School of Music
University of Georgia
Athens, GA 30602
Keyboard education may be thought of in two ways. First, how one prepares to be a performer, which includes developing technical skills, learning and memorizing repertoire, and finding connections within the field of performing that lead to competitions, recitals, and other outlets for the aspiring performing artist. Second, the broad, comprehensive employment of the keyboard as a means of educating the whole musician. In other words one may take advantage of the unique visual properties, dynamic range, and polyphonic capabilities of the piano to grasp and solidify understanding of melody, harmony (simultaneity, if you prefer), rhythm, and texture as well as performance issues involving volume control, phrasing, and coordination. It is on this second approach that I wish to dwell in these remarks, but more specifically within the challenges posed by the first.
The question now becomes: How many piano students who seriously pursue performance study use their instrument as a means to deepen and extend their musical education? In search for some perspective on this question, I would like to consider the following points.
The very fact that this question can be asked testifies to the changing nature of the once symbiotic relationship between the roles musicians assume. For example, J. S. Bach was, if I remember them all, a keyboardist, string player, composer, conductor, and educator. He played all the principal keyboard instruments of the time, and could also play the violin and viola da gamba fluently and artistically. His improvising and composing went hand in hand throughout his life. Nor was Bach unique in this respect. All keyboardists were proficient in improvising accompaniments from figured bass parts, and improvisation retained its appeal for musicians from that time well into the Romantic era, exemplified in the extraordinary virtuosity of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt to name only four. Composing, improvising, and performing was so integrated for accomplished musicians of these earlier times, they would surely find our evolved specializations quite curious.
With respect to music reading it was expected of any well trained musician to be fluent with the various clefs, the soprano, the mezzo-soprano, the alto, and the tenor, in addition to the G and F clefs, some of which persisted in use well into the 19th Century. For keyboard writing, the soprano clef, which places "middle C" on the lowest line of the staff, was common. Any pianist who consults the authoritative complete editions of such composers as Bach, Mozart, or Haydn, to research keyboard literature will find the soprano clef more frequently than the G clef . It isn't that musicians were smarter then -- it's unlikely. But, it does seem that the attitude and approach to reading must have been much more flexible, less likely to focus on note names and more likely to emphasize linear patterns and relationships. How else could one make sense of so many clefs and clef changes?
In our day brass, string and woodwind players have preserved something of this flexibility. Many of them routinely must encounter tenor clef and alto clef. Transposing holds no fears for these players even of high school age when they are well trained and experienced. For example it is fully expected that a good trumpeter be able to transpose at sight among C, B-flat, and D trumpet parts. Similar skill is expected among clarinetists, hornists and trombonists among others. Unfortunately this skill is neglected among pianists, except for a few collaborative artists who in their work with vocalists find some necessity for its practice.
In this connection it is interesting to recall Guy Duckworth's Keyboard Explorer series of the mid 1960's. The fifth book of the series, Keyboard Performer, includes several Baroque era compositions, including a few familiar ones from J. S. Bach's instructional notebooks, which Duckworth published using the original soprano clef on the upper staff. The curriculum leading to this reading challenge progressing through the previous four books emphasizes improvisation, playing-by-ear, transposition, and harmonization, in addition to reading -- in short, everything a piano student would need to develop a flexible linear approach. However, Duckworth's effort was greeted with skepticism.. Don't argue with progress! Why regress from our modern performing editions in G and F clefs which are such a great improvement over the original? Why indeed, unless our objective is to train a generation of piano students who are so eye-bound that they recoil from any reading challenge such as transposing that requires active involvement of the ear?
In our time many pianists of secondary school age are performing at extraordinary levels with respect to repertoire, accuracy, and technical development. But, far too many are unable to read at sight an accompaniment, or transpose, or execute a warm-up pattern through ascending dominant sevenths for a choir, or improvise a simple chordal background notated in chord symbols on a lead sheet. Are these expectations unreasonable for our day and time?
