Read the Episode #59 with John Colwill, Part 1

Introduction

Here is the Crescendo Music Education Podcast – Episode 59. Hello, and welcome to this episode of the Crescendo Music Education Podcast, where I Debbie O’Shea get to chat to the wonderful John Colwill. He is such an interesting person. I’ve known John for a long time, I still learnt quite a bit about him in this episode that I didn’t know. He is so interesting. I know you’re going to love listening to this.

He’s got some interesting opinions. He has a few hobby horses that he hops on. I just, I just love it, you are going to enjoy this little conversation that I have with John. This is part one, because we talked and we talked and there’s so much more to talk about. But I think you’re going to love this part when he starts talking about his journey as a music educator and some of the amazing people that he’s worked with. Fabulous. But he also is talking about how he has applied some of the Kodaly principles of the teaching of music aurally to his piano pedagogy. Very fascinating. Sit back and enjoy part one with John Colwill.

About ‘Read the Episode’: Sometimes, we would rather skim visually than listen to a podcast! That’s a great way to learn too! The transcript of episode 059 of The Crescendo Music Education Podcast is below.


Introducing John Colwill

Debbie
And I would like to welcome to the Crescendo Music Education Podcast, the amazing, Mr. John Colwill. Hello, John.


John Colwill
Thank you very much, darling Debbie. Good to be here.


Debbie
It is so lovely to see you. It’s been so long. And we have known each other for a very long time. But I will get back to that because I unearthed something interesting yesterday. I could not believe it, like the day before we’ve scheduled this but I’ll come back to that. First for those who do not know, the amazing John Colwill.

I will just read out his lovely bio that he has sent to me. Okay, here we go. John Colwill is grateful he’s a decade baby. It’s an easy way to be able to calibrate your age. I love that you never forget how old you are. Is pleased he was born mid last century. It suits his Libra sensibilities. All right. So everyone out there is just going okay. How old is he? Yeah. Okay. I think I’ve got it. We’re getting on aren’t we John? Okay.


John Colwill
Ah, the privilege.


Debbie
It is a privilege. It is, alright back to your bio. Is grateful for all the teachers throughout his life, not least of whom are his students, young and old, is aware of the opportunities and privileges he’s been able to access and is passionate about teaching, and continuing to learn. There is so much in that, it’s just a beautiful bio, so much that we should dig into. But before we dig, is there anything else you’d like to add to that? I don’t know. There’s just so much I want to say, I love that your students are also your teachers.


John Colwill
Oh, you wait.


Debbie
Okay, yes so we’ll come back. I just want to come back to all those things.


John Colwill
I want to talk about my teachers. My dad was my teacher for seven and a half years of primary school and we travelled around regional Queensland. So two things in that, regional Queensland and my parents are brilliant teaching. And I have the best memory of starting piano lessons because this is going to be about piano when I was seven in a little country town on the Darling Downs, coincidentally near where Maree Hennessy later grew up. All of these things happen in regional Queensland. I studied medicine at University of Queensland.

Then I switched to music and voice at the same university. I went on to direct musicals at La Boite and tour with singers for the Arts Council and studied and it just goes on and on. But, after attending the Kodaly Institute National Conference in the early 80s, I had the privilege of meeting Katalin Forrai and that changed my life, really was so potent. Then I studied with Liz Colton, Judy Johnson was in the same class before she went off to Holy Names. And I also then went on to study with Sayuri Debski in Brisbane.

What an amazing opportunity. So from that I attended the Kodaly Institute in Hungary in 1988 and then came back to teach in Australia. Val Layne and Ann Carroll and me teaching on a 10 week course up in Mackay. And I continue to do that, those bits of teaching in Brisbane and around Queensland and at the same time I joined what was the Johnny Young Talent School with my partner then to Trevor Green.


Debbie
Oh, now, John, I did not know this about you.


John Colwill
There you go. But we changed the name of the place, with no disrespect to dancing. And it was the home of the Young Australian Talent Company. So I ended up doing a whole lot of things that I never thought I would do. At the same time I was presenting pre performance talks for Musica Viva. So I had this contemporary music world and this classical music world. I was presenting, comparing for Opera Queensland, Queensland Symphony Orchestra, where I worked with John Curro, and later on presenting schools concerts with the orchestra with Rhonda Davidson-Irwin and then I was working for Musica Viva in Schools. Thank you Ann Louise McRae, and there I met the wonderful Debbie O’Shea. We won’t say when that was, it was a long time ago.


