Path-breaking piano curriculum

from readers blogAdd this to the mavericks list. I’ll continue with nominations from readers very shortly, but thought I’d add one of my own.

This is an email from Heather Dawn Taves, a pianist and composer who teaches at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada (an hour outside Toronto). Heather describes the piano program at the school, which more than lives up to its billing — in her email — as “the most innovative of the high-end performance undergrad programs in Canada.” Or, I’d think, anywhere.  I wouldn’t even know where to start in showing why that’s so.

  • They stress both composition and improvisation
  • They stress creativity, asking students, just for instance, to “identify and develop your own creative identity through special projects.”
  • They’re open to — and happy to help students prepare for — a wide variety of future careers (as shown by the extraordinary honor roll of graduates, which Heather puts at the end of her email).

If anyone knows of any other program, in any music school, as creative as this one, I want to hear about it!

Here’s what Heather wrote:


“Your own composition, or your own improvisation, or a work written since 1900” is one of our 4 audition pieces.

“What is your vision for what you will be doing in 10-15 years?” is our question to all students at the audition interview.


 “Objectives of the Keyboard Program” are up front in our Course Outline:

 1. To survey the foundations and history of keyboard performance. 

2. To identify and develop your own creative identity through special projects. 

3. To explore new directions in music, and acquire the career tools necessary to emerge as a professional musician, and/or enter a graduate program. 

 MUSIC 101:

“Music in its Contexts” is our 101 course, rather than “History of Western Music”.


 1. “Creative Project” as follows:

In consultation with your instructor, you will develop your own creative project.  Examples are a structured improvisation, a performance of another student’s composition, a performance of a professional composition written within the past five years, your own composition, a song cover, a multi-media project, performance art, an interdisciplinary project, an original concerto cadenza, or a figured bass realization.

You will record your own project and submit it online by emailing a SoundCloud, Vimeo or YouTube link to a jury.  Your recording should be a maximum of 5 minutes. The jury will grade all projects online, and choose a short list of projects to be performed live in a Keyboard Program Creative Projects Concert in the MFRH.

2. Attend 12 professional concerts and write a review of one of them.

3. A sightreading pass/fail test that must be repeated until passed.

 4. A “Do It Yourself project” where a work is learned independently.

5. Early Keyboards lab to learn about pianos in historical context.

6. Alumni guest masterclasses who come to speak about professional skills.


In years 3- 4, students design their own specialization involving either a Classical or a New Music preformance option, or both, or an interdisciplinary double major, or take an arts administration minor, or become a Contemporary Improvisation or Composition major retaining full hour piano lessons as well as lessons with composition faculty.


Tuition is about $5000 per year. Yes that is 4 figures.


We just had a Masters degrees in Community entrepreneurship approved. We offer North America’s first Master of Music Therapy program. And we have small performance diploma programs in chamber music and opera.

I designed, and direct, the Creative Projects component. I have also done a pilot in digital performance with a selected group.

Here are links to some keyboard alumni who found their voices while taking our innovative curriculum.

These are in no particular order, just to show the diverse range of voices – there are many more!

Jason White, a new music pianist with exceptional entrepreneurial gifts, has started many programs around town, including “the Jazz Room” (where he combines classical music with experimental jazz), the board of which is drawing together the business and music programs at our university:

Sarah Whynot, a competition-winning piano performer, tries her hand at songwriting and succeeds in winning a songwriting contest. She begins to include songs in her recitals.

 Sarah Hagen starts house concerts in her own place on Vancouver Island when she graduates, putting an ad in the paper. This grows until today, she presents a full series in a concert hall which is franchised to venues across the west coast. She is regularly invited to presenter showcases who get her advice on who to present. In the project below, she attracted the photographer/architect community from her loft space in an arts co-op to attend classical music in Vancouver.

Damien Robitaille parlayed his bad French accent (his mum was Quebecois, but he grew up in english Canada), his wit, his piano playing and his songwriting skill into a tongue-in-cheek pop show using bad slang. He became a sensation in Quebec and has a hectic high profile career. He is now the ambassador for French in the public schools for Ontario. Here is his first indie video:

And here is a more recent high gloss production, complete with white upright!

William Brent and Charity Chan became fascinated with a project where my class improvised using the inside of the piano for several months. William took his love of extended sounds into the computer realm – he now works at American University in Washington.

Charity is completing a PHD in improv at Princeton, but she’s also a maverick underground concert presenter in Montreal.

Kui Min took a more traditional route. He has established his own successful piano studio in the Toronto area will savvy use of the Internet and a nice mix of traditional and new music interests.