If the students I describe eventually do any work in music education or music therapy, they would find these expectations minimal. Indeed, certification in music therapy requires improvisation at the piano in various moods and styles, and accompanying recreational singing using both hands in acceptable style, not doubling the melody, while reading melody and chord symbols only. Skill at reading two, three, and four part choral scores is an added qualification in music education. Pianists who major in composition will also benefit greatly from experience with improvisation and the other skills. Fortunately there is at most colleges what I prefer to call a "remedial" course in functional keyboard skills for keyboard majors that exists to train them in the practice of harmonization, transposition, improvisation, playing-by-ear, and score reading, skills the student could have acquired before college. We should also say that many colleges offer piano pedagogy courses and programs that can provide some career relevance to performance majors, in that most of them will see some kind of teaching experience in their careers. These programs may also provide an incidental "crash course" in minimal functional keyboard skills.
Although I am unhappy with the comprehensive musicianship skills of most piano students at college entrance, it isn't because they didn't get a good start at the beginning. Happily the method books now on the market do a much better job of preparing students in fundamentals, theory, and musicianship than before. Most of the method series' now have theory workbooks, technique supplements, even computer diskettes, and interactive programs that give youngsters abundant opportunity to manipulate musical elements -- note names, note values, accidentals, meters, intervals, triads, inversions, cadences -- in ways that will reinforce details and concepts. Thus in the early stages, at least, -- through the elementary levels -- many, perhaps most students get a good grounding in the fundamentals of music theory and harmony. Moreover, there are resources for acquainting students with brief composer/musician biographies, and material on stylistic periods and other basic aspects of music history. The outlook would seem bright indeed! But, soon after this positive beginning, most students will abandon continued systematic study of theory, analysis, harmonizing, transposing, and improvising to follow a specialized path through rigorous technical training and performance repertory, none of which I decry. What I do decry is the isolation from activities that could provide context, relevance, and broad, ever-growing musicianly qualities. This is "the road not taken" that might have made a difference.
That decision is not without a defense, however. A powerful factor is the frequency and length of the typical piano lesson. A serious and talented student who has moved beyond elementary and intermediate levels will generally have a weekly lesson with a successful, well established teacher capable of directing him or her into the advanced arena of piano repertoire and technique. This lesson will likely be of forty to sixty minutes in length, which may, or may not be supplemented with a periodic group lesson or studio master class. Most, if not all, teachers will agree that this lesson time flys by so rapidly that there is scarcely time to work and polish performances of the repertoire to the level needed to advance the student into the final rounds of competitive festivals and auditions.
Although the toll this highly entrenched competitive system exacts on the individual is an often stated criticism, it remains one of the chief entry ways into a performing career. At the 1999 annual convention of Music Teachers National Association in Los Angeles, John Perry who has long been at the forefront of the training of piano performers had strong words for the manner in which competitions affect performing and teaching. For one thing competitions encourage winning at younger ages which often generates a premature self image of "having arrived." The top recipients realize too late that there will be another crop of winners to replace them if they are unable to create a unique personal niche for themselves in this rapidly changing performance culture. On the other hand, a fine performer could well become discouraged at not being a first prize winner, when he or she fully has a capability that would have "peaked" later with persistence. Thus our culture is denied a unique pianistic "voice," a Schnabel, or a Myra Hess, or a Horowitz, none of whom Perry thinks could win a first prize in today's contests because the contests do not reward individuality. On the contrary, because of "interlocking juries" that are often much the same group of jurors serving one international competition after another, and requirements for "balanced" repertoire, Perry warns of a growing sameness in performing style, albeit spectacularly impressive in technique and accuracy. Is focus on competition another factor that restricts our students' comprehensive musical development?
Regardless of what may be at fault, if indeed there be any, a solution for what I believe to be a problem can only be sought within the context of our own time and culture. We obviously cannot bring back the 17th or 18th or 19th centuries, but we can look at their attitudes, approaches, philosophies, priorities, and reapply what we find useful and relevant to current challenges. We cannot ignore the reality of the competition phenomenon, the priorities it imposes on the talented and their teachers, nor the scarcity of instructional time. Accordingly, what I will recommend are strategies that can be used with repertoire currently being used for study or reading, which, it is hoped, would add little to the length of the instruction, and, which could improve and reinforce comprehension, memorization, and reading. Some of these suggestions may prove easier and have their best effect in a group setting.
Keep in mind that these are only examples of what might be done in a given situation, not a closed system. With imagination and creativity they can be adapted or inspire completely new ideas more appropriate to the students at hand. Additional suggestions may be found in articles authored by myself (1996, 1997).
