Mikrokosmos Heresy

So of all the composers in the twentieth century it seems that Bartok is the one we piano teachers revere the most, and of all the works for students of the piano ever written by Bartok we reserve our highest regard for that collection of the pieces he wrote for the lessons he gave to his son, Peter: the Mikrokosmos.

It’s systematic, it’s progressive, it was written for the composer’s own nine year old son, it’s designed to be used from the very beginning (Bartok’s own words), it draws on the folk music of a wide area of eastern Europe (at least we think it does) and it represents a very ‘modern’ (in that first half of the 20th century sense) way of playing the piano.

What’s not to like?

And yet, whenever I speak with piano teachers about the Mikrokosmos the same guilty secret is whispered all over the land: we respect this collection above all others, and yet – we very rarely, if ever, teach from it.

Which makes it all the more odd that when I hear piano teachers discussing introducing music from beyond the Baroque-Classical-Romantic triumverate of preferred styles to their students, it is the Mikrokosmos that is broadly agreed should be the entry point students use to their own contemporary pianistic experience.

Context wouldn’t go astray at that point: firstly, a reminder that we are now into the second decade of the twenty-first century, and then let’s refresh our memories regarding the timing of this pinnacle of pedagogical pianism: Peter Bartok was nine years old in 1933. During the Great Depression. No, not the Global Financial Crisis, that other financial meltdown some 75 years earlier.

Since 1933 (and not in chronological order) we’ve had the rise and fall of Hitler, the Cold War, genocides in nearly every continent on the planet, ideological purges in both western and communist nations, decolonialisation, the arrival of television, Polaroids, electric guitars, cassette players, FM radio, digital keyboards, video recorders, laptops, mobile phones, the internet, Elvis, the Beatles/Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, Björk and Britney Spears. We’ve had Woodstock and Womadelaide, CDs and YouTube. Most of us have taken a Pilates class (or at least have an idea what one might be like) and drink cappuccinos/lattes. We eat laksas, kebabs and couscous (well, maybe outside Australia you don’t – substitute ‘curries’ and ‘stir-fries’), and know what a naturopath is. We download. We text. We twitter.

And in this context (as compared to the rarefied air of the pianist’s canon) Bartok seems outrageously non-contemporary, in fact a museum piece – the Mikrokosmos predating Citizen Kane, Death of a Salesman, Waiting for Godot, anything much by Rothko or Pollock, anything at all by Salman Rushdie or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. And maybe more importantly, anything at all on television or even 33 rpm vinyl (LPs).

So there should be no problem reaching a similar broad agreement that whatever claim to ‘modern’ the Mikrokosmos compositions may have (had) in the history of musical style, in the history of the world they are now a good 77 years old, and much has transpired and many generations emerged since their appearance.

And yet, we feel an obligation or a sense of duty to this collection. It will surely impart musical virtue to our students, if we can just find a way to work it into our curricula….

So, what’s good about it?

Well, for starters, Bartok feels no compunction to keep the hands in the same position for piece after piece (in the mode of modern methods) but even better than that, he doesn’t stick to major five-finger positions, neither does he have the right hand thumb on the key-note all the time either. Out of the first 7 pieces, curiously titled “Six Unison Melodies”, the first two are in a standard C Major five-finger position (albeit with the hands two octaves apart) while the next two (2b and 3) are in minor positions (A and D respectively). The fifth piece (number 4) is ‘in’ C, but ‘on’ B: it’s the Locrian five-finger position, but the key-note is C – a position that’s great for reading and nice to play. The next position plays the same trick (right hand thumb is the note below the key-note) with the G Major five-finger position producing an A minor melody. And then we finish with a melody in the same position, but this time actually ‘in’ as well as ‘on’ G.

This fluency with white note positions continues: piece 7 (“Dotted Notes”) is in the Phrygian five-finger position on E, while piece 8 (“Repitition (1)) introduces the F sharp to the same position, giving us the minor. But not so fast: this piece is the first to ask the student to change positions mid-piece, and we end in the D Major five-finger position, but still ‘in’ E minor.