Glenn James was a fixture in our Creative Projects concerts. Since then, he’s been the pianist for Second City, a keyboard player in some great bands, and he’s about to receive his DMA in composition from UBC. He blogs here:

Jisca, who graduated last year, the daughter of a local organic farmer, decided not to go the competition route, but rather to develop her stellar sight reading ability. Here, for her graduation recital she plays a piece written by her peer, another pianist graduating from my studio, She’s just had her way paid to Europe as an opera accompanist.

Rebekah Cummings, who wrote that last piece, turned down an offer from Christos Hatzis for grad study in composition, in order to grow her Bulgarian folk/progressive band cafe series. Here is Rebekah’s visual art:

Last but not least, two of my current undergrads. My second year student, 20 year old Sandro Manzon, has an interesting indie profile already

and has won funding for this series, for which he is hiring other pianist in my class:

One of them is young Keenan Reimer Watts, who plays his composition “Nocturne” on his Youtube channel here:


Other posts in this series:

Looking for mavericks

Breaking the mold” (about Ad Hoc, a chamber ensemble that describes its performances as jams)

Mavericks nominations” (the first group of readers’ suggestions)

More Mavericks” (more readers’ suggestions)

Mavericks — continuing” (still more from readers)

We personalize what music is” (about the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, which is breaking 

A lot of mavericks” (final nominations from readers — who suggested more than 50 people and groups)

Final mavericks — Jade Simmons and a Go-Go symphony” (final only for 2012, because we’ll resume this in 2013)

Still more mavericks (resuming in 2013, with marvelous things from two major institutions, the Toronto Symphony and the Orchestra  of the Age of Enlightenment)

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  1. says

    This is fabulous, Greg—and the course requirements actually embody the goals!
    CalArts has similar intent. As a student bassoonist there, back in the 20th century, I played lots of recent and new pieces, performed a South Indian classical piece, and played tons of West African music. I played standard chamber and orchestral repertoire, too, but that was just one thread among many. Lots of improvisation went on—modal, folk, classical Indian (northern and southern), jazz, free, avant-garde. I tinkered with electronic music, sang in the choir, composed for dancers, listened to the gamelan. The rhythmic training was incredible: African, Indonesian, Indian, modernist, minimalist, and Rock Etudes. It was an environment for exploration and discovery, a fabulous education. The place still centers on current music in its amazing variety.

    • says

      And that, too, is fabulous, what you describe about Cal Tech CalArts. We don’t hear enough about the music program there. What happens to the people who graduate from it? A crucial point, right now, is that conservatives in our field will say that these innovations are all very well (well, some of them might grant that), but that they take away from the central mission, which is to teach people their instruments, or to sing, or to compose. In your case, as a bassoonist, that would mean knowing your orchestral excerpts, having a solid technique, being ready to get a job playing in an orchestra. Obviously, you did all this. But if we can show that the people going through programs like Cal Tech’s, or the one in Canada, still can do the orthodox things, that’s one argument we don’t have to lose.

      Not that those orthodox careers will be around for too much longer! And as Robert Freeman said to me, suppose we let people be a few percent less qualified in the traditional areas, while exploding with new abilities in the areas that will matter greatly in the future? We’d barely notice, if we noticed at all, any problem with the traditional things. But we’d be ready for the new things we’re going to have to do.

  2. Phillip Bush says

    The question at the auditions about the incoming student’s vision for 10-15 years down the road is, even by itself, an excellent idea…can help separate those who have some imagination and some grasp of the world they seek to enter vs. those who may be just drifting into majoring in music by default, on autopilot, etc. I congratulate Prof. Taves and the piano department not just on the content of this curriculum (which I like because it does NOT “throw out the baby with the bathwater”) but on the accomplishment of achieving curricular change within a public university music department, which rarely comes easy.

    • says

      Thanks, Philip. I also like — and should have commented on — the not throwing the baby out. For instance, among the many new things you might offer, to fulfill requirements, are improvisation, and making an arrangement of a pop song. But also making a realization of a figured bass! So students can, within this imaginative program, find their own comfort zone, and do the things that make sense to them, that meet their own musical needs.

      The long-term vision is, as you say, so important. From one of the people who runs the entrepreneurship program at the Manhattan School of Music, I learned that all students will have to take a course on entrepreneurship, and that one assignment they’d be given early on would be to say where they wanted their careers to be in five and ten years. From this, their teachers would suggest skills that the students would need. Again, I think a very smart — and necessary — approach to teaching.

  3. Charmaine Siagian says

    Why couldn’t I have been born in the 90s so I could do it all over at Wilfred Laurier – this is marvelous.