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Q&A: Composer Dennis Alexander

Updated: Jul 12, 2022

By August Edwards

Composer, arranger, clinician, and performer Dennis Alexander grew up in a very small town in southwestern Kansas. Today he is known internationally as one of the world’s most prolific and popular composers of educational piano music for all levels of students. Alexander taught piano pedagogy at the University of Montana for twenty-four years, before retiring from that position to relocate to California where he taught privately and served on the faculties of California State Fullerton and California State Northridge. Today, he lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico and continues to compose.

Dennis Alexander was commissioned by the Royal Conservatory of Music to contribute to Celebration Series ®, Sixth Edition. In April of 2022, the RCM launched the series, and ABQGR had the honor of interviewing Mr. Alexander. We hope you enjoy this look into the rich life of this composer.

ABQGR: What was the process of fulfilling this commission from the Royal Conservatory of Music?

Dennis Alexander: They asked me to write pieces for different levels for the series. The Celebration Series has been around for many years. It’s a combination of something like 20-some books with different levels of repertoire for piano students; very young students through very advanced students. They use this repertoire for their yearly examinations and upper certification purposes. The books are widely used by teachers in Canada and the US, and I think about 20 countries in all.

What they asked me to do was to be one of the American composers to write new pieces for the series. I have, at this point, 6 brand new pieces that they accepted. You know, they don't necessarily promise that they’re going to accept anything when they commission you—you have to write the music, send it in, and then they preview it and decide if it’s going to be the right type of piece that they’re looking for, for their book. So, I have 6 new pieces in the series, and I believe they're also keeping 2 or 3 other pieces that were in the previous edition that they're putting into the new edition as well.

What does it mean to you to be a part of the Celebration Series?

Well, RCM, Royal Conservatory of Music, is a gold standard for repertoire and for the series of music collections like this, because thousands and thousands and thousands of teachers use the materials. Not only is it very nice publicity as a composer, but it also gets attention to my other music that I’ve written over the last 36 years. I’ve been writing educational repertoire for students of all levels and all ages for 36 years and I have over 450 publications at this point, but I’m just delighted to have new pieces in the Celebration Series 6th edition. The folks at the Royal Conservatory of Music are very highly acclaimed people and have a very fine reputation not only, of course, in Canada but also with our Music Teachers National Association here in the United States.

So, I also understand that you have a vivid memory of seeing your first piano arrive to your home in, I read, your population-200-town. Can you describe that memory for me?

Oh goodness. Well, I grew up in a very tiny little place in Southwest Kansas. The town was called Copeland, and my father was a farmer. There were 6 people in my class from first grade all through high school, and when I left there, I had planned to go to Oberlin—I had a scholarship to attend Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio. I ended up going to summer school at the University of Kansas in Lawrence before that fall semester that I was supposed to be at Oberlin, and I fell in love with KU, and I really liked my teacher and ended up staying there and did my advanced degrees there. I ended up staying on the music faculty a few years after I graduated, and then took a job at the University of Montana in Missoula. I was there from 1972 until 1996 and I retired from the university at that point, and I decided to just continue my publishing and composing work. I really felt like I had two fulltime jobs for the last 10 years I was there. And it was just getting to be too much, so I continued with the composing work, and I then moved to southern California. The publisher I worked with for all those years is based in the Los Angeles area and so I was in California for about 10 years and then moved to Albuquerque 16 years ago—that’s where I am now.

You made your Carnegie Hall debut in 1987—do you think that impacted the trajectory of your career in any way?

When I was younger and teaching at the University of Montana, my focus was on performing and teaching. Teaching is really my first love; I love teaching and I’ve taught all ages of students for almost 50 years now. But I also was a very active performer, and the violinist that I performed with for about 12 years and I were able to do a Carnegie debut in 1987 and of course it was very exciting and great publicity. I don't know that it really changed the trajectory of my career because I was never going to leave the university and teaching. It’s what I love doing, but we performed together all over the country for a number of years. And over the years I’ve done a lot of solo recitals and chamber music concerts and play for many singer and swing tuckers but these days I don't do that much performing at all. Time to smell the roses.

What’s something about being a composer that people might not know, that you think people should know?

It seems almost like no matter where I go, teachers often ask me, “How do you come up with all of these ideas?” because I write many different styles and there’s a lot of music in the library. It’s a hard question to answer because composing is a very creative thing, its very subjective. We get inspiration from all kinds of areas—sometimes we get inspiration just from walking in the woods, sometimes we get inspiration from teaching various students. Sometimes we get inspiration from playing other music. Sometimes I almost like to think that composing is almost a little like stealing, in a way, because we get ideas from pieces that we've played or pieces that we like. We might find a little motif here and there that we want to expand, and sometimes it can just be three or four notes from a piece that somebody else has written and you reharmonize it and change the rhythm and all of a sudden it expands into a whole new piece. Some people refer to that stealing as an art, but I’m a composer who also really likes to improvise.

From my very young years as a pianist, I always had fun improvising and playing by ear. A lot of classical pianists cannot do that. When I was in college, in fact, almost all my friends who were majoring in piano performance couldn’t sit down and play “Happy Birthday” without the music in front of them, whereas I could sit down and play it in any key they wanted it in. I also played in a nightclub for four years when I was in college, to pay my way through school, and that ability to just play by ear and improvise really played a huge role in my career as a composer and I think it really gave me a great many ideas for writing interesting music that I would probably not have been able to do otherwise.

I never even planned on being a composer—I was strictly planning to teach and perform. I never studied composition in college. It was an accident really, serendipity if you want to call it that. A person that I knew at the University of Texas, who was a very well-known pedagogue back in the 80s, asked if I would be willing to help market a piano method that she and a few other people had written that was becoming very well-known very respected. It was called Alfred’s Basic Piano Library. I started off as a clinician showing the piano method to teachers all over the country, and the very first summer I was out, the president of Alfred Music asked if I would be willing to write some duet books to go along with the method, because the other main composer for the method didn't have time to do it. I said, “Yes, I’m sure I could do that,” and I knew I could because I had been teaching piano pedagogy–I knew the repertoire that was out there, I knew what teachers liked and did not like and kind of what was needed, so the first books that I wrote became very popular. Almost immediately I was asked to start writing solo collections, and this was back in 1986/87, and it really took off. Before I knew it, I was kind of a full-time composer of educational materials. By the time I left the university 10 years later, I was actually making a very nice living as a composer, and that’s why I made the decision to retire from the university and continue on that path.

Wow, what a beautiful turn of events.

Yeah! One never knows what lies around the corner sometimes, but you have to be willing to take a chance and prepare yourself along the way for whatever might come your way. Like I said, I never planned ever to be a composer—farthest thing from my mind. But because I improvised, I played by ear, I taught piano pedagogy, I was a performer, I had—fortunately—the skills that were needed when that opportunity came my way.

Speaking of the creative process—you moved around the states quite a bit, and now you’re representing Albuquerque for this Celebration Series. I’m wondering, how does location impact you as an artist?

Well, I could live anywhere and do what I do. I don’t have to live in Albuquerque, but I love Albuquerque. I’ve always loved being in the mountains. I was in Montana, a very mountainous area, for 24 years. I was in southern California, and I was always close to the mountains there...I would much rather be here than for instance Los Angeles. So I’ve been very happy being here in Albuquerque and enjoying my traveling from this location.

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