By Brendan Lai-Tong
Today we had the opportunity to interview Professor Dennis Alexander, a prolific composer on staff at Alfred Music Publishing. In addition to his compositional duties at Alfred, Dennis is also an active soloist, accompanist, chamber musician and clinician. Keep reading to learn more about Dennis and how he approaches his compositional process.
You may know his compositions from some of the books below:
- Alfred’s Premier Piano Course
- Just for You – Bks. 1-4
- Finger Paintings – Bks. 1-3
- The Magic of Music – Bks. 1-3
- A Splash of Color – Bks. 1-3, Especially for Boys
- 24 Character Preludes
- Especially in Romantic Style – Bks. 1-3
- Especially in Jazzy Style – Bks. 1-3
- Especially for Adults – Bks. 1-3
- Planet Earth
What inspired you to start a career in music?
I grew up in a very small town in southwest Kansas, called Copeland. My father farmed, but both my parents loved music and also loved to dance! They were always playing music on the phonograph (yes, back in those days, CD’s & mp3’s were not in existence!) We also religiously sat in front of the TV every Saturday evening and watched the Lawrence Welk show. I waited each week with great anticipation for Joann Castle’s performance on the piano. She always looked like she was having so much fun, and after seeing her a few times I decided right then and there that I wanted to learn how to play the piano. I started lessons at age 7 with a wonderful teacher who was very inspiring and made each lesson an adventure and great fun! I continued with lessons all through grade school and high school and it never even occurred to me that I would major in anything but piano performance when I went to college at the University of Kansas.
Who are some of your role models?
As a composer of educational piano materials, I would be the first to say that my “role models” are the numerous great composers of the past whose music has always inspired me as a pianist and performer! I’ll be the first to admit that I am a hopeless, incurable Romantic and that music by Chopin, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Schumann, and other Romantic composers has always been a great source of inspiration. But I also love the music of Bach, Mozart, Debussy, and numerous Contemporary composers—-in addition, I love good jazz and popular music as well, so ALL of these “role models” have come to help shape the music that I write for young pianists. I should also say that I’ve always greatly admired the music written by William Gillock! His writing is always so pianistic, musical, and often very lyrical and as an educational composer, he has been a tremendous source of inspiration to me. Other educational composers who have served as good role models include David Carr Glover and Willard Palmer——Willard was a musical genius in every sense of the word! He was an excellent musician, first of all. But he also had a tremendous knowledge of music history and style periods, as evidenced by his many volumes of music in the Alfred “Masterworks” catalog. Willard could also sit down at any given moment and come up with a very creative teaching piece, with magical words that would give such joy and meaning to the music and to the child playing that music. I have always felt that it was a great privilege to have known him!
What advice could you provide to aspiring young artists who are looking to start a career in music?
Of course, a career in music is very competitive today, and young artists who are looking to start a career in music need to be highly focused, talented, and well disciplined if they are going to succeed. That being said, I always feel that most anything is possible if you’re willing to work hard to achieve your dreams and ambitions. Today, there are so many different types of music careers to choose from and sometimes, students make the mistake of aiming for only one particular type of musical career instead of preparing for many “possibilities” that could come their way. I always encouraged my piano majors at the university to be as versatile as possible—–play ALL types of music, learn to play by ear if possible, be adept at “functional piano skills”, accompany, perform chamber music, study as much theory and music history as possible, take piano pedagogy, and the list goes on and on. Very few pianists, for example, will ever be in a position to make a living on the concert stage, no matter how talented or precocious they feel they might be. But if they have MANY musical skills in addition to their performing skills, there will be a place for them somewhere in the world of musical careers! The same goes for singers and other instrumentalists. There are also jobs in the music industry that could be very appealing to young musicians. They all need to be proficient in aspects of music technology as well and not just spend their college days insulated in a practice room working to perfect their performing skills. And lastly, surround yourself with friends and colleagues who are just as excited about music as you are! This will always help to provide the motivation and inspiration that will guide and encourage you to develop your talents to the highest potential.
