Nancy Litten is a well-loved polymath in the world of music education, with a distinguished reputation as a sound adjudicator, examiner, pedagogue, and writer. Though she is experienced as a violinist and electronic keyboard player, it is as a pianist and teacher that she is perhaps best known.
It is wonderful that her first anthology of original pieces for piano, Piano Postcards will be launched this summer. The music is evocative of exotic, beautiful and intriguing places. As an international examiner for ABRSM Nancy has certainly had more than her fair share of travel over the years, so it is only natural that she would produce such a contrasted world of globally contrasted evocation in her compositions. Twelve recital piano works with an introduction to modes, drones, and scales from different cultures were inspired by her own travel are recommended for the Music Around the World recitals for pianists at the Intermediate level.
1. Robots Go Clubbing – Japan
2. The Penguin Party – Antarctica
3. Connemara – Ireland
4. Rajarata – Sri Lanka
5. Reynard’s Foxtrot – Memphis, US
6. Mosquito and Me – Maldives
7. Spanish Omelette – Spain
8. Transylvania – Romania
9. Chinese Ragtime – China
10. Willows in the Water – Cambridge, UK
11. Bumpy Horse Trail – Arizona, US
12. Ferragosto – Italy
As well as being impeccably schooled as a musician, Nancy also has a delicious twinkle in her eyes. During lockdown she began a witty and striking series of films on YouTube in which she gamely changed costume for different repertoire, evoking period charm and much characterisation to the presentation of highly accomplished performances given from her personal music room at home.
There is certainly humour and wit aplenty in the first number of Piano Postcards intriguingly entitled ‘Robots Go Clubbing’. In fact, this references Japan, a country which of course makes particular use of robots for all manner of purposes in society. Nancy’s craftsmanship produces ‘wrong-footing’ accentuations in the quasi alberti bass left hand part as a rhythmic backing track to angularity and jerky intervallic moves in the right hand. The robots dance with electronic flair- and the entire piece is based only on the white notes of the keyboard. Do check out Nancy’s own performance on YouTube (and enjoy her striking robot costume at the same time!):
In total contrast, the extreme high tessitura picked for Penguin Party offers idiomatically presented progressions that will do much to encourage beauty of sound and legato playing in different parts of the keyboard. The material is memorable, and the pedagogy is sound. ‘Connemara’ takes us to County Galway in Ireland for an embryonic foretaste of ‘Greensleeves’, Certainly the wistful E natural minor tonality and the gentle melancholy is touchingly realised in a piece which should find many friends amongst both younger grade 3 plus players as well as their teachers.
‘Rajarata’, with its exotic intervals, rhythmic counterpoint between the hands and syncopation, is unquestionably more challenging, whilst ‘Reynard’s Foxtrot’ brings the old-time dancing world of Memphis memorably into the 21st century. I was extremely impressed with Nancy’s homage to Bartók: In ‘Mosquito and Me’ she has produced an exquisitely crafted embryonic essay that would make excellent preparatory material for pianists who wish to go on and learn ‘From a Diary of a fly.’ Similarly, ‘Spanish Omelette’ would make an excellent first Tango for an intermediate Grade 5-6 player to tackle, whetting the appetite as it were for the likes of Albeniz’s famous number (a work normally reserved for the grade 6-7 stage).
Children of all ages will love playing the lowest A on the keyboard on the second note of ‘Transylvania.’ This is a real tour-de-force, full of character and impressive excitement. ‘Chinese Ragtime’ requires lucid articulation and discipline if it is to emerge with maximum character and is most charming. The collection concludes with ‘Willows in the Water’ (wonderful essay for pedalling, texture and flexibility and control in articulation) ‘Bumpy horse trail’ (challenging but rewarding mix of 6/4 metre with swing) and finally the joyous quasi-Tarantella that is ‘Ferragosto’ (a most useful way of learning staccato double notes, amongst other techniques).
After congratulating Nancy on this fascinatingly evocative new collection, I began the interview by asking her when and how she started writing music?
M: When and how did you get started writing music?