Debbie
Did we first meet through Musica Viva in Schools?


John Colwill
We first worked together through Musica Viva in Schools Debbie. That was really beautiful with Barb Fordham and that mob, Gypsy Tober.


Debbie
Gypsy Tober. Lovely Ladies. Shout out to them.


John Colwill
But shout out to Musica Viva in Schools, but what a learning opportunity in schools around Queensland and Australia. And then early in the 2000s I got to teach a semester of piano at University of Queensland and just the one semester and I linked again with Judy Johnson. And she said, Oh, you must bring your energy to summer school. What can you do?

So I said, What can I do is present the Early Childhood piano program that I’d worked on at Dancing from the 90s with colour. And I was inspired to do that. And she said, go ahead. So that first one week pilot was a success. And she said when I asked, Would you publish my piano play books? She said yes.

And I got busy writing and made also a volume of Australian simple songs that I included in Piano Player but was available for people to buy separately. That was in 2006. I was elected. I’m a fair age. So I’ve done a lot of things. I was elected as President of the Music Teachers Association of Queensland. And now I’m here in New Zealand.


Debbie
Yes. And you moved to New Zealand in?


John Colwill
End of 2016 Debbie. It’s such a beautiful place, it’s calm, it’s quiet. I grow roses, make sourdough, teach a bit of piano.


Debbie
That sounds amazing. We do miss you here though.


John Colwill
I don’t miss the heat but I do miss you. And it’s so lovely to connect with all my Kodaly community through Crescendo Music. Thank you very much.


Debbie
Oh, my absolute pleasure. In fact, that’s one of my little missions is the connecting of amazing people so we can keep inspiring each other. So do you have private students? Do you do private students at your house now?


John Colwill
Yes, I don’t have such a busy life. My busy life in Queensland was burning up busy, burn out busy. So it was good to be able to scale it down. And over here I’ve got a few private piano students and I keep exploring different ways of making learning very easy for them. And that’s what my teaching is all about.


Debbie
I can’t imagine even though you, and we, are both getting older. I can’t imagine us actually stopping the passion for teaching and having some connection to that teaching.


John Colwill
I can’t, I have to be careful not to define myself just as a teacher. I have to say there are lots of other things I’m doing and that’s I’m learning French intensively and Italian and also gardening.


Debbie
Yes you have always loved your garden.


John Colwill
Yes, love my garden.


Debbie
Well, I’m going to now tell you this little story. Okay? Oh, and I will have to admit to not terribly great parenting moments when my own son did not have continuous lessons on a particular instrument or whatever. But anyway, I did what I could at the time. Anyway, let’s go back. Little Tom O’Shea came to you for piano lessons for a little while. It wasn’t a long time. I think we raced over and had a piano lesson before we went to Birralee when you were at Bardon. We loved coming down. And your garden in that front yard was so fascinating. And you had a native beehive, I think.


John Colwill
Yes, definitely.


Debbie
It was just so fascinating. But this is apart from obviously thinking about that, because I’m about to have this chat with you. I was going through a box, it is time that I had a major sort. For example, one week ago, I threw out, actually put in the bin, my high school shirt that was signed by people, it was all faded starting to get holes in it. But like, what is the point?

I think a lot of this too, I’m going to go off on a sidetrack for a sec here. But having my mother pass away relatively recently, and Kelvin, my husband’s mother passing away and having to deal with housefuls of stuff. It does make you rethink Why am I keeping all of this stuff in a box that I never look at. Anyway so I’m going through a box. I had a digression there, sorry. And I’m going here’s a notebook with Tom O’Shea’s name on it. It is your notebook from when he had lessons with you. I’m looking through going, this isn’t familiar? Like it’s not mine, doesn’t look like school.

There’s this big picture of a keyboard with colours on it and whatever. And then there’s one bit with your name on it. I found the notebook from little Tom’s lessons with you. Oh, my goodness. And I found it yesterday. Like wow.


John Colwill
Serendipity.


Debbie
It is. He loved coming to lessons with you and what we had tried having lessons elsewhere. I want to do another digression. I hope the listeners do not mind.


John Colwill
That’s okay.


Debbie
It took a little while for his first teacher to work out that he was not reading a note.


John Colwill
That is so common.


Debbie
She would play the piece for him first, he would then sit down with the music in front of him and play it?


John Colwill
Yes, that’s normal. It’s normal. He was normal.


Debbie
Yes, had this good aural wasn’t that interested in the slow laborious things.


