Peter Altmeier Mort Interview
By Graham Rawlins
One of Australia’s foremost music educators on guitar, Peter Altmeier-Mort is perhaps most well known as the author of ‘The Art of Classical Guitar’ and the ‘Guitar for Kidz’ tutor book series.
He has had a long academic and performing career in Australia and Europe spanning several music genres. He has completed many composition and arranging commissions in the Jazz, Classical, Rock and New Age styles for TV, Radio, film and video, and has literature in the current AMEB syllabus for guitar. Presently working for the Guitar Department at Scotch College Perth, he has held teaching positions at leading universities and schools whilst researching important programmes for the development of young guitarists. Allans Music is releasing his new book of guitar ensemble material for young school students in February 2003, under the title ‘Guitar For Kidz Volume III.’
I began by asking Peter some broad, philosophical questions.
Peter, your list of achievements reads impressively enough, and I consider your series ‘The Art of Classical Guitar’ to be the finest tutor book of its kind to be produced in Australia. Having said that, I see your attitude as one of the most important facets of you as a teacher. It is something different to enthusiasm, something I can best describe as ‘persistently positive.’
I believe that as teachers we can bring out something in everyone during their experience with music. It is as much a journey of self-discovery as it is one of studying the art of music. Combining these two elements remains one of the more constant challenges in music teaching, and this I think should make everyone ‘persistently positive.’ I think my attitude as a teacher has also been influenced by the maestros I was fortunate enough to study with both in Europe and Australia.
The word ‘education’ comes from the Latin root ‘educare’meaning to lead out or to elicit, to bring out. This implies much more than the basic transference of information, and I hope my teaching has this element of bringing out the abilities inherent in a student. This approach, attitude and intention should be at the back of all of one’s efforts as a teacher, with students at all levels.
You have obviously done a lot of study in the field of music for yourself, and not always directed towards teaching. For example, how has the study of composition helped you as a teacher of guitar?
Students at some stage have to become truly engaged in the music they are playing. Someone once said that to appreciate a painting you need only one thing – a chair! Through engagement with the picture a perception of its structure and qualities can occur and this leads to some sort of appreciation of it.
My work in composition makes it easier for me to direct a student towards musical structure, compositional devices, harmony and the emotional intent of the pieces they play. They then have a better understanding as to why the music sounds so good! If it also helps inspire a student towards original composition and the art of creating, then they can see both sides of the ‘fence’ – performing and composing.
How important is it for a teacher to continue to develop his or her own musical skills, and how difficult is that with a perhaps heavy teaching schedule?
Ongoing development of musical skills is very important, or else one’s career methods can become stale, unimaginative and lack inspiration. This may be hard to do with a heavy teaching schedule, and you can feel as though you never have time to review your own standards.
Teachers often have to take self-imposed sabbaticals or a year off to pursue extra tertiary study. It is an ‘in your own time’ and ‘at your own cost’ thing which education systems rarely help support, and you may even lose a job in pursuit of this purpose.
I think sometimes an instrumental teacher has one of the hardest jobs – the need to spend unpaid time in practicing his own art, plus extra rehearsal time required for student performances at special times like Christmas and end of school graduations
This is most relevant in the private school sector, ands music teachers need to insist in their contracts that extra-curricula events must be paid for – and that includes all rehearsals, performances, music camps and so on. These and other issues have to be fought for otherwise unpaid work further undermines the time available for your own studies.
Another aspect of you as teacher is the sheer volume of time you have spent ‘at the coal face’. Admittedly, any parent would prefer a teacher with the relevant practical experience for their child, but once a teacher gets well established in his or her career their experience can equate to two or three times the length of time that the student has been alive! Is it possible to in effect have too much ‘experience’ or to spend too much time in face-to-face teaching? Is burnout an issue?
I think it is possible to have ‘too much experience’ of the one kind, and burnout may follow due to a teaching life that has little or no variation to it. Few institutions are famous for their ‘human resource’ practices, and consequently many do not utilise all of the skills an individual teacher may posses. Using one teacher for one task eventually makes life a chore for that individual and if the workload is high a type of burnout will occur. You may as well be screwing nuts onto bolts on a factory production line – bad practice producing bad music.