Piece 10 (“With alternate hands”) does something fabulous: it uses a five-finger position not possible in a major or harmonic minor pattern. It’s a minor pattern with the 5th note diminished. This shape exists in the melodic ascending scale when you start on the 6th degree (and also in the scales I call melodic diminished and harmonic diminished). So here we are in a D minor five-finger position, only the A is changed to A flat. Stunning!

And piece 11 (“Parallel Motion”) is equally startling in this beginner phase: the hands use different five-finger positions! The right hand in the G Major position, the left hand in the E white note position (Phrygian). And piece 12 (“Reflection”) continues the theme with the right hand again in this G Major position while the left is in the D minor position.

You may have noticed that the only thing I’m remarking on, really, is the use of hand positions – no commentary on touch or tone or tempo, no observations of and kind at all, in fact, beyond the interesting places Bartok takes beginners through this first Mikrokosmos volume. And that would be because these pieces are unwaveringly legato, unstintingly without dynamic indications (until we reach piece 22, still some ways off), and almost uniform in the required speed (out of the 24 pieces which make up the first two thirds of the book 18 are between 96 and 112 beats per minute), use the bare minimum of syncopation or any other kind of rhythmic intrigue (unless you count 3 bar phrases as being intriguing), apart from a change of time signature for a single bar in piece 12 (“Reflection”).

And this might be why, despite all the good intentions and the ideological commitment to incorporating these pieces from the Mikrokosmos into our teaching with our young students we (the piano teaching profession) never seem to get our act together until Mikrokosmos Book 6. What’s good about these pieces doesn’t include the rhythmic vitality of the 20th century or any hint at the range of moods, expressions and articulations we hear in the space of a 25 second tv theme.

And more than this, these pieces presuppose reading. You try them on your own piano and think about it – they would be tedious to teach by rote! Our students would struggle to take home a sense of what they were about without having the text to remind them which note followed which. As compared to the pieces our students teach each other in play-breaks at primary school, these pieces have no hook, no single point they wish to make, no bursting-out-of-the-soul-of-the-musician element to them that makes a student want a piece of them, like a student wants “Chopsticks”, “The Entertainer” and “Für Elise”, with the exception (in Book 1) of piece 17 (“Contrary Motion (1)”), which I suspect students would pick up in a trice if taught it by rote.

Lurking in the teaching notes of Book 1 are a couple of other seriously cool suggestions from Bela Bartok as regards things to do when assigning and teaching the various pieces: students are encouraged to stamp their feet on the beat of the tied notes in piece 9 (“Syncopation (1)”), and one piece (14, “Question and Answer”) has lyrics included to demonstrate the question and answer effect that should be created when performing each of the phrases, lyrics the students are encouraged to learn to sing prior to ever sitting at the piano to play this piece.

Yes, there were literally exactly two seriously cool suggestions.

And yes, I have restricted my engagement with these early books to just the first volume in this blog post, but my mind rests easy – when I fail to teach these pieces I’m not failing my students at all, or lazily ignoring material that is ideally suited to their needs. While the pieces in the first Mikrokosmos books explore territory that is still unbelievably novel in piano pedagogy terms (modality and keyboard geography) there is even more that they do not do.

I’m content to look for new compositions in these still enticingly unfamiliar pitch patterns in the works of my contemporaries, where touch and rhythm and tone also feature in the learning experience, while still acknowledging the huge debt we piano teachers owe to Bartok for this magnum opus which really did start to change people’s minds about what was right to teach children.

Oh, and to start teaching by rote the fabulous piece 17 (with the not so engaging title “Contrary Motion (1)” which, even 77 years later, is super fun and funky.

Anita Milne is my mother

It’s time to write a piece about my mum.  Mums are self-evidently worth writing about, but in my case I am further motivated to do so knowing that about 10 people have discovered my blog in the past seven days because they were wanting to know more about my mum, Anita.

A brief history: Anita was born in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1943 and started piano lessons at the age of nine. She progressed rapidly, and was teaching the piano herself by the time she was in her late teens, as well as working as an accompanist and organist. She married Richard Milne (born in Prosperpine, QLD, and working in Christchurch at the time) in 1963.

