanna grow and create our own melody.

Christopher: I think one of the things I say to students is try and think of a little idea, which you can repeat. It's amazingly difficult to do that when you first try, because students are playing things and like the sound of them, but they don't necessarily, can't even remember one measure. I'm used to doing this, of course. I'm gonna play a little repeating melody here for you.

Christopher: That's all I'm talking about. That (vocalizes) is quite a nice little tune there. The next thing to ask the student, if they're using the rhythm that I've given as a starting point, but I'm saying if you've slightly started to amend that rhythm yourself, find your own version of my rhythm initially, but even of your own rhythm. In fact, I do say to them quite quickly, "Go crazy!" In other words, just try your own thing. Now I'm gonna go crazy, in other words, I've just been playing that, but I'm gonna use five notes now because, of course, you can use A, B, C, D, and E, and I'm just gonna do something of my own. What's this gonna be like?

Christopher: That's different isn't it? I've used sixteenth notes there as well. Some students do that, but that was still repeating the idea. I think that's the next step, if you like, is to get a little rhythmic figure going, which is repeated. Certainly you can get a melodic structure thing going because, of course, there's a famous jazz singer, which I heard, which I thought was wonderful and said that if you have too much repetition you bore the listener, if you have too much variation, you alienate the listener.

Glory: Yeah, actually that's right.

Christopher: It's a balancing act between repetition and variation. The next thing is variation. I played this tune, which is quite nice. Now if I change one note of that, suddenly you've got a lovely variation. It has an amazing effect, so I've changed the last note to a D instead of an A, and then I play the first one again, and what I often say to students, in melodic structure terms, it feels right to play a different idea to finish off, but I don't say what that is. So here's me doing my complete tune, this is very exciting.

Christopher: Get the idea? Then we've got complete structure. If you're gonna put it, I don't into this until students are probably three years into study, but you could end up doing the left hand, and suddenly we've got a piece, which I could probably get onto the syllabus. It's a nice little composition, and in fact, keeping the left hand very simple just repeating A, E, A, E, A, D, A, D is a nice little accompaniment, and it's got a particular character, hasn't it?

Christopher: I think using the track helps to anchor them in a particular stylistic area as well and gives it a groove, I think I'd call it. This has got a particular groove this track. Connections, I think, has got 185 tracks altogether, Microjazz has probably got another 60, and American Popular Piano, I don't know, there's tracks across nine levels, so it's at least 60 again. I've certainly got 300 tracks, 'cause there's other books as well with tracks, and they're all different grooves.

Christopher: Somebody actually asked me recently who my major influences were, and I said one of the big influences, almost my favorite composer for years when I was teenager, was Nielsen, a Danish composer, and the other one was Ray Charles. Eclectic, 'cause I got into popular music when I was a teenager, late teenager, and discovered I really liked R&B and Soul and that area rather more than any other areas, so a lot of the things I've done have grooves. In fact, the most famous example of it, I think, one of my most popular pieces. You know that one? Which is called Intercity Stomp. Have you guessed? Just beat it. It's the same groove as Beat It by Michael Jackson. A lot of the things, there's an underlying style, which is actually from certain areas.

Christopher: What I'm saying is when the students are improvising, they're improvising within a particular groove. I like to put it that way. This particular A minor one we've been doing has got a particular flavor, hasn't it?

Glory: Yes.

Christopher Norton - Composing - Improvising

Christopher: They like working within something that is actually a specific flavor and style. That's another thing, which I recommend if you like. Keep it fairly tightly anchored, use as few notes as you can get away with initially, give them a rhythm, and then get them to take that rhythm up and amend it, and also they can amend the notes. Sorry to introduce another element here, but students quite often play other notes than the notes which I've given them. In other words, they suddenly, if you're in A minor, they might go and want to use an F natural. In fact, I've had some crazy examples of really good things by students, the famous one being with this piece, actually, where a little boy said to me, "Am I allowed to use F and G sharp?" And I said, "What do you mean?" And he said ...