What are the good aspects of having so much practical experience? Did your writing of tutor books come out of that?
I was always frustrated with publications that students could never seem to finish. I did not blame the student for this problem; rather it indicated to me that there were some serious ‘holes’ in the methodology of many guitar tutor books. I think my books have some better approaches to technical problems as well as an improved gradient flow with the material presented. For example, I see my Volume I of the Guitar for Kidz series as a much-needed pre-tutor tutor book, with simple material and a play-along CD.
Volume III of your Guitar For Kidz series is about to be released and is a book of ensemble pieces. Tell us something about your ensemble approach within schools.
Ideally, students should begin ensemble work as early as possible in primary school, and then follow through to year twelve. If this is well supported through individual tuition, a central core of good players can develop into a performing unit and be maintained, despite the inevitable percentage that dropout of any music programme along the way. The youngest or least experienced are first placed into rehearsal groups, which later feed the main Junior Guitar Ensemble. This in turn feeds the Middle School Ensemble and finally the Senior School.
I prefer all students to be in a guitar ensemble even if they do not perform officially within a group.
At what point in the development of a student do you put him or her into a group?
I am looking to place all beginners into a group after their first two terms. Such students may be in year two or three or up to year seven, I don’t mind, it is a matter of grouping comparable experience and competencies together – that is what makes an ensemble work. This approach can also create camaraderie across age groups; maybe even add to the general harmony within a school.
What material can beginners play?
They can play the root notes of the chords I, IV, V in two keys using just the six open strings. Add some rhythm and this can be quite rewarding, and the simple aural training benefits are there as well. If we include knowledge of the first position notes on the first string and maybe the second string as well, then a player will always have a part to play in an ensemble. Obviously the repertoire must accommodate such a limited vocabulary, and this is what I have tried to address in the Guitar for Kidz Volume III edition.
Where do other guitar styles fit in?
Although we have been talking about the classical style of playing, in the long term these groups still need good chord or ‘rhythm guitar’ players, and acoustic bass or even electric bass as well.
Some players can be groomed to play electric and bass electric guitars for swing bands, rock ensembles and so forth. I’ve often had year eleven or twelve students doubling on electric guitar in a senior swing band. This is a wonderful musical duality to have in progress at a relatively young age.
As well, I encourage students who may not want to stay with the classical style to extend their knowledge into other musical fields. This covers Blues, R&B, Latin, Flamenco and so on, and even solo arranging and composition in these styles. Some make a complete change to electric playing with a pick or plectrum; either way they stay with music and also become a resource for contemporary ensembles or groups.
Do you think teachers from other disciplines understand the difficulties for a guitar teacher who has to deal with both classical and electric instruments?
No, not fully. Not every guitar teacher can be employed in a specialist music high school concentrating only on the traditional style and repertoire. Mostly we have to become flexible and deal in depth with a variety of musical styles that teachers of orchestral instruments almost never do. This is the nature of guitar in the 21st century, more diverse than other instruments.
What do you do to interact with instrumental teachers from other disciplines?
I like to observe and question other instrumental teachers about the programmes they run for their particular instrument, their strategies and approach. I like to trade knowledge and principles, it helps all of us maintain quality and best teaching practices.
What are the essential areas of teaching concern in each genre? How do they vary?
It is the style of the genre that is important, and this is where professional not teaching experience counts. A teacher who has never ‘comped’ four-to-the bar with a jazz group will never be able to teach a student to do this effectively.
Developing a good technique with a plectrum on electric guitar is a concern, mainly because a student obsessed with rock music is likely to develop a clumsy, very limited right hand technique.
Do you add other instruments to your formal guitar ensembles?
Most definitely, but it has to be right for the piece. With a good senior ensemble I often add double bass in Baroque repertoire to extend beyond the tenor range of the lower guitar parts. At the other end, I like to have a player performing the first guitar part an octave higher than written, which can also be doubled by one mandolin. This really opens up the colour of the group.
In Latin and commercial music the acoustic ensemble works well with a percussionist and/or a drum kit player with a soft electric bass.