I was born when Anita was nearly 24 and living in Wahroonga, Sydney, and I grew up listening to her piano lessons (as a baby) and hearing her students practice (as I became older). When she was 27 our whole family moved to the Manawatu district of New Zealand where Richard was the Business Manager of a boarding college, Longburn College. While there Anita was asked to join the faculty teaching high school music, as well as being the resident piano, organ and theory teacher.

During the nearly 10 years we were at Longburn Anita also organised a series of concerts performed by the students, productions which subsequently toured New Zealand.  Anita also organised children’s singing groups and produced and directed music theatre presentations by children and adolescents.  And it was during this time that Anita gained a number of piano teaching qualifications (LTCL and LRSM), as well as taking further training as an organist.

In 1980 we moved to Auckland, and Anita established a piano teaching practice there (in the St Heliers/Glendowie area), until 1985 when Richard was headhunted for a job in Sydney.  Anita moved to Sydney in the second half of 1985, and Richard and Anita built a home in Cherrybrook which then was the site of her piano teaching practice until the middle of last year (2009).

During most of the more than 20 years Anita was teaching in Cherrybrook I also worked as a piano teacher alongside her (from 1989), and my sister, Suzanne, also taught piano with us for a number of years.  The house really did become devoted to piano teaching, and during the time all three of us were working together we devised a number of programs and teaching aids that made the experience of learning piano at our studio quite unique. The studio was originally called the Milne Music Studio, later changing to Pepperbox School of Music.

And it was during this time that Anita started urging me to compose educational piano music (which I first started doing in November 1995).  And over the next few years Anita was an integral part of my composing process, giving me feedback from a piano teacher’s point of view as to the usefulness of each of my compositions, and the likelihood (in her opinion) that students would actually want to play the pieces.

In 2001 I started collating the material that would become the Getting to series (Preliminary, Grades One and Two first published in 2003), and it was during this period that Anita started notating the ideas that she had been teaching with over the years.  In 2006 I included one of these pieces in each of Getting to Preliminary, The New Mix and Getting to Grade One, The New Mix.

In 2006 we were also working on a publication that Faber Music were going to publish, My Very First Little Peppers, pieces mostly composed by Anita for use with students in the first six months of lessons. My pregnancy in 2006 interrupted the timeframes of this publication, and to date Faber Music have not published the collection, but two of the pieces Anita had composed during this period have been included in last year’s P Plate Piano publications from the Australia Music Examination Board.

Anita’s published music to date:

The Last Leaves of Autumn, in P Plate Piano Book One. This piece is a beautiful piece exploring how to play the two-note slur, and also exploring how harmonics work on the piano.  Students cover the whole keyboard while playing this piece.

Who’s There, in P Plate Piano Book Two. This piece is partly off-keyboard, with students knocking rhythms on the body of the piano alternating with 5ths being played in either hand.  This piece also explores the difference between a perfect and a diminished 5th, and explores the idea of enharmonic equivalence, with the right hand playing G flat, while the left hand plays F sharp.

Shiver Me Timbers, in Getting to Preliminary, the New Mix. This piece is really a set of variations on the chords A minor and G major, in much the same way that the folk song “What shall we do with the drunken sailor” is.  All sorts of pianistic possibilities are explored, including clusters, triads and moving between octaves, as well as a range of articulations and rhythmic devices.

Shiver Me Timbers II, in Getting to Grade One, the New Mix. This piece is a more difficult set of variations on the same harmonic sequence as Shiver Me Timbers.

Anita doesn’t really consider herself a composer, simply a piano teacher coming up with material that solves the problems she sees her students facing as they attempt to master various techniques and styles.  But her material is really well written and the students enjoy playing her music.  It’s not the kind of old-fashioned stuff one normally assumes piano teachers will come up with – but maybe in the 21st century we expect different things from piano teachers than we did in the 20th.

I rely on Anita to give me brutally honest feedback about my compositions and ideas, and we teach each other’s students from time to time to monitor how different students respond to different approaches.  And of course, I’ve benefitted from her experience as a piano teacher right from my earliest years: Anita was an early adopter of new music that would become available in New Zealand, and I think she was among the first teachers there to really use the music of Kabalevksy and Rybicki there in the 1970s.  Her interest in finding engaging new repertoire resulted in my hearing a wide range of piano music as a child and student, and certainly impacted on my own ideas about what makes a good piece of educational piano music.