Glory: Nice.

Christopher: Students, you've got to be alert to the fact that some are gonna be hearing things which are not the obvious notes you're giving them, and be alert to saying that's nice.

Christopher: One other point to make, of course, you mentioned there's no wrong notes, but in fact there are. If you're working a particular style, some notes don't sound very good. I like to also say to students, "That didn't sound very good, did it?" And often they'll say no it didn't. Like they're finishing on a note other than the keynote if it's a specific key, but that's the beauty of improvising in particular, I think, is you discover that and think next time 'round perhaps I just need to amend that. The more experience they get, the more they get used to making these quick decisions to think, "I know the end's coming up, so I should prepare for that."

Glory: One of the things I like to do with my students when we're using your backing tracks, and I say you need to have a little bag of licks, you need to have few little licks. Often times, too, when you're listening to other musicians, you almost recognize an improvisation lick that's kind of their signature lick, so to speak. I often videotape them, so we have the backing track going, then they're doing their improvising, because as you said, alternate, or sometimes you can't remember. You just played something, and it was so good, and now you can't remember what you played, so I always like to videotape them just for their own reference, so they can go, "Oh, that was really good. Let me play that again and now I just wanna alter the one note."

Glory: Of course, when I'm doing music theory with my students, and so we're talking about composing and obviously we do that at the piano, and you use backing tracks and things like that, but we also talk about how are we gonna notate this, and how are we gonna understand that structure? One of the things you and I talked about before we came live with the interview was just doing the same two bar melody, and then repeating a note or altering the ending to maybe leave it as a question, an opening, and then bringing it to a conclusion ending on the tonic. Can you talk a little bit about how you would guide a student through just creating that phrase of question and answer?

Christopher: Question and answer, of course, is separate. I've mentioned already the idea, I'm just thinking here's another example of altering the note where I say to a student here's a tune, and then the next phrase. Everything you do is stimulating because at that point you think do I then go into something even more extreme, or do I repeat the first phrase? What you can do instead of trying to repeat the first phrase is to basically do something which is an answer, which is a different idea answering the first idea. So let me just try that myself.

Christopher: There's two answers, if you like, to the question. So you can tell, you can either take something and stick to the motif very carefully, very sluggishly, not sluggishly but you know what I mean, use that main idea, or you can think I'm gonna come up with a completely contrasting idea and then the relationship between the two is what drives the shape of this whole thing. Of course, at that point it's potentially getting quite a bit more extended as a melody as well. Because of course, one of the difficulties of composition is how do you write a longer piece? One of the things to do, of course, is by having contrast and variation combined so that you're actually doing things where a whole paragraph can be an answer, which you'll discover.

Christopher: I was listening to some Beethoven symphony the other day, and I'm thinking, gosh, he was good. He would come up with an idea, and you think he's gonna repeat that but then he doesn't, he comes up with an even better idea as a next idea. He very much improvised in his mind thinking, "Oh, I've just had an idea, let's do that." There are plenty of fantastic examples of classical composers where they balance up the repetition of variation very, very, very well.

Glory: When you do your composing, Christopher, do you, you obviously are such a high level of compositions having composed probably millions of pieces by now, but do you have a certain formula when you're composing that you start with an idea, a title, a melodic thought or rhythmic thought? What is your composing process as a professional? You could probably sit down and play for days and we could just hit record and then you'd have a million things written. What's your process?

Christopher: Funny enough I was thinking about this because, in fact, when I did the Connections series there was 195 pieces to write, and I wrote a new one every day. What I liked about it was the fact that I didn't know what I was gonna do until I sat down, and every day I produced something which was quite different from the one before. I do use different starting points, and in fact that very idea is really, that's starting with a melody, so obviously there's that, but students quite often, if you said to them I'm going to give you a little bit of figuration, I'm still sticking with A minor here, I don't know quite why, but if I went ... Obviously that's a beginning of a piece as well. You're starting with the accompaniment, effectively which quite a few teenagers have is they write accompaniments, there's no actual melody. Quite often I take their accompaniment, which they say is their composition and say, "You've written just a figuration which is like an accompaniment. Can I try and play a tune on top of it?" And I do it and often they say yeah that sounds great. They just hadn't quite taken that next step.