What launched your career at Alfred as a composer and clinician?
In the fall of 1985, my friend Amanda Vick Lethco was in Montana giving a couple of workshops on Alfred’s Basic Piano Library. We had dinner together one evening, and over dinner she asked me if I would please consider helping her and Willard Palmer with promoting their method. At first I was very reluctant, as Alfred had never used anyone except an “author” before to promote and clinic their products. After more urging from Amanda, I flew out to California the following summer (with great intrepidation) and met with Morty Manus, President of Alfred, who was most kind and gracious—-a tour through their offices (which were then in Sherman Oaks) convinced me that I would enjoy being a part of the Alfred “family”. A short time later, Morty asked me if I would consider writing the duet books to correlate with their method, as Willard Palmer didn’t have the time to devote to them. I was honored that he would ask me to compose, but told him in all honesty that I had never composed music before! He said “Why not”? And my response was “because no one had ever asked me before”! Morty felt that I would have more credibility with the teachers if I had something published, so at his urging I jumped into the deep end with both feet and started composing all of the duet books that correlated with Alfred’s Basic Piano Library! Luckily, Willard, Morty, and Amanda Vick liked what I wrote and this turned out to be the beginning of a new career for me as a composer of educational piano music! At the time, I was still a full-time member of the piano faculty at the University of Montana in Missoula, teaching piano pedagogy, piano performance and advanced functional skills. For the next 10 years, I felt like I had two full-time jobs and finally in 1996 I made the decision to retire from the University and devote full-time work to composing.
What music do you listen to? Do you feel that this influences your compositional style/process?
I tend to listen to MANY styles and types of music—–my CD library is a very eclectic mix of classical, pop/rock, new age, and world music. I think that one of the reasons I enjoy writing in many styles of music is due to the fact that I grew up listening to a wide variety of musical styles. In fact, my parents didn’t particularly like classical style music but were avid fans of the “Big Band” era—-they loved to dance, so music by Ray Conniff, Percy Faith, Fred Waring, Lawrence Welk, and many other groups were frequently playing on our stereo system. As I grew older, and my classical music taste evolved as a result of wonderful piano teaching, I became more and more attached to this style. Somehow, all of these styles have found their way into my own compositions and arrangements—-it’s this wide variety of music background that subconsciously influences my writing style! I’ve always enjoyed performing and listening to many styles of music and my experience teaching all ages of students has taught me that most students enjoy a variety within their own repertoire. I hope that my music connects with students of all ages in a special and personal way.
Which of your compositions in Alfred’s catalog are your favorite and why?
That’s such a difficult question to answer, because I have so many different types and styles of pieces in my library. I certainly have personal “favorites” in just about every category. Today, my library consists of over 350 publications so I’ll make an honest attempt to narrow down a few of my favorites at different levels. At the elementary level, the “Finger Paintings” series of 3 books is great fun for younger students. The first 2 books have teacher accompaniments that provide a variety of styles and textures to the student solos. The pieces cover a wide range of styles from very lyrical to “gently” contemporary. A real favorite, for very personal reasons, is my collection “With These Hands” which I wrote following the unexpected passing of my son Darren at the tender age of 23 in 1998. Each piece represents something significant and meaningful in his life, and the whole process of composing this collection was extremely cathartic for me! Of course, I’m delighted that it has been such a popular collection with so many teachers and students. Since I have always been a hopeless romantic, my “Especially in Romantic Style” books are also personal favorites. Teaching students the intricacies of romantic style can be very challenging and I’ve given many lectures on this topic. I love beautiful melodies and rich, interesting harmonies so these pieces are filled with lush, lyrical writing and each book was great fun to write! In college, I played in a private dinner club for several years, and consequently enjoy good jazz. The “Especially in Jazzy Style” collections are also favorites of mine, and I think students will have great fun with the rhythms and sounds of these pieces. Of