Hopefully we’ll get that My Very First Little Peppers book published soon!  But in the meantime I’m sure there will be other publications in which Anita’s music will surface.

Anita and Richard moved to Annandale (in Sydney’s inner west) in the middle of 2009, and Anita is now teaching some students at her new home while still teaching her remaining students in Sydney’s north-west from a piano teaching venue in a primary school in that area. Anita and I are currently working on a range of new ideas for working with students in the first five years of lessons, and are road-testing these concepts on Anita’s students this year, with a view to making them more widely available in 2011.

If there’s anything you were hoping to find out that I may have omitted, please just leave a comment below and I’ll attempt to provide you with any and all salient details that are of interest!

P Plate Piano Book 2: Composers

Today marks the first day P Plate Piano is available for sale in Australia, and I’ve been too sick to drag myself out of bed, let alone get into a shop to see how they might have this beautiful looking series displayed.  [If you want to see the cover design it's currently up as the splash page for the still-under-construction website http://www.pplatepiano.com.au

But I think I might have enough energy (having been asleep most of the day, and having Tom at his grandparents’ place), to write up a quick piece about the composers who are included in P Plate Piano Book 2.

Of course, I’ve used many of the composers whose work featured in P Plate Piano Book 1, so I won’t detail these composers, except to list them: Anita Milne (yes, my mum, who now has her pieces in 4 publications), Jane Sebba (pieces from her fabulous Piano Magic method books), Daniel Gottlob Türk (composer from the Classical period who wrote a piano method nearly 200 years ago), myself (that was my job!), Karin Daxböck/Elisabeth Haas/Martina Schneider/Rosemarie Trzeja/Veronika Weinhandl (the five co-composers of the sensational 70 Keyboard Adventures with the Little Monster),  Elias Davidsson (Palestinian-born composer and human-rights activist who has lived in Iceland for most his adult life), Feliks Rybicki (Polish composer who wrote educational piano music in the mid-20th century), Bill Boyd (US composer whose works have been included in the Hal Leonard Student Piano Library books), Helen Caskie (New Zealander, with music published by Boosey & Hawkes), and Fritz Emonts (renowned German piano pedagogue, writer of The European Piano School).

So who is new?

First up is Rainer Mohrs, with a piece Fritz Emonts included in his second volume of The European Piano School. Rainer Mohrs has worked with Fritz Emonts on a few Schott publications, and has a smattering of works included in The European Piano Method. I’ve not been able to learn any more about him.

Carol Klose is a composer who has contributed arrangements and compositions to the Hal Leonard Student Piano Library since its inception over a decade ago.  She lives in Wisconsin and we met on a visit I paid to Milwaukee in 2005.  A piece from the HLSPL Solos Book 2 is included in P Plate Piano Book 2.

Larry Sitsky (b.1934) is an Australian composer, and possibly an Australian music institution! He migrated with his family to Australia in the early 1950s, having been born a Russian-Jewish emigré in China. Larry Sitsky has always been a pianist as well as a composer, and he has a collection of teaching pieces, Century, from which the piece used in P Plate Piano Book 2 has been drawn. The Australian Music Examination Board’s new piano syllabus in 2009 listed many of his works in this collection as examination pieces throughout the early grades, and he is now the best represented Australian composer by far in that syllabus.

Walter Carroll (1869-1955) is a different kind of institution altogether, with his educational piano pieces being widely used in piano lessons for the a century or so. His easiest collection of repertoire was Scenes at a Farm, most pieces of which I learned when I was a piano student in the 1970s.  What I particularly loved about them as a student was the inclusion of lyrics in the shape of a poem included just underneath the title, which I would sing away with my own playing whenever I was practicing these pieces.  As a teacher I can see just how wonderful Walter Carroll’s writing was, such simple pianistic language creating such sophisticated musical results. Two of the Scenes at a Farm pieces are included in P Plate Piano Book 2, but I would have loved to have included two or three more!