In other repertoire I have added one flute or clarinet, and have also used the ensemble to exclusively accompany a vocalist. It can be a very flexible and interesting medium. I do not break any purity of tradition by doing these things because guitar ensemble has no tradition to speak of.
At what age should a student begin guitar, and what are your views on group tuition?
Starting in year five or six is simply too late. At this age sport, television, computer games and other things are developing into a cultural influence that threatens personal creativity and self-expression through art, the beginnings of ‘spectatorism.’
If all kids began an instrument in years two or three, then this becomes the culture, this becomes the norm and no one questions it. The joy of creating is imparted long before the need to be entertained takes root.
As well, younger children have few preconceived ideas as to what an instrument is really all about, and they are free to absorb the best values and practices in making music.
As for group tuition, this is a quantative rather than qualitative consideration. It has some value, perhaps, in allowing beginners to find their way on an instrument in the first year of their tuition. Beyond this, the more talented students are held back by it while the less talented cannot receive the attention they need. Nobody wins, including the teacher who feels unable to impart his expertise in a concise and effective form. Over time, the teacher accepts mediocre standards because so much time is wasted with the ineffectiveness of lesson delivery.
What part do exams play in the development of a student? School internal exams? External national exams such as AMEB? TEE?
They are important for development. Music is something you do. You can’t talk about it or write essays on it or answer multiple-choice questions on it. It is a subject where doing it shows instantly your knowing of it; so playing exams do make sense.
I believe school students benefit from the structured goal of an AMEB or Trinity exam during their academic year. The work ethic becomes more focussed and consistent, and the presentation of that grade certificate in front of their peers gives a great sense of achievement and self-worth.
In schools where exams are long ingrained in the music department culture, the standards are superior. The ensembles, bands and orchestras are superior as well, with good players always coming through.
Discussion with the child and his or her parents first is important, because some students will not yet have the life skills to negotiate such a commitment.
What do you think of the AMEB modern style exams for guitar, the CPM (Contemporary Popular Music) course?
The CPM has been an excellent development by the AMEB, although some of the levels may have too much variation of difficulty within the repertoire given. This may change over time. I continue to use the system for both classical and electric students.
I concluded this interview by asking Peter his views on the status of instrumental teachers within schools, and issues of copyright.
Let me start by saying no other subject area changes staff every twelve months like a music department does! The status of independent teachers employed by schools is a grey and dubious area legally speaking.
Without being granted the appropriate status, music teachers cannot achieve the recognition they deserve within the school hierarchy. Unfortunately, many independent teachers are unaware or do not care about their professional rights and so the practices we endure exist in a climate of ignorance and/or apathy. For example, it is not legal for a school to label a teacher ‘casual’ when they have been working in a school every academic year for five or six years. Because acceptance of this ‘casual’ status among independent teachers is so widespread, we do not have enough permanent positions and proper job benefits. The Department of Productivity and Labour Relations, the relevant state Employment Protection Department and the various independent school unions are all extremely helpful in negotiating the status of independent teachers.
What are your views on how the performance of instrumental tutors is assessed, and the issue of accreditation?
My question is, will accreditation secure the status and benefits for these teachers that they should already be getting? Otherwise, what is it for? It may well serve to separate the perpetually moving casuals (such as new performance graduates with an ‘I’ll do a bit of teaching for a while until my real career picks up’ mentality) from those who really want a stable career in music education. Schools do not seem to differentiate well between these two groups at present, with a tendency for staff to come and go
Copyright has become a greater issue, and some contract teachers may not even be aware that the school in which they work does not cover them. How has the awareness of copyright affected your teaching?
It is not difficult to educate students about the intellectual property rights of composers or creators as covered by copyright law. Unfortunately, the internet tends to degrade these rights with ‘downloads’ and a ‘something-for-nothing’ kind of mentality. Students should always buy, never hire their music books, and the school music department should purchase all ensemble material
Finally Peter, what is one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching for you?
My greatest pleasure is in helping students to express themselves and communicate through music at whatever level or in whatever style that my be. The joy of creation is the essence here, and music is but the form.