Day in and day out, we lament that there is very little quality music offered by educational publishers. We also can’t seem to come to a consensus on how we define quality music for children. But I’ve yet to hear anyone actually go on record and identify available work that’s suitable for educating young students. If we don’t dare to offer examples written by what one could arguably say are universally accepted top composers, how can we expect others to have a model from which to build this needed repertoire? There is stuff that is good out there. For me, some shining examples are the 153 pieces collected in Mikrokosmos, Béla Bartók’s six-volume series of piano works graded for beginners up to advanced students.
Although the pieces are arranged in order of difficulty, even the easiest pieces in Mikrokosmos—which start in simple five-finger positions—offer a unique and contemporary harmonic language rather than the typical C major tonality found in most method books. From the beginning, Bartók introduces young ears to modal keys, progressively bringing them into new tonal territories not normally heard by children in our culture. But Bartók does not stop there. Instead of relying on melodies and chords to progress a student’s technique and ear, he introduces compositional procedures that are contemporary in nature and reflective of his music for professionals. He does not dumb down, but rather shifts the perspective so that by focusing on one technical element in each piece, he also sneaks in his predilections for symmetry and other compositional tricks.
These pieces are not only great for young players, but for young composers as well. A good example is “Increasing-Diminishing,” No. 46 from Book II, which is one of my husband’s favorite teaching pieces. The piece is 28 bars long and utilizes a simple process for its structure: in the first half of the piece, the durations get shorter while the intervals get larger. The second half reverses the process. Bartók crafts this work around a rhythmically simple pattern while simultaneously writing within a five-finger, all-white note pattern, using only quarter, half, and whole notes. Thus, a young player can successfully master playing this piece while also being introduced to a pretty sophisticated compositional concept easily applicable to any style.
Although the last volume of Mikrokosmos was published in 1939, this encyclopedia of quality pedagogical music is still one-stop shopping for me. Can anyone think of other pieces that are as effective as these?