Christopher: You might have to record yourself playing the accompaniment and then try and improvise a tune across the top of it. There's accompaniment, and the other thing I do a lot, actually, is this. I'm sitting next to a keyboard which has got those drum patterns in it and I just started a drum pattern and I found that very stimulating. If you just start with a rhythm. That also brings you into a particular stylistic area, but if you got a student to sit down and play something with a drum track like that, every student will come up with something different. There'll be certain element where some of the more experienced students might come up with something slightly similar because they're doing what might be the bass line to that particular drum pattern, but that's a very good starting point as well.

Christopher: You can also start with a title. The Train Pulls Out Of The Station. Spring Day. I've done that, start with a title. I've just written a musical on seasons, so I had a piece called Spring, and of course the moment I'm thinking of spring I'm thinking ... I'm saying I'm doing it like these film musical moments where you just create a little atmosphere and ambience with a particular idea. So there's lots of ways of getting started and in fact it's a good idea not to be prescriptive. What I've been talking about to you today is the idea of students getting started when they don't know how to start. You can start with something very straightforward and simple, and get them past the point where they can't think of anything.

Glory: Something it's, I think, a good challenge for us as teachers to go through the backing tracks and work through this ourselves. There are many teachers, my music teacher when I was taking lessons as a young girl, I don't recall her ever talking about improvising or composing or using my imagination. It was always just read the music that's on the page and there you have it. I think for teachers, and now that you've provided these incredible backing tracks and opportunities for us as educators, I think we need to be coachable, we need to be open to learning new things because you can't teach it if you haven't experienced it yourself.

Glory: I see that we've got a lot of comments from our teachers here. Sounds like a pirate, very cool. Christopher says he loved your repeated rhythmic figure. Emmeline says thank you, love all these composing ideas. Composing, composing, thank you. I'm here, I love listening to what you're doing with the backing track, so we've got some wonderful comments from our teachers. Don't forget to type in "composing" and we're gonna send you those Top 10 Tips.

Glory: As a teacher, so now I'm not gonna be doing this with my students yet, I mean, obviously I have but I'm saying as a teacher, how would you suggest that, just for my own enjoyment and exploration, how would I just kind of get started on my own so as teachers we can feel confident and comfortable that we can give our students those steps?

Christopher: Funny enough, one of them is, from my vantage point as a writer, is any of the Connections books, any of the Microjazz books, any of the American Popular Piano books, because the pieces themselves are actually in specific styles and grooves. They have a lot of licks, as you call them. The one I played, Intercity Stomp, that's an interesting case because nearly everything I write, I've discovered, is either pentatonic major or pentatonic minor. That particular figure is pentatonic minor. What I'm saying is just playing the pieces, for a start, is a great start, and then because there are backing tracks to go with all those pieces, then try the piece with the backing track. The next stage, of course, is to actually sort of very gently try and sort of move away from my piece. There are two stages, of course, one of them is the right hand if you're playing with the track.

Christopher: I'm using a track here, the original tune of this piece which I've got on the backing track sounds like this ... So it's very different from what I've been doing. Playing that with the backing track is already great, because it's the particular thing with lots of gaps in the melody, so it gives it a different flavor altogether. You can use that as a starting off point for doing your own little tune, then a lot of the time you can discover, and American Popular Piano does give you left hand chords as well, and in fact, the left hand chords for this one, although it's an A minor, I start the first chord is this, so there's no third. The next is this, which is a first inversion of D minor with no D. That's all you do. They're very easy positions to play, but you're learning jazz voicings, if you like, because the thing about jazz voicings is a lot of the time, inversions are used so that you don't have to move your hand very far.

