Piano Teaching Tips from Tom Gerou

Any task in life shares the same basic elements: a goal and details required to achieve the goal. The same is true in studying and performing music. The goal for an effective performance of “Willows” is to project musical color through phrase shaping and tone production. Visit the score to explore the details that I have written in red.

After hitting upon a musical idea, in the case of Willows, mostly using intervals of perfect 5ths, the first task becomes defining the parameters and boundaries that will limit what is used.

Willows is a deceptively simple piece that uses mostly perfect 5ths. Although the piece is not immediately recognized as a functionally harmonic work, the relationship of tonic to dominant is rooted in the resulting harmonies. Overall, Willows is in the key of F major.

The gestures in the piece are limited to an arpeggiated effect. The texture is deceptively transparent and requires a delicate, yet controlled, touch. Beginning in measure 1, the broken perfect 5ths need to be all played with the same even weight while shaping the 2-measure phrase with subtlety. As the first phrase ends with LH over in measure 2, a release of weight in needed towards the end of the phrase.

The second phrase, beginning a 3rd lower, echoes the first. Measures 5 and 6 are 1-measure upward gestures that lead up to the cadence in measure 8. Both of these short phrases ‘comment’ on what was already played and add harmonic movement to anticipate the cadence in measure 8. In measure 5 the phrase will need shaping by slightly emphasizing the F and lifting the hand on the G. This is echoed in the next measure.

If we look at the harmonies in measures 7 and 8 they are ii7, vi7 and V7—essentially a harmonically functional cadence.

Measures 9–16 mimic the first 8 measures beginning on the sub-dominant, Bb. We are now in the key of Bb which is firmly established by measures 15 and 16, also ending on the IV chord of Bb (Eb).

For contrast, measure 17 (remaining in Bb) changes the gesture to a downward motion. The long-long-short-short-long phrases are still maintained but ultimately lead to the final cadence in measures 22-32, finishing back in F major. The harmony in measure 21, at the forte, is the half-diminished seventh chord leading to the final chord, F major. Before the piece is resolved, some unexpected harmonies add color to the harmonic progression. The harmonies are unexpected in measure 23 (minor v7, ii7 to F major) and remain faithful to the contemporary feel of this piece.

Pedaling is very important in the study of Willows. One of the pleasures of Willows is the sound of the harmonies with the pedal down. There are three important places where the pedal plays a primary role: measures 7–8, 15–16, and 23–24. Let the harmonies build up and don’t be concerned about the slight dissonance—it is always resolved in the next measure. The final two measures are resolved with a final perfect 5h at the end.  Measures 8, 16 and 24 also define the structure of the piece. They are milestones along the way.

The patterns established in Willows will help with memorization. Although deceptively simple in nature, Willows will convey a sophisticated style lying beneath the surface.

One of the deceptively simple tasks after composing a piece is titling it. A title immediately describes a mood or feeling—a summation of what is heard. After composing Willows I chose the title because I thought it conveyed the piece the best. The willow is immediately recognized for its unique shape and it’s drooping branches and leaves. Although a willow tree is one object unto itself, the long, pliant branches and elongated leaves are open to the breezes and sway independently. The imagery fits perfectly to the open sound of arpeggiated perfect 5ths, either gesturing upwards or downwards.

I hope you enjoy the study and performance of Willows—one of my favorite compositions.

Happy teaching and enjoy your summer!

Tom Gerou
Author, Arranger, Composer
Alfred’s Vice President of Production and Director of Keyboard Operations

Willow, Page 1Willow, Page 2


6 responses to “Piano Teaching Tips from Tom Gerou

  1. Kristin Graham

    Willows was a delightful piece. (as the others that followed from your
    display of samples.
    Why do you NOT include your chords with these piano compositions?
    As a piano teacher who also tries to teach my students chords (and certainly want to know the chords of the new pieces that composers like
    you structure your pieces around) it would be helpful to know this.

    Kristin Graham

    (I met you at a workshop in St. Louis a couple of years ago and greatly
    enjoyed your playing as well as your workshop)

    • Hi Kristin, thanks for commenting on the site. As you know, for the most part chord symbols are added to pop or jazz piano publications so another instrumentalist can play along if they choose. However, chords are often difficult to correctly identify and can sometimes prove overly complex. For music that is composed as a self-standing composition, whether melodic or not, the complexity of the harmony might prove too confusing to add to the score. (I myself, try to make the score inviting and easy-looking as possible.) The chord symbols might add too much information to the page and would also imply that another instrument is encouraged to play along—which might not be the intent of the composed piece.

      That being said, it is a wonderful tool for the student to analyse the chord stucture/progression and form for any piece they are learning. Layers of understanding are revealed the more we investigate a piece of music. Besides, both teacher and student would learn together in the process. If you personally would like to figure out the chords in any of my pieces, I’d be more than happy to send you my analysis to compare—just let me know.


  2. I am a piano teacher and find these comments by Tom really excellent. I sure would like to see more piano posts on this blog. I notice especially the jazz category has very little that applies to piano solo. Thanks Tom!

  3. Marilyn Burdett

    Thank you for your insights and teaching notes. This is a lovely piece that will be helpful for my summer students. Is this contained in a new book I can order with other pieces?

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