Little Bo Peep’s Troublesome Sheep

Little Bo Peep can’t find her sheep (a common complaint), and sets off to find them. Little Boy Blue suggests there might be a book in the library that could help her strategise a means of locating her lost flock, so Little Bo Peep heads straight for her local library.  A local library which boasts Mother Goose as the head librarian.  A local library where books are browsed (and one would presume borrowed) by the Big Bad Wolf, the Queen of Hearts, the Three Bears (of Goldilocks fame), and Little Red Riding Hood.

So, the perfect local library for the likes of Little Bo Peep.

She’s unsure of where to look for the kind of book that might offer some guidance to finding sheep, and her hunt for exactly the right kind of book about sheep is where the real delight of this children’s book lies; for as Little Bo Peep wanders from section to section of the library, we get to read the books on the shelves that she is passing by.

Yes, that’s right.  We get to pull miniature books out of pockets in the illustration and do some browsing of our own, flicking through the eight-page cookery book that the Big Bad Wolf is perusing, and the similarly-sized crime novel “Who Stole the Tarts?” being read through by the Queen of Hearts.

These are real little paperbacks, with text, illustrations, IBN bar codes and copyright declarations. And they sit between other equally fascinating titles in their respective sections of the library.  The crime section, for instance, also features the detective mystery “Who Killed Cock Robin?” while the cookery section features “Cooking with Fat” by Mrs. A. Sprat.

Little Bo Peep finds the volume she is looking for in the natural history section, takes it to be stamped by the librarian and returns home to read exactly how she might find her sheep.

And it works.

This book is so filled with attention to detail that you will read it through with your toddler many, many times before you have absorbed all the thought that has been put into each illustration, and each word play that features in the library’s book titles!

My son was completely disinterested in this book when he was 28 months old, but four months later this is certainly his favourite book (this week, anyway), and the pull-out books are a big reason why.

This book, by Cressida Cowell, was first published in 1999, but has only just been released in a paperback version this year, 2009.  I have the paperback, and it is very sturdy, even with the little pull-out books going in and out several times a day.

With so much humour in the story and so much energy and wit in the illustrations, this is a book you will be very glad to have sitting on your own book shelf at home.

The Price v The Value of Music Books

There’s that lovely Oscar Wilde quote about cynics being people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.  I suspect that piano teachers are the very furthest thing from being cynics, but in regard to print music they certainly exhibit cynical tendencies.

I frequently hear piano teachers telling me that they simply cannot ask parents to buy music books for their children, as the cost is simply beyond the reach of the family budget. On the other hand, I’ve never (ever) had a parent protest that they want their child to learn to play the piano without having to purchase music.

It is a fascinating dichotomy: the teacher who is convinced it is beyond the means of parents to provide print music for the student, and the parent who enjoys providing musical opportunities to their child.

Leaving aside the psychology and the economics for a moment, let’s take a look at the function served by a book of music in the education of a pianist.

Firstly, the book of music provides material for the student to explore, perform, think about and talk about.  The only other way a student can access musical material is by listening to music, and learning by ear.  As beneficial a skill as this is, ‘playing by ear’ is almost entirely outside the skill-set piano teachers are either trained, interested or willing to impart.  And even when piano teachers do work on playing-by-ear skills they, almost without exception, do so working from their own printed score.

Secondly, when a parent sends their child off to piano lessons they generally expect that child to return with a the ability to read (as well as perform) music.  It’s just not possible to learn to read without having reading material. Children at school learning to read are given new reading material every day, and this is the learning-literacy experience that parents have as their touchstone for all other literacies.  Playing (and reading) a lot of music is well within parental expectations and aspirations for their children, if the purpose of taking piano lessons is educational (which in some instances, it is not).

This second point is one of students needing to learn new music all the time, not just one or two pieces every month.  This is not quite the same thing as saying that students need new books of music every month, as fabulous repertoire collections of between 15 and 30 pieces will keep a student occupied for between two to six months (if that is their sole source of musical material). But this second point does lead to the third: to develop musical literacy students should be reading and performing a wide range of musical styles in the course of their lessons and practice.

Parents would be mystified if their children were assigned poetry only for a whole year’s worth of reading, and even more mystified if their 9-year-old were required to only read English prose from the 18th century or novels (in translation) from 19th century Germany.  And yet on the piano these kinds of restrictive and era-inappropriate choices in material are not simply common-place but de rigueur. And the reason given by piano teachers for not using either a wider range or a more contemporary choice of material is almost always that the cost to the parents would be too great.

Meantime, parents scour print music shops hoping to track down music of the current day that their children might be able to play, and the parents and children arrive with eager anticipation at the lesson to present their findings, usually mis-graded for the current skills of the child, and often mis-chosen due to the unpianistic nature of the purchased arrangements.