Glory: Right.

Christopher: It also has a particular sound if the bass note's being played by another instrument and you're playing in the middle of the text, you're not doubling the bass. What I'm saying is playing the pieces from any of those series, because teachers like playing them, it's just a great start, and if you find a piece you really, really like, I mean, somebody mentioned, again, one of the most popular pieces of mine ever is Moonscape from Connections 4, and that's got the most wonderful ethereal backing track, it's really unusual. People love that when they do that.

Christopher Norton Composing Improvising

Christopher: I'll tell you a little story about Moonscape, by the way. I did a masterclass, it was a couple of years ago in Canada. I had a whole lot of children, 12 year olds or whatever, and one man in his 50s and he was playing Moonscape, and he played it quite well so I actually chose him to play in the recital at the end. There was an audience there of probably a couple hundred people and I interviewed him on stage and said, "Why did you choose this piece?" 'Cause it's quite an unusual piece, and he said, "I heard it played at a student concert about a year ago and I thought I've gotta play that." And he said, "The thing is at that point, I'd never played the piano before." So he actually got himself a teacher and a piano in order to play Moonscape, and there he was playing it for the composer a year later. Sometimes the music itself is stimulating enough that it drives someone to actually want to play it. I'm saying that should be the case with teachers. They should be stimulated enough by the piece that they want to play it with a track, and when they play it with a track, of course, you can the, start to think, what are the chords of this piece?

Christopher: One rather amusing thing which I realized, somebody said to me again a couple of days ago, "Why haven't you got chord symbols on your pieces?" I said to them, "I don't want people to know how few chords I use." It's a funny thing with my work, because often, there aren't that many chords, but when you do analyze what the chords are, they're actually so sophisticated that it would be off-putting to put the chord symbols down. The one I've been using today, which is called Toledo from American Popular Piano 2 has got two chords in it. The first chord is A minor, but the second chord is D minor sixth, and you end up thinking, well, try to explain that to a seven year old, a D minor sixth chord. They don't want to know and they're not going to understand what you're saying either.

Christopher: For a teacher, in a way, it's quite nice to try and fiddle about and figure out what the chords are as well because you don't need to know what they are, but it's quite nice to try and figure out what they are. Much of the time you can figure it out pretty easily, and much of the time, in fact, what I write down, the left hand chords are inversions anyway, so the left hand in the piece is itself the chords. If it's a piece in C and you've got a chord of E and B flat, you suddenly think, oh yeah, that's C7, but there's no fifth and no root. That's a very common thing, because then we play F7, you just go down a half-step. Not all the time, the chords are easy to play, but you look at them and think what is that? Which hopefully you won't as a teacher, but students certainly, if they did think about it, they wouldn't really know what they were, but they don't mind. They just like the sound of them, and I think you want to experience. I think the experience of playing the piece with a track is already getting you to a point where you can suddenly think, "I can do things with this." Even if it's just right hand.

Glory: One of the things that I love about using the tracks too, Christopher, is you do have options.

Christopher: Exactly.

Glory: You can do it with the left hand, you can do it with the right hand, you can do it with both hands. There's a lot of opportunities to explore a whole palette of colors.

Christopher: You can do it with one note. I started it of by saying start with one note. Find out what the key is and play the keynote. If it's the major, start by working your way up the pentatonic major scale. If it's in the minor, the minor pentatonic scale of that key. If it's a blues piece, the blues scale obviously will work, but even that may be too much information.

Christopher: One thing I did in American Popular Piano which is a really radical idea, in fact, it's a genius idea if I may say so, I don't think I came up with it but one of the team did, is the idea that you learn the piece from the book, and then the notes you use for the improvisation are the same as the notes in the piece. There's a good example of that which I use called The Girl On The Beach, which is from American Popular Piano 1. It's in C Major and the tune is this. That's not the whole tune, but what I'm saying, there are no more than four notes in the entire tune. When you improvise on it, you use four notes but the chords underneath are ... They're minor seventh chords and major seventh chords, which are only playing four notes again, that's a wonderful effect. I think that's the other thing to do is to take fewer notes than the implied scale and use those. Don't necessarily blearily try and say, "This is a C major, I'm going to use a C major scale." Because you can get yourself into all sorts of unnecessary tangles.