Back in 2000 I spent the best part of a week in Paris, taking advantage of the fact I had a friend living in Paris at the time.  One of my most important tasks in my Parisian stay was to visit music shops, to try to find new material that might be hard to access from Australia. One of the books I picked up at my visit to La Flute de Pan on the Rue de Rome was a collection of pieces by Thierry Masson (published by Henry Lemoine) called Mes Premiers Pas (My First Steps),  and at last I’ve had a chance to incorporate one of these pieces into a collection!  How one teaches a piece can be the absolute difference between a student enjoying or despising the experience, and hopefully the teaching ideas I’ve included in P Plate Piano Book 2 for this clever Thierry Masson piece will make Baby Blues one of the students’ favourites.

And to conclude this list of ‘new’ composers, we have Kevin Wooding, whose 1997 composition Lydia’s Sandwich is really one of the most exciting compositions at this level that I’ve ever come across.  Kevin Wooding is unafraid of flats and sharps, and this allows him to create a composition which is terribly simple to execute, but does appear somewhat daunting to a student who has the music plopped in front of them. To this end, Josephine Lie, the illustrator of the P Plate Piano series, has designed a keyboard map students can consult to check out the various hand positions needed to perform Lydia’s Sandwich.  This is a piece I’m sure students will learn very rapidly (in a single week) if they are taught by rote, but it might end up being a 5 week experience for students sent home to nut out the notes for themselves.  This piece comes from a collection published by Oxford University Press called Spooky Piano Time.

More about Kevin Wooding another time – he is no cookie-cutter musician, and is involved in all kinds of fascinating projects.

Next: the final 8 new composers we get to meet in P Plate Piano Book 3.

P Plate Piano: What is it and why?

On November 1, 2009, throughout Australia, a new series of books from the AMEB (Australian Music Examination Board) will be available in all good music shops: P Plate Piano Books 1, 2 & 3.

Australian piano teachers will be quite curious about these new books.  The AMEB only publishes materials that are for use in conjunction with their examinations, and the title P Plate Piano doesn’t sound like anything like an examination! And it’s not an examination.  But it is an assessment.  And there’s a difference… But we’ll come back to that later.

Firstly, P Plate Piano is a series you can use alongside any of the method books you use now, and the first book corresponds roughly to the skill level a student would have achieved at the end of the first book of any of the well-known method books.

The idea of this series is to map out the various keyboard skills and techniques that students need to master before they should commence work on the AMEB Preliminary examination.  Contemporary compositions from around the world make up the bulk of the repertoire, with some new pieces commissioned from me especially for this series.

Because the pieces have been chosen to build up the complete suite of skills a student needs as a foundation prior to beginning even the first of the AMEB examinations, it is intended that students work through all the pieces in each volume, and each piece has accompanying text and activities directed at the student.

At the end of each book students can sit a non-graded assessment, choosing any three pieces from the book to perform.  At the completion of all three levels students will receive their P Plate Piano License!

And did I mention that the books are published in full colour, with illustrations throughout?  And information about the music, improvising and composing activities for students to do, duets for teachers to play with students, keyboard maps so students remember where to put their fingers on the keyboard when they are practicing alone at home, and much more!

These really are something quite unique in publications designed by and for a music examination board.

Part of the motivation for creating this series is that students in Australia seem to be starting lessons younger, and therefore taking longer to master all these basic skills before they can participate in examinations.  Parents, meantime, are putting pressure on teachers to have their children take at least one examination each year.  This assessment program allows teachers to satisfy this parental urge toward external assessment, without compromising the pedagogical process.

Another factor in the development of P Plate Piano is the observation that Australian children are becoming seriously ‘over-programmed’, without enough hours in the week to practice for rapid progress.  These books are an effort by the AMEB to ensure that students still have adequate keyboard prowess before attempting their first examination (thus resulting in a happy experience for student and examiner alike) and that the progress that is required to reach a Preliminary standard is recognised as that progress is being made.

Very few parents want their children to learn the piano as part of a career plan, these days; most approach piano lessons as an amalgam of ‘giving my child the gift of music for life’ and ‘playing a musical instrument makes you smarter’, neither of which goal is well-served by students being frog-marched through a succession of increasingly ambitious piano examinations from their first year of lessons.

