Electronic Keyboard Basics: an introduction to the course


The electronic keyboard is one of the underdogs of the instrumental world. It has no place in the orchestra, rarely appears in solo recitals, and its auto-accompaniments are of no use to jazz and rock bands. But the fact that it turns up in people's front rooms indicates that the keyboard has earned a place in the musical world. It's become indispensible in the classroom, and its domestic, intimate character links it strongly to the keyboard instruments of the past.

Personally, I had no intention to teach electronic keyboard; I turned up at a school as a piano teacher and was told that the students had all signed up for keyboard, not piano. I was given a few books to start off with, and left in a room with four keyboards and four students. I suspect that many other keyboard teachers will have had a similar experience. You don't have to be a concert pianist to appreciate that the piano cannot be taught successfully on an electric keyboard, and so I was determined to find material appropriate to the instrument, and to work out some sort of course; otherwise, how would the students have any sort of a future? There's no Grade 8 to aim for, no repertoire at all. So I set about creating a course which would not only provide a body of music, but would link up, eventually, with one of the musical mainstreams - either to the piano, or to keyboards in a rock context, depending on the student's interests.

Creating the Electronic Keyboard Basics series increased both my affection and respect for the keyboard. I'd already encountered it in the context of English Experimental music - the ensemble Live Batts, formed by composers John White and Christopher Hobbs, used tiny Casio keyboards in the most creative ways imaginable. It's as if the limitations of the instrument provided extra stimulation, and the two composer/performers seemed to be putting over the message, "why does music have to be grand?" Perhaps in revering great concert artists (and their recordings) we've lost the impetus do make music ourselves: the humble electronic keyboard helps to balance that trend.

This doesn't mean to say that I can't see the crazy side of the keyboard. Some of its voices are unusable - you won't find "brass band" or "violin" too often in my books, and some of the rhythms are hopelessly cheesy. Even so, these functions can be used for humourous or grotesque effects - and let's face it, it's not so easy to be humorous or grotesque on a concert grand. Problems arise only when people try to impose unsuitable music onto the keyboard - a good deal of classical music (piano or orchestral) and jazz can sound crude when arranged for electronic keyboard, while pop and rock can present too many notational complexities such as syncopation.

If you search carefully, though, you can find pre-existent pieces which will work - early music in particular, as most keyboards have decent harpsichord and organ voices (J.S. Bach's music will work on any instrument!). Pop with a hypnotic, repetitive quality also works well - reggae and house, for instance. Or listen to the Eurovision Song Contest for Euro Pop inspiration - simple chord sequences, sentimental melodies and robotic backing rhythms will sound gloriously authentic on your keyboard. And of course, you can take an avant-garde approach - depress clusters of keys, use the sound effects, build up a descriptive landscape of sound.

Finding the combinations that work will provide your students (and you, hopefully!) with endless fun, and when the chemistry's just right - voice, style, content - the electronic keyboard may suddenly send an arrow into your heart.