Christopher: This idea of taking the notes of the tune you just played and using those as the basis for your improvisation is equivalent of saying start with middle C. Just limit yourself to the notes you've got under your hand already. Intercity Stomp is in G minor so you've got F, G, B flat, C, D, and that's all the notes that are in the tune, so you use those notes to improvise on. Isn't that a great idea?

Glory: It is a fantastic idea.

Christopher: A very simple idea but, in fact, it stops you from getting into this terrible jazz theory thing where students are playing a piece in G minor and you say, "Oh yeah, that's a G Mixolydian." Or whatever. They're thinking all the time, "I don't really know what you're talking about." Or they're not ready to hear it. It's a bit like playing a Beethoven sonata and saying we're not gonna play it until we've done a chordal analysis of the whole piece. They just wanna play the tunes and hear the harmonies. You don't need to know about what the theory behind it is yet. You might be interested at a later stage when you're a teenager or an undergraduate music student, but before that, don't clog it all up with theory, that's what I say.

Glory: I agree, we need to-

Christopher: Of course, the wrong person to say this, don't clog it up with theory, you run a theory company, oops. What I'm saying is don't make theory get in the way of just trying ideas out, because you can add the theory later. In fact, I think students, once they've understood that, they find theory very interesting. It can become suddenly fascinating, because it is interesting, when you get into jazz theory in particular. There's lots of good books which can tell you about the theory of what you could be doing, and it gets you into a whole other sphere, which jazz players are in. When you hear really good jazz players, obviously they know a lot about theory, but they started with middle C.

Christopher Norton - Composing - Improvising

Glory: I just wanna thank you so much, Christopher, for all of your performing today. I've just been enjoying my coffee and sharing this time with you, and I know that a lot of teachers, I should mention, make sure that you join the Ultimate Music Theory Facebook Group because we will be providing that link for you on the 10 Terrific Tips For Starting Composing And Improvising, so we'll share that link with you there. You can also go to Christopher Norton Composer Facebook page to learn more about all of the series that he has for you, the Microjazz series, Connections for Piano, American Popular Piano.

Glory: With everything that's going on with you, Christopher, and there's a lot of things, I know you were just at the conference, what's coming up next for you? What's the next plan in your composition or your program that you're looking forward to?

Christopher: I've written two big piano suites, two suites for two pianos, which had lots of performances and are getting done all over the world. For one of the duos in Minneapolis, I'm writing a sonata for a piano duet next, which is good fun. That's under my own imprint. I have a company called 80 Days Publishing which does a whole lot of things which just interest me, if you like. This company has put out the Connections series, 'cause I know own the Connection series. It used to be belong to the Royal Conservatory in Canada, but I bought it from them, so I'm the owner of Connections. I've extended the series to Connections 9 and Connections 10, which is the next thing to come out. That'll be available widely in North America and the rest of the world. I thought I might just play you a little snippet of one of the new pieces from Connections 9. I'm hoping the sound on here will be good enough. It's a piece called Song For Jo, and it was a commission piece originally for someone, he wanted to commission a piece for his wife, whose name was Jo, so it was rather nice. This is just to show you something new.

Christopher: That's the beginning of it.

Glory: Oh that's wonderful, thank you so much.

Christopher: It's a little bit harder than Connections 8, but not too much harder. Some of the ones in level 10 obviously get pretty hard. I'm really pleased with them, it's a new one, and it's a very wide range of styles, if you like, and that started off with that tune. That's the thing. It's a very straightforward little melodic idea, and that's where the whole piece sprung from, just from a tune.