A. Reading Figured Bass
B. Reading a Lead Sheet
C. Improvisation and Playing-By-Ear
Playing from figured basses and lead sheets are minimal acts of improvisation. There are activities that can lend insight into the composer's intentions and appreciation for the options open to him. The challenge is to locate a kernel of melody, harmony, or rhythm from a piece of piano repertoire and use it as the basis for an improvisation in order to understand more fully the structure, vocabulary, and inspiration for that composition.
D. Transposing and Mutation
The most basic act of transposing is when we ask a student to repeat the C major scale beginning on the other keys of the piano. The need to start a scale in the middle of the familiar fingering pattern is apparent when starting on a black-key.
Transposing skill may be enhanced by asking a student to repeat a portion of a piece in a key in which the keyboard topography is nearly the same as the original. A good example is the "Ballade," Op. 100, No. 15 by Johann Burgmuller, originally in C minor. Playing the left hand theme, measures 1 to 19, in the keys of G minor and F minor with the same fingers reinforces awareness of the fingering and why the composer chose C minor over other minor keys. Again, keep in mind this is only one example. There are passages in common practice repertoire at all levels of difficulty that could be used as short transposition exercises. For something more challenging consider Mozart, Sonata, K.330, First Movement, measure 1 to the first note of measure 16. Transposing this section to the keys of F, G, and D will reveal among other things certain fingering options for the scale passages much more vividly than when played on all white keys.
Keeping our attention on the first theme of the Burgmuller "Ballade," a student is forced to be aware of the right hand shift from a minor triad to a diminished one if asked to repeat those measures in G minor and F minor. Again, fingering and awareness are reinforced. Students more experienced with transposition could be asked to play the phrase with both hands together. For more advanced students transposing the Mozart example will certainly cause the harmonic progressions throughout to be well understood in both ear and mind.
This involves changing the mode of the excerpt or selection. The tonic note remains the same. For example, a minuet in G major might be mutated into G minor; conversely, a minuet in G minor can be mutated into G major. Students seem to enjoy this more than teachers. There is a fascination about the composer's choice of one over the other. In modern music, such as Bartok's works, there are examples in Lydian, Mixolydian, Phrygian modes which can be mutated into major or other modes to help develop these finer aural discriminations that we deem valuable for our students.
Additionally, both transposition and mutation effectively force the learner to look at more than one note at a time which is a key ingredient in good sight reading.
E. Score Reading
I have tried to offer suggestions that have proved to be not only stimulating and challenging but, enjoyable and even fun. This has been the case for students with whom I have tried the various routines. The college pedagogy students who tried them will likely use them in some form later as teachers. I firmly believe that it is never too late to start, but I think these techniques have their most powerful effect on advanced students before they will have become advanced, or in other words, while they are developing reading and musicianship habits in the elementary and intermediate levels. By then the attitudes and habits are secure and will be a part of the advanced student's arsenal at practice, out on the recital stage, and on the field of competition.
It is hoped that the results over time would include greater enjoyment of music, greater awareness and appreciation of musical structure, more keen response to harmonic syntax, enhanced creativity, greater sight-reading skill, more secure memorizing, more flexibility and adaptability to new challenges, and enhanced qualifications for various careers in music.
Bach, J. S., Riemenschneider, A. (ed.). (1941). 371 Harmonized chorales and 69 chorale melodies with figured bass. New York: Schirmer.
Duckworth, G. (1963-64). Keyboard explorer, keyboard discoverer, keyboard builder, keyboard musician, keyboard performer. Evanston, Ill.: The MF Company.
Frackenpohl, A. (1991). Harmonization at the piano. (6th ed.) Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown.
Frazier, I. (1996). Approaching sight-reading through the side doors. Georgia Music News, 57 (1), 42-43.
Frazier, I. (1997). How do you use exploration to deepen and solidify learning. Keyboard Companion, 8 (1), 35-37.
Melcher, R. A., & Warch, W. F. (1991). Music for score reading. Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Shockley, R. P. (1997). Mapping music: For faster learning and secure memory. Madison WI: A-R Editions.
Wieck, Friedrich; Wieck, Marie (ed.). (1901). Piano studies. New York: G. Schirmer, pp. 31, 35.
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