course, the “Duet Books” at each level that correlate with Alfred’s Basic Piano Library have been very popular with teachers and students for many years and have always had a special place in my heart since these were the first books I ever did for Alfred Music Publishing. One more series that I’m very partial to are the “Just for You” books, which were composed early in my career with Alfred. These 4 collections all contain a variety of very motivational and fun pieces for students of all ages. Of course, the brand new “Just for Two” duet books are now out and in these collections I have arranged many of my personal favorites from the “Just for You” solo books for one piano, 4 hands. Some of my favorite solo sheets include: “Toccata Brillante”, “Touch a Rainbow” (which was featured in the movie “Reservation Road”), “Valse Romantique”, “Traffic Zoo”, “El Zapateado”, “Winter Rhapsody”, “Reverie in f minor”, and a new solo for RH alone, entitled “Consolation in Db” which I wrote for my dear friend and colleague Ingrid Clarfield. I would love for your readers to know that I have a very extensive and complete personal web site that includes recordings of all my music—–ALL solo sheets, and 3 examples from every single collection. The web site also contains videos, links to other musical web sites, reviews of my music, and much, much more! Teachers and their students can visit the web site at: www.dennisalexander.com All of the music is also linked directly to Sheet Music Plus, so if they would like to order something, it’s very easy to do.
Could you tell us how you approach your compositional process?
I feel very blessed that I’m able to improvise and play by ear. In fact, I’m so grateful to my first piano teacher for never discouraging me from improvising at the piano during my early years of lessons! There must have been times when my tendencies to “improve on the written score” must have driven her crazy—-but she always took it in stride and forgave me for occasionally adding new chords and/or melodies to a Clementi sonatina. However, she made sure that I understood that it was taboo to do this to a piece in a public recital. I should share with your readers that I never intended or aspired to be a composer. My advanced degree was in piano performance, and I always planned to make performing and teaching my life vocation. I never studied composition in college, but my abilities to improvise and play by ear were instrumental in forming a foundation for the composition work that was to come my way. Of course, having taught all levels of students as well as piano pedagogy also helped to give me some very important tools that would guide my work as a composer of educational materials. It’s difficult for me to verbalize about how I approach the composition process—it’s very personal and quite different depending on the style of the music and it’s character. If I’m looking to compose a more “romantic” style piece, then melody is of the utmost importance, and I will improvise on the keyboard until that special melodic motive makes it’s magical appearance. Jazzy and/or contemporary pieces tend to have very strong rhythmical foundations, so with these types of pieces I usually try to visualize an interesting rhythm first and then the melody line grows from that. But then there are many times when I’ll simply “hear” a complete piece in my head (or at least the beginning of a piece) which of course is melody and rhythm all at once and then I’ll try to get that idea down on paper as quickly as possible before it evaporates! Sometimes I need to have a good title first, and then that particular “image” conjures up a rhythmical/melodic motive that paves the way for the rest of the piece. So, as you can see, the “process” is truly a real mix of several things and it’s usually different with every piece that I write. I’m often inspired by something that I see in nature, or perhaps something that I hear being performed! Lately, I’ve been very inspired by tango music—-it’s SO very rhythmical and melodic at the same time. I wrote a piece called “Tango a la Mango” in my new “Splash of Color, Bk. 3“. It’s totally fun to play and I think it will be a favorite with many students. I was recently commissioned by MTNA to write a piano trio for next year’s national conference and once again, the tango has made it’s appearance in the 1st movement of this work. And so, my compositional process is constantly evolving, and I find myself inspired and influenced by so many different things. I feel so very fortunate that God has blessed me with this ability to compose music! In addition, I’m grateful to all the teachers and students who have enjoyed my music over the years and am especially grateful that “the universe” introduced me to Alfred Music Publishing so many years ago……..and that it resulted in a fulfilling career that has allowed me to share my music with teachers and students all over the world.