Glory: Yeah, oh my goodness. Well, you've inspired us today. I know there's lots of musicians and teachers that are on with us live and certainly will be tuning into the replay, and I think you've really inspired us to step outside our comfort zone and explore the palette of improvising and composing using the backing tracks, jumping into the American Popular Piano and the Connections Series to explore, right? Just to have some fun and work on something.

Christopher Norton - Composing - Improvising

Christopher: And I wanted to say, one other thing, I've just done this, which is actually a very useful little kind of, what would you call it, E-booklet, which details all the piano music I've done, all series, by grade.

Glory: Awesome.

Christopher: So actually, that's the cover, but underneath you'll see it says here pre-grade one, and Microjazz for Absolute Beginners, Microjazz for Beginners, American Popular Piano Prep, and a Canadian publication called Piano Pianozzazz Prep, which is Debra Wanless music. What I'm saying, I've banded together all the things at each level, and I've even done a brief description, so I'll send you a copy, and you can then disseminate that by email to anybody that's interested, but it's a very little guide, and it also says for Canadian and United States listeners who the distributors are, so you know where you can get them as well.

Glory: Wonderful, that's perfect.

Christopher: Just says Piano Music by Christopher Norton there.

Glory: That's perfect.

Christopher: And there's a nice picture of me.

Glory: Just put a little note in the chat box, "piano music", and we'll make sure to get you that link, so you can go to your local music store or purchase online, wherever you like to purchase music. Especially, I like that you've divided it into the levels, because sometimes too as teachers, we're like I don't know what level is for-

Christopher: That's what I discovered. I was talking about all these series and suddenly realized they go all over the place, and it became rather confusing. It's much better to do it by level.

Glory: Yes.

Christopher Norton - Composing - Improvising

Christopher: I've never had this available before. I did a big workshop in Ottawa recently and suddenly thought, how do I make it clear how this all works. I thought I should do it by, here are the easiest pieces from whatever publisher, and it goes right up to level 10. There's a jazz piano sonata at the very top, which is beyond grade 10, whatever it's called.

Glory: Wow.

Christopher: That's had lots of performances as well, including lovely performances by teenagers, so it's obviously, even if it is very hard, people like the idea of it. They're happy to have a go.

Glory: I think, and you absolutely said it, I have some students who are at a higher level and when they hear your music, they say, "I wanna learn that." Even though it might be a couple of levels beyond, but because they love it, they want to learn it and they're committed to the dedication that it takes to learn the piece.

Christopher: There's an element which they know what it should sound like. They start to play it and they think, "I know what the sound of this is." Your interpretation was they're on a better track than if they're just playing anything, I don't know quite what this is supposed to sound like, which can happen.

Glory: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I hope you're gonna be coming back to Winnipeg soon to do another workshop here, I know you do a lot of traveling.

Christopher: That would be lovely, yeah.

Glory: We'll have to-

Christopher: I'll wait 'til the spring, I think.

Glory: Okay. That would be great. I wanna thank you for sharing all your fabulous ideas and playing for us today, I think we're inspired. I'm gonna make sure to put those links in the show notes so make sure you leave us a note. Just say "composing", that's the Top 10 Tips, 10 Terrific Tips On Composing And Improvising by Christopher Norton. You can also join our Ultimate Music Theory Facebook Group and I'll be sharing Christopher Norton's catalog, if I may call it that.

Christopher: Catalog is fine. I've created it myself. Because it's spread across more than one publisher, no publisher has done it, so I figured I'd do it myself.

Glory: That's what we do, right?

Christopher: Exactly.

Glory: Gotta take care of it. Thanks again, Christopher, we really appreciate it. Make sure that you're joining our Facebook group, Ultimate Music Theory Facebook group, and also Christopher Norton Composer Facebook group for more information and inspiration on how you can improvise, compose, and play the music that you've written. Thanks, Christopher, we really appreciate it.

Christopher: Thank you. Bye for now.

Glory: Bye for now.

Christopher Norton - Composing - Improvising

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