Parents don’t have a problem with buying cool stuff for their children. This is a mantra I recommend to every piano teacher working today. Parents recognise the value that books of music can bring to their child’s education and enjoyment. Parents like the idea of providing excellent resources for their child to use, of giving their child happy and worthwhile learning experiences.

So where does the problem lie? I suspect the reluctance to purchase new books lies entirely with the teacher, and for some very sound reasons.

Piano teachers are not business people, as a rule, even though they are running their own small business (as a service provider). Further, and I generalise, they have neither the training nor the inclination to work their teaching practice to generate profits beyond a modest annual income. This may not be true in every country and every culture, but this is certainly true of the vast majority of piano teachers I have met around the world.

Nearly every piano teacher I have ever met does not have making money as their motive for teaching the piano. Piano teachers teach because they feel it is an important contribution they can make to the lives of children and their communities.  This is the foundational principle that drives piano teachers the world around.

So we have an altruistic motivation associated with a lower-than-average annual income coming together in the psyche of the typical piano teacher. Piano teachers find themselves trying to save parents money, in the same spirit that they are helping bring music to the lives of their children.  But in this situation this is not altruism of any kind, as using less music as one learns to play the piano simply means that one has learned less.

Teachers are renowned for getting out of this learning bind by providing photocopies of music to their students. What a wonderful solution: for a token fee teachers can provide students with music that would have cost some significant amount more when purchased at the shop.  Well, it’s wonderful in the same way that  shoplifting is wonderful.  Sure, you end up not having to spend much money, but what you are doing is completely illegal, and completely immoral.

Assuming that as piano teachers we wish to deliver both a musical and a behavioural education to our students, handing out stolen music is just not on.

So we are back to print music, and its price.  This does vary significantly from one country to the next.  Here in Australia a book printed in the United Kingdom retails with a significant surcharge built in – currently a book retailing in the UK for £6.95 and in the US for $9.99 retails in Australia for $27.95*, an outrageous discrepancy. But even so, it is a rare book that costs in excess of the price of a single half hour lesson, and many books come well below that figure.  Buying books to the value of say 5 half-hour piano lessons over the course of a year (in whichever country you are living) does not seem an exorbitant ask, and this figure will purchase a pleasing variety of musical styles and learning opportunities.

Piano teachers, wherever you are, please consider the value of the book of music when you are planning your students’ repertoire for the year ahead, and leave the worrying about the price to the people who actually have to pay.

* In early 2011 prices in Australia were lowered dramatically, both in response to the sustained high value of the Australian dollar and to the impact of internet music purchasing; these days a book of music retailing for $US9.95 is unlikely to cost more than $A15. 

How hard is a piece of music: exhibit A

The trouble with grading a piece of piano music is that one has to agree that certain things that one can do on the piano should be learned in a particular order.  The traditional view is that the easiest music is where the thumbs share middle C and only white notes are played. Oh yes, and the rhythm should be a simple sequence of crotchets.

Meantime, school kids from all ends of the globe gather around classroom pianos to teach each other a sequence of tonic chords (moving around the keyboard, in a swing groove) to be played in duet with a friend playing a melody that requires shifts in hand position (or, I suppose, turning over the thumb) and an extension beyond the five-finger position. And nearly every school child with access to a piano seems to be able to learn this feat of keyboard skill.

Should we be taking a new look at what makes a piece of music easy or hard?

Many method books these days start with students playing on the black notes. Let’s face it, starting on black notes has many attractions: the placement of the black notes on the keyboard creates a more natural rounded finger/soft hand position from the outset, and the groups of two and three black notes are straightforward to locate on the keyboard.  But playing on only black notes requires the use of sharps, flats or key signatures in the first lesson (terribly confusing) or the use of some kind of graphic notation. And very small children can find the black notes very physically demanding to depress, and almost impossible to play with anything like a legato touch, let alone creating any reliable dynamic contrast when playing on black keys alone.

Immediately there is a clue to the question of how hard a piece of music is: who is the pianist?  A piece that might be desperately easy for a 9 year-old beginner might be quite impossible for a 4 year-old novice, simply because of the difference in size, power and fine motor skills between these two ages.

Next, nearly every method book begins with crotchets alone, or with crotchets and semibreves.  No rhythmic complexity will be admitted!  And this restriction on the music an absolute beginner can play is not a performative restriction at all – no, this restriction is due to the fact the student is being introduced to the reading of crotchets and semibreves (maybe minims too) in these introductory lessons, and the repertoire of beginner students must be reduced to that which they can read.

So the familiar school-piano tune will be deemed far too rhythmically demanding for at least a year’s worth of lessons – despite the fact children everywhere learn to play it with a quite reasonable degree of accuracy in the space of a lunchtime.

It turns out that when we have been asking how hard a piece of music is we are rarely asking how hard is it to play, and usually asking how hard it is to read.

Funnily enough, it seems that the stressful-to-read accidentals can be the notes that make patterns easy to comprehend, and the hard-to-read rhythms are the ones beginners love to teach each other to play.