N: My very first piano teacher facilitated my desire to write music, when I was 6, helping me with the notation, and providing piano accompaniments for my songs. At age 10 I learnt with Christopher le Fleming, a well-known composer. I asked him how to harmonise at the piano, but he said that I should concentrate on what he set me! For my grade 8s I opted for Keyboard Harmony instead of the Aural tests (an ABRSM option at the time); I had figured it out by then! As a teenager I was asked to write a large work for the instrumental and vocal forces available at our school; it was called ‘Multum in Parvo’ and celebrated our county of Kent. It was fun rehearsing and conducting it.
At the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) I studied orchestration with Eric Fenby, (once amanuensis to Delius), and this stood me in good stead later as music director at various churches, – conducting the choirs, improvising on the piano alongside the organ or informal worship groups, and arranging music for instrumentalists. I started a church orchestra in each parish where my husband was priest.
My teenage years had been full of music-making; I particularly enjoyed playing violin in the Kent Youth Orchestra from age 13. Once I started teaching (violin and piano) I was struck by the dearth of ensemble opportunities for keyboard players in comparison with instrumentalists. Kent Music has held residential Summer Schools at Benenden School since the 1950s. Upon being asked to teach group electronic keyboard, I found the perfect instrument to redress this imbalance; they are portable and produce many different voices and backings. Players could experience orchestral conditions: counting rests, following a conductor, playing solos, and improvising over other textures in a live situation. Soon I was directing courses all over Kent. This led to involvement in the Federation of Music Services’ Common Approach (Faber 2001), advising ABRSM on their keyboard Music Medals and Trinity College London on their keyboard syllabus, and setting up an organisation called National Electronic Keyboard Courses. We received sponsorship from ABRSM and ran national courses. All these activities required repertoire, which was a great opportunity for orchestral-style writing.
M: What are the strongest influences on your music?
N: I was lucky to grow up in a music-loving household with a piano, – a magical piece of furniture which held untold delights for me. I couldn’t wait to start lessons! My mother played from music with a sensitive, expressive touch (pieces such as Tchaikovsky’s Chanson Triste, I remember), while my father gave enthusiastic renditions of hymns by ear. I loved hearing their different styles. Each night of the Proms, the radio was placed in the centre of the house on full volume. We heard everything from the tuning up to the final clap, and relished every piece, whether it was Beethoven or Birtwistle.
It seems to me that compositions fall into different categories: harmony-based, melody-based, motif-based, and texture-based (including impressionist and minimalist). I must admit to using all four of these approaches.
Sometimes I start with the harmonic structure, particularly in music which imitates popular styles or dance music. You then invent tunes over the top. I got this tip from John Kember, a fellow teacher at the Kent Music Academy (Saturday school) and a very fine composer of jazz pieces. Having perfect pitch, it was easy to jot down chord progressions I heard on Radio 2. Electronic keyboards are very useful too. You can play the chords in a particular style (Rumba, Country, Rock etc) encouraging an idiomatic melody above. Examples of this approach are ‘Ferragosto’ and ‘Reynard’s Foxtrot’.
Beginning with a melody, you can ornament it in the way beloved by so many great composers of themes and variations, and experiment with different harmonic settings (e.g. ‘The Penguin Party’, ‘Willows in the Water’). Lower parts which harmonise with the melody must also be ‘singable,’ something I learnt from Rev. Gerald March, a prolific writer of worship songs and close-harmony group arrangements. He taught me that each strand in the music is equally important. (e.g. ‘Bumpy Horse Trail’, ‘Spanish Omelette’). I wrote songs for a singer called Victoria with whom I performed. We recorded a studio CD, for which I provided multi-track accompaniments. You can see and hear the original version of one of my pieces if you type ‘Connemara by Victoria Crabb’ into YouTube.