John Colwill
And he had a good ear because his mother’s a musician. And he’s been there in the womb, you know. I was asked, When should a child be starting to learn music and from the birth beginning, you know, from the beginning after birth, and then sometime later and reflected and said When? When the mothers in the womb as a child, way back there, it’s a generational thing. It’s so powerful.


Debbie
But it was lovely finding you. Because you taught. This is my recollection of you. Little personal reflection is that you taught the child, not only the music, but you taught the child, you looked at little Tom O’Shea. And you looked at his passions and his strengths. You let him play and explore at the same time as educating him and you worked with his strengths. And I think in a way that’s a privilege that a private piano teacher can have, it’s much harder to do 30 kids half an hour at a time.


John Colwill
I admire you guys in the classroom. I have such a sweet life. Because some of these half hour a weeks turn into an hour a year an hour a week, over 15 years and I look at my stable of kids and go phew I might not have treated you with great skills as a pianist but there you are with two masters in jazz improvisation and receiving commissions throughout Australia now and there you are over in Helsinki with two Masters on cello playing In the Helsinki Philharmonic and there you are is the youngest pianist ever to enter the Sydney Conservatorium on piano.

And I’m going, and all of these people had phenomenal other experiences, dedicated parents, amazing opportunities at school. But these are the people that I sat beside for a long time. And it’s just beautiful. And you draw them out, because that’s what education is.


Debbie
And they were certainly lucky to have you as an integral part of their music journey. Well, it’s actually their life journey. It’s not just music is it?


John Colwill
And that’s why I, there were many reasons I stopped studying medicine. But that was one of the reasons, you know, you might fix a common cold or see somebody for a knee operation. But the opportunity like I had experienced with my father for a long time as a teacher, the opportunity to give something that was life enriching and music certainly is, it just not underscores my life.


Debbie
That is amazing. You’ve certainly had an amazing career in there. Would it be difficult, too difficult to pick out a highlight or two from all of these wonderful things, apart from teaching Tom O’Shea for for a year?


John Colwill
I have to remember your comment then, because I was teaching Tom the Star Wars march and and he went, Whoa, I’ve got this, I’ve got this. Or was it his older brother? I’m not sure. Other brother and you went oh it’s about repertoire. You’ve got to give something that the kids will attach to, I remember that comment that you made so strongly.

A highlight was touring regional Queensland with singers for Arts Council for Narpacker list of singers long as I am because my passion is chamber music and playing for singers and part of that was appearing as a support pianist and artists at Edinburgh Festival Fringe with Helen Noonan and Chamber Made Opera. That was amazing. Oh, then popping down to London meeting Elisabeth Söderström at the British Voice Association because I was a member of that then and there we are smoking cigarettes on the lawn at a national conference. Oh, you can edit that bit out.


Debbie
Oh no I’m no, I’m leaving that in.


John Colwill
No, no, I know you won’t. And then I toured Queensland with Judith Henley and Irene Bartlett and Viv Middleton for Jazz Meets Opera. I got to play for Karen Knowles for Narpacker. Joe/Giuseppe Sorbello for Arts Council so I’d done a lot. And the highlight was when I was reviewing for the Courier Mail as I did through the 80s and part of the 90s.


Debbie
Of course you did.


John Colwill
Yes as you do, you fit that in somewhere. And I got to meet Olivier Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod, the Queensland Arts Council and I think I’ll cry again. Because I stood in front of them and I just burst into tears. He signed my piano score. And I like sat beside him and he listened to his award winning works. Oh, just wow, that was amazing. Music is such a connection.


Debbie
It sounds to me. Yes. Like it’s almost in a completely different world.


John Colwill
Absolutely. A different world from presenting opera in cane field, or in a paddock or happening in the town square, or sitting beside a five year old. But it’s all in the same world, Debbie. It’s all the same world. It’s all about sharing the depths that music has given me throughout my life and making sure that it’s available for everyone. Music for everyone.


Debbie
Music for everyone, absolutely.


John Colwill
I won’t to talk about what kids showed me how what, how children showed me how to teach. I had a lot of kids. And I always had kids like Tom who don’t want to learn 1,2,3,4,5 And the problem is 5,4,3,2,1 in the left hand and 1,2,3,4,5 in the right hand and I’ve had transfer students come to me and the previous teachers said they don’t quite understand the difference. And I said that’s because they’re probably really intelligent and going why does 5,4,3,2,1 agree with 1,2,3,4,5.