Because P Plate Piano is non-graded students have the chance to experience what an examination might be like without any of the pressure of a percentage or letter grade being attached to their performance.  The assessment will, however, include focussed and encouraging comments about the child’s skills and achievements.  This is fantastic for parents, students and teachers alike.

I will be involved in launch events throughout Australia in November, which I am very much looking forward to.  More details of these events will be posted in this blog (and on the AMEB websites) soon….

How I came to compose educational piano music

This blog has been a bit of an experiment so far – an experiment in how-to-blog, as far as I am concerned, and I’ve realised that I probably haven’t included a whole lot of useful factual information about myself so far…..

So to rectify a little:

I’ve been composing educational piano music since 1995 when an adult student (probably no older than 22 at the time) said to me “But what I really want to do is to play the way you do when you are playing your own music”.  This set me back quite a bit, as I had never given any thought to teaching my students to play the way I did when I wasn’t performing ‘repertoire’.  My teaching was somewhat traditional in terms of content, style, outcomes and expectations.  But my performing life was anything but traditional, and many parents had sent their children to me to have lessons after they had seen me performing.

My adult student kept at me (nicely!) until she moved interstate and lessons stopped.  But somehow she had planted a seed that quickly developed into a project, a publication, and then two graded series (Little Peppers and Pepperbox Jazz).

Like many piano teachers I meet, I didn’t set out to ‘be’ a piano teacher, it kind of crept up on me. My career of choice was to be a composer – I’d been composing in earnest since I was six and I’d written the school musical while I was at high school – so naturally I studied composition at university (the University of Auckland, New Zealand, which at the time was where I lived).  I taught the piano from the time I was 14 until I finished that undergraduate degree at the age of 19.

I had a couple of years ‘off’ teaching, moving to Sydney, Australia where I spent a year on short-term contracts with various media organisations, working as a researcher or production assistant on television and radio productions for some independent producers.  Then I won a song-writing competition, which meant I had a flight around the world to use in the next 12 months – so I moved to London for the best part of a year.

Returning to Sydney, and to university studies, meant that I also resumed my career alter-ego as a piano teacher.  And while I’ve done many, many other fascinating projects along the way, piano teaching has been a constant, so much more stimulating and rewarding than the other kinds of jobs students seem to end up in (at the start) and so hard to relinquish (as time went on).

So by the time my adult student (only 5 or 6 years younger than me) suggested in 1995 that I should find a way to teach students how to play the piano the way I did, I was 27 and had 11 years teaching experience behind me.  Enough experience to have formed some strong views about what made a good piece of educational piano music.  Enough experience to know that I didn’t want to just churn out nice pieces for people to play; I wanted to create music which invited the student in – to explore, to investigate, to experiment, and into the possibilities that the 88 keys on the piano represent.

One important factor my tale thus far has omitted: my mother is a piano teacher, and her mother also was a piano teacher, my grandmother’s aunt had played the piano in cinemas when movies first began being screened commercially, and that aunt’s daughter was a concert pianist.  My childhood was filled with the sounds of piano lessons and piano practicing, family gatherings always included performances by pianists of varying degrees of accomplishment, and it seemed to me (as a child) that adulthood could not be bestowed upon anyone who could not play the piano.

And these family pianists had opinions.  About what music was interesting, which composers were exciting to play, about the things that were important about the piano.  I might well have benefitted from having a family clarinetist or viola player, but we were pretty much exclusively a family of pianists (maybe the odd organist got a look in).

So when, in 1995, I decided to start composing educational piano music I had my own home-grown audience and critic – my mum.  She was keen for music to use with her piano students, but was equally keen to not subject them to pointless piffle.  A lesson I quickly learned was that a good hook in one’s composition counts for little if the construction of the piece is slap-dash.  Once I had the structure exactly right my mother would be keen to teach my latest piece, but before that she would shrug and suggest that it wasn’t worth the effort!  The undeniable benefit of having a harsh critic as a mother is that if she has given a piece the OK, then I can be quite confident most piano teachers will find that piece useful and enjoyable.

