Have you ever met someone who just really blew you away? Maybe it was because of their enthusiasm, their kind nature, their intellect, or their gentle yet ambitious drive. In the field of creative piano teaching (improvisation, composition, the art of arranging, etc), the person who will most likely come to mind is an inspiring human by the name of Forrest Kinney.
I was fortunate enough to attend a seminar that Forrest taught in Mountain View, California in 2017. I drove down to Mountain View School of the Arts and had a glorious day on my own, free from the everyday demands of raising small children. This was a personal and professional development day, where I got to relish in all of Forrest’s philosophies and expertise about teaching and music. Most importantly, I enjoyed soaking in the sounds that he created at the piano throughout the day. That night, I felt like I had been to a sound spa and it affected my soul and my nervous system on a deep level.
He stood on the stage and spoke to us pianists about the importance of connection during piano lessons. Specifically, we must set up an environment in which the student feels interested, engaged, and invested in the materials we are presenting them with. If piano lessons feel like some dreaded chore, we are not doing our jobs and neither the student nor the teacher will feel motivated or fulfilled.
He then invited us all on stage and worked with us on improvisation using his brilliant Pattern Play Series. We played in small groups while the other participants gathered closely around the piano, soaking in all of the information and hoping they would be able to pass this new skill along to their students. Forrest was extremely encouraging and we shared a lot of laughs.
One moment that stands out is when he said, “Look. I’m not going to scream at all of you and point my finger and say YOU MUST TEACH THIS WAY!” As he said this in a dramatic voice, he suddenly jumped onto the piano bench. Forrest was quite tall and I was impressed with his agility and quirky nature!
After we were all thoroughly inspired and ready to expand our creative skills for ourselves and for our students, Forrest ended the session with an hour long concert. He believed in a concept he created called the Four Arts- improvisation, composition, arranging, and interpreting music. He thought it was important to show us all that he was equally comfortable in all four areas. He included each of these skills in his beautiful solo concert.
Another fun memory happened at the end of the concert. The last piece had a lot of foot stomping and he decided to take off one shoe. He finished his highly energetic piece and it was the finale to his concert. Afterwards, he took his bow while wearing one shoe. The audience could feel (or at least I could sense it) that he was unsure about how to walk off the stage with dignity while only wearing one shoe. It was such a touching moment and somehow he pulled it off gracefully.
A Rainbow Connection
One of his concert pieces was Somewhere Over the Rainbow. He told us that it was one of his most favorite pieces to play. It really does have such a perfect, soaring melody that aurally represents the visual of a rainbow. To pay tribute to Forrest, I am offering a free training from January 5-8 on Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
If you’d like to join us for 15 minutes a day, please sign up here. Guest teachers Leila Viss and Jeremy Siskind will teach on two of the days and I’m beyond excited to introduce them to you! They are among the most beloved and cherished teachers in our field. Don’t worry, if you can’t make the scheduled time, you will be sent a replay. Space is limited to the first 100 registrants and after that, you will have to work with the recordings.
In addition to my free training, I’m also hosting a 3 day virtual retreat for creative piano playing called Piano Connect. I have assembled my dream team of teachers including Tim Topham, Dennis Alexander, Samantha Coates, and Bradley Sowash and we are going to lead interactive sessions on how to interpret lead sheets, compose, begin improvising, dip your toes into jazz and pop composing, and more.
The event is in honor of Forrest, and just by chance it happens to fall on his birthday weekend. I really could not believe the serendipity of the timing. To top it all off, Forrest’s wonderful friend from childhood- Kevin Helppie- is going to perform on the final day, featuring music that he developed with Forrest. It’s going to be a truly special weekend and I hope you can join us.
I digress. Back to Forrest. After my glorious workshop experience, I sent Forrest an email and he responded with such unabashed generosity. He responded to my email by complimenting and encouraging my Little Gems for Piano series and he told me that I had a “special shine”. These words of kindness, coming from such a well respected and successful mentor in my field, were truly priceless and will forever stay with me. What a wonderful reminder to really see the people in front of you and to encourage others who follow behind you on a similar path. Instead of seeing me as some sort of competitor, he saw me as someone with a similar mission.
Fast forward a year, and we meet again at an MTNA conference in Spokane, Washington. Forrest was in a wheelchair at this point and thought he simply was having back issues. Again, we exchanged some very heartfelt moments and talked about very personal things, as well as our goals and dreams. We talked about where we want to retire, he was going to perform a house concert in my home, we fantasized about presenting together abroad, and the list goes on. It felt like all of our dreams were so easily within reach.
He took the time to come to my booth and listen to my music. I’ll never forget how he closed his eyes and relished in the simple sounds I had created for beginners. Again, he was so complimentary and said I had a real gift for bringing out the beautiful sonorities of the piano. Another generous comment I will never forget is when he said “You, me, and Marilyn Lowe all have the same mission, we are just getting there in different ways.” Our mission is to inspire and engage people creatively through music, while enhancing and fostering their unique voice. We shared a similar passion for the power of creative fulfillment and passing along this skill to others.
Upon returning home, I heard the crushing news of Forrest’s cancer diagnosis. Little did we know that when we were laughing over dinner and dreaming of our bright future, Forrest was already fighting this horrible disease. I immediately wanted to write a piece in his honor. Forrest in the Forest was born, and I’m so grateful that his close friend Anne Reese was able to play my piece for him.
The piece has since been choreographed and performed by world renowned choreographer Kevin Jenkins. He brilliantly incorporated the visual of a forest of trees, gently swaying with the wind. I was fortunate to see the ballet performed live in Chicago, just days before the pandemic stopped us in our tracks. Unfortunately, Forrest was not able to stay with us long enough to see footage of the ballet.
Here is an excerpt from his final post before his passing.
That my body has rebounded from back fractures, kidney failure, and general dysfunction has indeed felt like a miracle. But the real miracle is not that I am still alive; it is that WE ARE ALIVE. We can taste salty scrambled eggs, see the glowing colors of a sunrise, hear a hundred voices singing Mozart’s Requiem, and share our deepest fears with a friend. The real miracle is that we can walk in autumn sunlight, dream of a trip to Spain, and get stuck in stand-still traffic.
I have come to believe that all we really need are two things to be fulfilled: a sense of gratitude for the gift of life, and a sense of purpose (meaningful activity, valuable work). Though I can no longer play the piano or walk without a walker or do a hundred things that I used to do, I can still visit with friends, eat delicious food, and write books on my laptop. In the last four months, I have felt well enough to work on and finish five 40-page music books.
Yes, it is a miracle that my kidneys and I have come back to life for a while, perhaps long enough to finish the books I have wanted to leave behind. But the real miracle is life itself. If we have gratitude for the gift of life and a meaningful way to pass that gift along to others, then life itself is a miracle in every moment.
In his last days and in all of his days, Forrest was a true inspiration to us all. He finished writing unfinished books while laying flat in his bed. He started a new series of books, knowing full well he would not be able to complete the series. He learned to play the lap harp. He posted on social media, letting us piano teachers know that he was passing away and leaving us with his final words of wisdom.
Just as he left the stage so graciously wearing one shoe, he left this world with a full, gracious heart. I am so grateful for the moments I shared with Forrest and for all of the books that he left for us. As one small person in this world, I assured him that I would do what I could to continue with his legacy and his mission. May we all learn and be inspired by Forrest Kinney, a true example of a life well lived.