Sometimes a motif will come to you apropos nothing; you wake up with an idea! The secret then is to improvise a ‘continuation.’ Imagine (hear in your head), rather than play, what happens next. The wonderful thing about composition is that you can plan it away from the piano, particularly as structure is an important aspect of making the piece feel satisfying. Mark Tanner used to give useful workshops for EPTA on how big a part improvisation plays in composition. ‘Mosquito and Me’ was composed this way; ‘Transylvania’ plays with major 7ths, minor 2nds, and augmented triads to achieve the chill of a haunted castle.
You may be trying to create something new and exploratory, with unusual textures. Perhaps there is a particular atmosphere to capture, or a non-Western instrumental sound, as in ‘Rajarata’ or ‘Chinese Ragtime’. Listening to traditional music abroad was a big inspiration. The idea for ‘Robots Go Clubbing’ came to me when pedalling away to repetitive dance tracks at the gym, the sort which include spoken word loops. In it I tried to employ a minimum of means and avoid the sense of travel and arrival so prevalent in the Western classical tradition.
M: Your oeuvre embraces a most impressive contrasting range. Do you consciously write for specific levels or needs, or do you find that inspiration takes you in particular directions?
N: When I was teaching group electronic keyboard in the 1990s, I found that few books progressed slowly enough (some of my classes consisted of 4-5-year-olds!) Based on my experiences, I produced the Keyed Up tutors. They incorporate solos as well as ensembles (in an individual lesson the teacher can provide that dimension). After selling for a while online Alfred UK accepted the books, (corporate members of EPTA), so I was able to include pop songs as well as classical, folk, and original compositions; copyright permissions were covered.
Violin teaching also gave me ideas; I wrote my own pieces to deal with each new aspect of technique. Sharon Goodey had already had success with her Playing with Colour piano tutors. We collaborated on the violin version, producing three tutor books and a book of piano and violin accompaniments for the teacher.
When I became an ABRSM examiner in 1998 I decided to have my voice professionally trained, as it would help me to write knowledgeable marksheets! It was a real eye-opener, and quite counter-intuitive (e.g. ‘for high notes think low; for low notes think high!’). I wrote Choral and Vocal Warm-Ups for Pianists so that those who accompany choirs or train singers could benefit from what I had learnt. The appendix includes advice on the art of piano accompaniment (which I studied at RAM with Rex Stephens). Choral and Vocal Sight-singing with keyboard harmony seeks to improve the reading skills of singers whilst at the same time equipping pianists to accompany from chord symbols. This would make a good work-out for someone like my younger self who was so keen to learn how to harmonise!
M: How has your playing impacted on your composing?
N: I was required to memorise all my piano pieces from the age of 9, so analysing the structure became important; it helps you to remember the music. Harmonic progression is another aspect in the memory process which is probably why I found it much harder to memorise violin pieces. I love the variety of textures in orchestral music, which I have experienced as a violinist and pianist, and try to provide some of that ‘colour’ in my compositions.
As accompanist for choirs on Kent’s Summer Schools for 23 years, as well as directing singers, I often invented piano parts to make rounds go with a bang! In Rounds with Accompaniment, they become concert items, and include introductions and endings.
M: Tell us about your ABRSM published pieces.
N: Having contributed to ABRSM’s Piano Mix and Piano Star series I was commissioned to write arrangements for voice, flute, clarinet and saxophone exam repertoire, something I very much enjoy. From earliest times composers have arranged other people’s music for different combinations of instruments, and even playing baroque music on the piano is in effect an arrangement. Thinking of myself primarily as an arranger, it is a delight now to see my first book of original piano pieces come to print, thanks to Elena Cobb. I also have a new piano piece in ABRSM’s 2023 syllabus at grade 3. It is called The Sad Ghost.
M: Tell us about your piano trio arrangements, how they came to be written and what reactions you have had to them.
N: I was the pianist in a piano trio. For one all-Beethoven concert the violinist and cellist felt that the encore should be by the same composer, so I arranged the Adagio from his Pathétique piano sonata, which the audience loved. Ten years later, after attending an EPTA conference in Vienna, I decided to arrange piano pieces by other composers who had worked in the city, making sure that all the parts were of an equal standard (grades 6-8). I am hoping that this will encourage more pianists to engage with chamber music. Classical Vienna features Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and Romantic Vienna Schubert, Bruckner, J. Strauss II, and Brahms.