In addition, having a piano teacher as a mother has meant that she has presented me with quite specific pedagogical challenges that she has been facing with a student, and I have come back with a composition that addresses that concern.  This ongoing student-focussed to-and-fro has been invaluable in creating a genuine body of work (as compared to a whole bunch of music that is easy enough for amateurs).

My first great compositional goals (from the age of 7 and 8 years old) were not to write symphonies and concerti, but rather to write musicals.  I think this is another important insight into my educational piano music.  Much of it is highly rhythmic (great for those dance numbers) and much of it is highly lyrical (important in those pivotal character changes), and I have had a reviews that suggest that some pieces from Pepperbox Jazz sound as if they are long-established jazz standards.

Now, on the topic of “jazz”…. My educational piano music is, of course, NOT JAZZ!  If it were jazz it would have sections in it where the student was required to improvise some of the performance. But that word “jazz” has, in piano teaching circles, become a kind of code word for “your students will like practicing this”, or for “this modern music is actually tonal”, or for “don’t worry, we won’t be changing time signatures from seven-sixteen to three-two to five-eight in consecutive bars” and so forth.  In our talking about the music of the twentieth century we still struggle to get the terms right. Jazz is not the right word, but it has oh-so-many of the right connotations….

There’s just one more thing about how I came to compose educational piano music – the composers whose educational piano music I practiced as a student.  Kabalevksy, Bartok, Shostakovich, later Ravel, Poulenc, more Bartok, more Shostakovich.  Three early experiences are key in terms of what drives my writing for very young students.

The first was playing a piece by Kabalevsky called “Scherzino” or “A Little Joke”.  The thumbs are adjacent and move from position to position in tandem, and the music has the hands playing in similar motion through a precise pattern of articulation and interval.  This piece just felt so good to play (as a 7 year-old – and still now some decades on!), and the distance of a 6th between the notes in the right and left hands meant that the major scale melody developed all these gorgeous 7th chord harmonies as a triad unfolded – satisfying to ear as well as the hand.

The second, from around the same time in my studies, was a piece by Bartok called “The Lost Cat” (amongst many of its other names).  This piece has the left hand harmonising a melody, beginning with a bare 5th on the tonic (in a minor tonality), and then moving to a major 3rd on the subdominant: magic.  It is, of course, the Dorian mode that Bartok uses in this opening (and then repeated) harmonic gambit, and to my 7 year-old ears this was an addictive way to be minor. Let alone the gloriousness of keeping the melody note the same (on the dominant) while the left hand turned the harmonic kaleidoscope to optimistic.  It felt as sophisticated as it was well within my technical prowess to perform.

The third experience (during that same year) was a piece by Pál Kodosa called “Andantino”. This piece is primarily in 5, with one hand continually parading up and down the A minor five-finger position while the other performs the same step-wise pattern in a 2+3 rhythm (one single note at the start of the 2-pulse beat, one single note at the start of the 3-pulse beat).  So simple.  One idea. Cleanly executed in composition, endlessly rewarding in performance.

I need my educational music to connect the deep physical pleasure of playing the instrument to the equally deeply satisfying emotional realities that music can create.  I need the technical challenges to be real, but fabulously fun.  It’s not always possible to meet all one’s self-imposed criteria on each single composition, but these are some of the things I strive for, in addition to wanting students to feel pride when they perform a piece I have composed, because they never knew they could sound so good.

Educational Piano Music

There’s so much of it in print, so little of it that you want to use.

In this blog I’m planning to work my way through the contemporary (meaning somewhat recent, or at least, still in copyright) piano music I love and use, as well as reviewing new publications I am looking at in my quest for great new material.

The shame of it seems to be that for many piano teachers Bartok’s Mikrokosmos drew a line in history, and they are reluctant to use anything very much that has been written since – unless it is just ‘for fun’.  Further, the profession’s collective propensity to start beginners on white notes with both thumbs moored on middle C makes some of the brilliant contemporary contributions to pedagogical repertoire to be (at first glance) far too advanced, when in fact these pieces are perfectly designed to celebrate what young fingers, wrists, arms and brains (belonging to beginners) can and do enjoy doing.