It’s a cognitive dissonance it’s like, and so when I found Koti Forrai and went, I can understand what’s missing in my aural development, because it was always testing. It was always testing at university and in AMEB it was a piano exams, it was never training and Koti in two weeks in that summer school, opened a window and informed my quest thereafter. And so I opened windows for kids, we’re talking about chord one, as a banana and chord five seven as an apple. Banana is your fingers are gently curved, and an apple is you’ve got a shape there. And all of a sudden, this boy Dane, who’s now for decades been working as a DJ, all through Central and United States, he suddenly went, Oh, I can understand chords, because he didn’t understand the C and G seven.

It’s all about these kids who can’t understand and I devised all this. And then these three, four year olds are dancing with Trevor. They were asking me to teach piano and you know, the standard response is you don’t learn piano until you can read? And no, no, you have to find a way to teach these little children for whom I was playing in ballet, singing and dancing classes on a Saturday morning, they wanted to play. So I went well. And Trevor Green with whom I was teaching, he had a red right hand and a blue left hand. So immediately, you didn’t have to talk about right and lift, you just had red and blue.

And it was your left hand. Not blue. It was “bleft”. And just like you’re doing now, you’re laughing. But you’ll never forget that your gleft hand and red is for right you see. So I looked at the piano and I’ve got (sung) “F sharp and D sharp, and that’s red and blue. And I’ve got a so mi song. I don’t have to teach so mi – so la was red, yellow, red, blue.” And the really clever kids when (sung) “bah bah, bah, bah, bah,” but I only wanted one sound, (sung) “bah, bah, bah, bah.

So red, gold, red, blue, and green, gold, red and blue, black, let it be pink.” And off we went. It’s crazy. And when I took my work, published, work to Géza Szilvay a courtesy of a connection that Yuri had made for me, Yuri Djachenko. And he went through the book and got to the bit where I was talking about bananas and apples. He said, You’re in the mind of the child. And you know that was overwhelming for me, his sitting in Helsinki at a beautiful cafe in summer. And this man who for decades established coloured strings saying you’re in the mind of the child.


Debbie
That’s like the highest compliment, isn’t it? You could be paid.


John Colwill
It was, it was. And so but you can’t stay all your life on black notes. Even though there’s lots of stuff and they’re really hard to find on piano. So I’ve moved everything as a two handed exercise to the white notes and don’t teach finger numbers and teach scale degrees and teach relationships knots. Yes, with solfa initially but with scale degrees, so you can encompass an octave. And you can move with scale degrees from a C scale to an A natural minor scale,no you can move start on an A natural minor scale because that’s the easiest place to learn about the musicians alphabet.

I’ll never forget you were over at Carseldine or somewhere doing a warm up with kids at some choral thing we were doing and wonderful things you do. And you said oh well, you know musicians aren’t very bright. Let’s sing the musicians alphabet. ABCDEFG. ABCDEFG. I nearly wet myself and Debbie I honour you every day I sing that song.


Debbie
Well, guess what? No, no, I’m gonna interrupt you singing it. Of course I still use that it’s magic. It is magic the musicians alphabet song. But I’m now going to honour you. Because I remember you hearing me do that and saying that’s wonderful. I’m going to use that. Okay. Yes, of course that’s okay. And then you said Do you know what would be really useful? I’m pretty sure this was you that said this. We should also sing it backwards.


John Colwill
Yes. And I do. I do. That’s when the kids baulk.


Debbie
Oh, yes. How amazing. And I do it with my kids, not when I first teach them like because I teach them in the end of year two is when I first talk about letter names. Until then, we’ve learnt about the staff, we’ve learned Solfa, we’ve learned a whole heap of repertoire. Anyway, basically, letter names starts at the end of year two for me. So I don’t do the musician’s alphabet song backwards then. But later on up the years, we sing, G, F, E, D, C, B, A now I know my musicians ABC backwards Next time won’t you sing with me?


John Colwill
It’s funny, Debbie O’Shea, Debbie O’Shea. I then just play that as a, I don’t know how the sound will come out here. I’ll beef it up a bit. But I’ve got my little iPad with the eboard. And I’ll give you a bit more sound.


Debbie
Oh I hope I can hear it.


John Colwill
Is it too gentle?


Debbie
Yes, we can hear that.


John Colwill
A,B,C,D,E,F,G,A A,G,F,E,D,C,B,A 1,1,2,1 1,2,3,2,1 1,2,3,4,3,2,1 1,2,3,4,5,4,3. And it’s always a single digit did you see my fingers?


Debbie
Yes I did see your fingers.