M: How crucial is your experience as a teacher, adjudicator, and examiner in your development as a composer of educational music?
N: I realise how important titles are for whetting pupils’ interest and firing their imaginations. If they like them, they are more likely to produce a characterful performance. Music relates to the other arts and to the experiences of the composer, something I always try to mention when I am passing on judicially at festivals. Knowing how the composer felt at the time of writing sometimes makes all the difference to the player’s engagement with the music. In my Performance Notes for Piano Postcards, I reveal my inspiration for each piece and offer technical advice.
M: Have you ever felt a conflict (time pressure etc) between all your activities?
N: Frequently, just as I am sure you do! Having a ‘portfolio’ career as performer, teacher, examiner, adjudicator, writer, speaker, and composer is hectic if very fulfilling. I am also on committees, being Chair of the Kent and Medway Young Musicians’ Trust, Organiser of the Kent region of EPTA UK, and one of the two music representatives on the Adjudicators’ Council at the British and International Federation of Festivals. My husband and I run the Maidstone Young Musician competition each year for our local Rotary Club.
M: Tell us about your YouTube films. Where did you get all the exotic, glamourous costumes?
N: In 2020 the EPTA conference in Bonn was moved online, due to Covid. I had agreed to play a Diabelli variation, so had to submit a video performance instead. After this first foray into recording myself on a phone, I decided it would be fun to learn light-hearted ‘salon’ pieces written between 1850 and 1950, wearing suitable attire. I have a family ‘dressing up’ chest, which was a good start; other outfits I source from charity or fancy-dress shops. Composers are as diverse as Chaminade, Rachmaninoff, Walton, Ravel, and Fats Waller, and sometimes I write my own arrangements, (e.g. ‘Three Little Maids from School We Are’ by G&S).
M: Tell us about some of the reactions you have had from teachers, performers, and colleagues to your music?
N: They tell me they enjoy it. Apart from the ABRSM wind arrangements, I write for instruments I play, so I understand the need for tactile as well as audio satisfaction. Visually I also like patterns, as they are one of the ways I get to grips with new pieces, so these make an appearance too (e.g. ‘Robots Go Clubbing’).
About Nancy Litten
Nancy won an Arts Council award to study with Julius Isserlis (grandfather of Steven) at thirteen, and an open piano scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, London, at sixteen, winning prizes during her studies there. She has performed as a pianist in solo, orchestral and chamber music, and as a piano accompanist, being well-known in Kent. She is an all-round musician, also having been a freelance orchestral violinist and leader of a string quartet, teacher of singing, and choir director.
Tutoring has formed a large part of her life, from beginners through to diploma level. She has taught privately and in many different types of school, on courses and masterclasses. She has spoken at conferences in the UK and abroad, including the National Music Expo, and has directed residential courses for keyboard players and teachers. Nancy is an ABRSM examiner, and an adjudicator for the British and International Federation of Festivals, serving as one of the two music reps on the adjudicators’ council. She runs the Kent region of EPTA (European Piano Teachers’ Association). Her compositions and arrangements can be found in Trinity College London, MTB, and ABRSM syllabuses, and other publications such as Piano Mix and Piano Star. Her latest book is Piano Postcards, 12 original pieces for intermediate level, published by EVC Music.
About Murray McLachlan
Murray McLachlan has made over 40 commercial recordings and performed on all five continents to critical acclaim. His three books on piano technique were published by Faber Music and have been acclaimed internationally. He is a distinguished teacher and works on the faculty at RNCM as Head of Keyboard at Chetham’s School of Music and well known for his long-standing column in International Piano Magazine. As founder and artistic director of the world famous Chetham’s International Summer School and Festival for Pianists oversees an event which has been running for over 20 years as the largest summer school in Europe devoted exclusively to the piano.
Piano Postcards by Nancy Litten
Twelve recital piano works with an introduction to modes, drones, and scales from different cultures will be ideal for world music recitals. Suitable for pianists playing at intermediate level.