Our Creator Spotlight this month is on Alison Mathews. Alison is a clasically trained pianist, composer and private teacher based in Surrey, UK. Her delightful piano music has been included in several exam boards and she has also had work commissioned from both ABRSM and Trinity.
Under the spotlight, Alison tells us about:
- her musical career as a teacher and composer;
- her new collections of 8 easy and lively Christmas themed duets;
- the wonderful Compose Yourself! online composition festival; and
- helpful tips and advice on introducing composition to students.
Alison, thank you for being under the spotlight this month. Can you tell us a bit more about yourself and your musical career to date?
Central to my career is teaching – over 30 years experience! It has always been a passion and part of my musical life. In fact, I’d completed my teaching diploma before going to the Royal College of Music for my first degree, and I taught throughout my time as a student. I went on to build up a thriving private studio teaching both group and individual lessons, as well as music workshops. Composing went hand in hand with teaching, and about 5 years ago I found a publisher and that part of my career was launched! I am now proud to have my work included in several exam boards, to have had commissions from ABRSM and Trinity London, and to be published by Editions Musica Ferrum.
Who or what inspired you to start composing?
My main inspiration was my students! I’d always had an interest in composing and arranging, solving problems for students or writing something that would help to engage them or bring out the best in them. I was always altering music that didn’t quite meet my students needs! Most of all I wanted to be able to give my students music that explored the range and potential of the piano, right from the earliest stages. In that sense the piano itself has always been an inspiration – the sonority, timbre and sheer range of moods and sounds that can be conjured has always excited me. I really wanted my students and young pianists to experience that too!
You have recently launched a collection of short Christmas themed duets for both piano and violin called Little Reindeer in a Row! Could you tell us a bit more about these, and how they have helped your own students with their music learning?
One year I was looking for inspiration for a reading challenge in the run up to Christmas and I thought a set of reindeer pieces would be really engaging. My intention was to continue developing my students’ reading skills alongside all the wonderful benefits duet playing brings. My students were enthusiastic, especially as there were cute reindeer to collect! I also created a couple of games to play, helping to strengthen their note recognition. I was keen to have something that could be used with a wide variety of pupils, so although they are written for beginners they can be used as repertoire pieces, concert pieces, weekly sight-reading or quick-fire sight-reading during lessons for those at a higher level. I deliberately wrote the secondo parts to be as accessible as possible so they could be enjoyed by piano-playing family members or friends. Christmas is a lovely time to play together – it’s something I did as a child with my father and still do with my own family!
The violin version came about as I picked up my old violin to play during the past year and was inspired to take my composing in a different direction. I had a lot of fun trying these pieces out as well as researching the early stages of violin learning.
For the past few years, you have run a wonderful online composition festival, with Lindsey Berwin, called Compose Yourself! Could you tell us a bit more about this festival?
Composition and improvisation has always been a part of my teaching practice as it is such a wonderful way to engage students in many aspects of musical learning. Over the years, Lindsey and I have had so many positive experiences of students gaining confidence through creativity and the self-expression it allows. We therefore wanted to provide a wider opportunity for young pianists to compose. We developed a festival that emphasised encouragement, achievement and sharing, with the aim of being as accessible as possible.
We decided to have both a competitive and non-competitive section and to ask all entrants to record their own piece of music which was then shared via our YouTube channel. It was very inspiring to see all of these young composers share their music! As well as offering prizes in the competitive category, in the spirit of sharing all entrants received a piece of music at their playing level composed by a leading educational composer.
Currently our website is being updated and plans are underway for an event next year but please do take a look at www.composeyourself.net
What advice would you give to teachers who wish to encourage their students to compose?
Try and include composition as a natural part of a student’s learning. This can be hard when there is so much to fit into lessons but one way is to take a concept that a student is focussing on (which could be as simple as a new rhythm or contrasting dynamics) and use this to improvise with or be the focus of a composition.
- Start small and let things grow and develop! A step by step approach and having clear parameters works well, especially with those less confident, but balance this with some free experimentation if possible.
- Let your students explore the piano! We have several free resources on My Music Resource which takes a teacher and students through the process using a variety of themes.
- Be prepared to make suggestions, demonstrate or create together – it can be an inspiring and energising experience for teachers!
- My other advice would be to guide your student gently making sure they know that they really can’t make any mistakes at all!
Finally, you have been a Creator with My Music Resource since we launched in October 2020. What has been your experience of selling and sharing your compositions and resources through mymusicresource.com?
My experience has been really positive! Taking the time to learn how the site works and the process of uploading resources is important but you then have complete control over your product which is an enormous plus. As a creator I can change any aspect at any time and also make sure everything is presented in the way that I want. If I got stuck on any part of the process I had great support from Ruth too! I also feel that My Music Resource has a good approach to promotion, with regular newsletters and updates on Facebook – this really does help to support Creators.