John Colwill
(series of sung numbers) and we’re on a natural minor scale. And and it’s the most beautiful place to be before any major diatonic is added. William he had seven sons, seven sons and so tomboy, he had lots of friends, lots of friends, lots of friends. And so we were improvising with a child’s name and a child’s activity all the time and making it relevant to them and transposing .


Debbie
How wonderful.


John Colwill
I can play in D minor, D minor, and then we have to go Oh, no, no, you’ve got to find the right note I just sang, hopefully, the B flat. And like it’s all the time a game, because the piano is big play gymnasium. It’s so delightful.


Debbie
And it has so much more potential than a single melody instrument. I’m not. I don’t mean to sort of say, you know, I’m not dissing all the flute and clarinet and trumpet players. But just like you said, the potential for fun and experimenting, when you can play more than one note.


John Colwill
Yes. And that’s the difficulty moving an early childhood concept, which is melodic to a piano that requires a sense of harmony and harmonic progression. And so there’s a wonderful book. I have it beside me, this was not intended, but I don’t know if it’s easily seen. Keyboard Harmony by Margaret Lowry. And I have a feeling that this book I found on an Amazon store is actually signed by Maggie. I mean, this is, this is gorgeous to me.

And she’s saying, she’s saying all the things that Kodaly was saying, and this is written in 1944. She’s saying that we should honour the flow, we should think in phrases and we should think in patterns. And it’s so easy to think in patterns. 1,1,5,7,1 (sung – Mary had a Little Lamb melody) you’ve got a chord progression. 1,1,5,7,1 teach it in a context. And for me, all my learning was rote, follow a note from the page and I became so eye dependent and it’s still such a hassle for me. But if you can see the patterns and thinking in Solfa, thinking in chord progressions as patterns, thinking melodies as patterns, transposing those patterns and then you’d be able to get hands together, which is cognitive overload for so many children.

And so don’t look at the page, close your eyes, use your memory, reading the page Koti Forrai said, so many musicians take from the page with their eye to their finger, it doesn’t go through their ear. And so what I’ve learned is to teach into the ear through singing, to teach into their fingers through rote copying, and then make the notation because that’s not music. Notation is not music and even though Kodaly In the preface to, Erzsébet Szöny book says, no time for playing by ear as all the gypsies did for centuries and centuries is over, we need to read notation.

Well, I disagree with that. We have to go back to being able to process all of that musical information. Well, what if you’re blind? How many musicians are blind? What if you live in Indonesia? You have to learn by rote and copying. That’s, you know, that’s what Tom was doing.


Debbie
Yes, he definitely was.


John Colwill
He was following a tradition. Reading music should never be reading music. Reading notation is only a recent invention.


Debbie
During this episode you heard John Caldwell and I talk about the musicians alphabet song, we sang a little bit of it, I’m just not sure that it is clear enough. I wanted to pop back in and just sing it through for you. Because it has been really useful in my teaching. When I first introduced the concept of letter names. It just goes like this.

A,B,C,D,E,F,G, A,B,C,D,E,F,G, A,B,C,D,E,F,G, A,B,C,D,E,F,G. Now you know your musicians ABC, Next time won’t you sing with me. And then you can do it backwards if you want, if you like, the same thing, but backwards, G, F, E, D, C, B, A, etc.

Then at the end, now you know your musicians ABC backwards, Next time won’t you sing with me. It’s lots of fun. You can use it with your kids.

Thank you for joining me for this podcast. Don’t forget, you’ll find the show notes and transcript and all sorts of information on crescendo.com.au. If you’ve enjoyed the podcast, or found it valuable, you might like to rate it on your podcast player and leave a review. I’d really appreciate it if you did. All I can be as the best version of me. All you can do is be the best you. Until next time, bye.



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This podcast is brought to you by Crescendo Music Education connecting supporting and inspiring music educators. In the show notes you’ll find links to Crescendo’s social media platforms. Please connect with me and be part of the Crescendo community. You might consider becoming a Crescendo member, for a low annual fee you can access hundreds of files worksheets, printables workbooks, repeat workshops and webinars and receive great discounts on events. So come and connect with me Debbie O’Shea. See you in the socials.


Just for Laughs

As we know, laughter relieves stress. Don’t lose sight of the funny side of life.

What’s the difference between a poorly dressed man on a unicycle and a well-dressed man on a bicycle?

Attire.


Links Mentioned in the Episode:

Keyboard Approach to Harmony by Margaret Lowry

Where to find me:

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