A Small World that is a Universe

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?

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6 thoughts on “A Small World that is a Universe

  1. Frank J. Oteri

    I’d like to throw my two cents behind two very different collections of little piano pieces which to me are as wonderful as Mikrokosmos.

    The first is Játékok by György Kurtág, which is in many ways a late 20th century sequel to Bartók’s pieces. To the best of my knowledge, there are five volumes of these to date, and the pieces are filled with the same throbbing dissonances that infuse a great deal of the music of the past fifty years. And kids love them! I witnessed it. When I was in Budapest in 2000, I attended an education seminar at the Liszt Academy where I saw and heard a little girl banging tone clusters out on a piano from one of the Játékok pieces and she was as happy as she could be. Much happier than most children I’ve seen playing simple works by Haydn and Mozart. Unfortunately, these works—which are published by Editio Musica Budapest—are not very easy to obtain here. EMB is represented by Boosey and Hawkes in North America, so it’s not impossible to track them down, but the scores are a pricy import. If a U.S. publisher licensed these for a domestic imprint and marketed them property, I think they’d have a runaway hit. But then again, I’m a dotorger, so…

    My second recommendation is considerably closer to home and eminently more affordable: The Little Piano Book, opus 60, by the late American composer Vincent Persichetti. I discovered these pieces about 25 years ago when a good friend of mine was given them as part of his piano study. These are wonderfully inventive pieces harmonically which are also very easy to play. I was delighted to learn that I was able to sight read them even with my relatively mediocre piano chops back then. Plus they tickle the composer impulse as well. I remember being so obsessed with these pieces that I wanted to orchestrate them. Persichetti’s Six Piano Sonatinas also fit the bill quite effectively. Both are published by Theodore Presser Co.

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  2. pgblu

    Leo Kellis
    When I was growing up, my piano teacher exposed me to a lot of interesting music, but the stuff he wrote himself was the most unique. His name is Leo Kellis, and he now lives in Washington state. Some of his pieces are for adults, but a lot are for children. Much of this has been published, I think, but I don’t have details. Most of what appears on Amazon, etc, are his arrangements, a field in which he was extremely productive, very eclectic, and successful enough to eke out a living. Hope that helps somewhat.

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  3. herb

    To be or not to be.

    Inherent in the above article is an unspoken assumption which has provoked the following rather lengthy response.
    The major mode has been around for millennia, and it is still very much part of the living language of music. I have taught children and adults music for many years and have yet to encounter anyone to whom it sounded foreign or old-fashioned. We are all aware that C major or some reasonable facsimile thereof, is still current in rock, pop, country, folk, and church music. Thanks to the western cultural steam roller, something approaching our traditional concept of C major has, for better or worse, entered the commercial and pop music of many other lands as well, but the above genres have long had little status in serious composing circles. Schoenberg once said that there was still much music to be written in C major, but do we really believe him? In any case, as Stephen Banfield recently noted, “Schoenberg may have said there were many tunes still to be written in C major but he didn’t write them.” (Cambridge guide to 20th Century Music, 2004).

    Concerning the newness of tone clusters, Taruskin has noted that Scarlatti used the technique of dissonant clusters, which in his time was “widely employed by harpsichordists” but usually not written in. (Oxford History, 2005). Frank Oteri mentioned Játékok in regard to clusters, but we note that Kurtag’s set also partakes of the major-minor system rather heavily, albeit only in parody settings (perhaps suggesting that for him new material in common practice tonality is not feasible?) I heard the BBC Broadcast last week of some excerpts from Játékok, and heard entire pieces in C major, d minor, F major, E flat major. Some of these were settings of Bach and others. Interspersed were more dissonant pieces, and yes, tone clusters. At this late date, why are tone clusters so much more contemporary than common practice harmony? Will we ever, or can we ever, rid ourselves of the strange notion that one is so much more modern than the other?

    Generally speaking it seems that we are still having to deal with the side effects of the century-old notion that tonality died as a result of major-minor exhaustion (which millions of music students have been taught for decades) and that extreme dissonance is somehow advanced. I am not for a moment suggesting that we should never introduce more dissonance, etc. to students. I fully agree that much teaching material is downright dull. But those easy pieces in C major are still current, as current as the verb “to be” (old and banal though that venerable infinitive may be). That the music may not always be good is entirely beside the point. One suggestion for new repertoire not broached by the above writers therefore may be to have good composers write good pieces in C major. Schoenberg may even agree.

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  4. Frank J. Oteri

    While I did not mean to imply that tone clusters are somehow better or more nouveau than major triads, I stand by my account of seeing how much fun that little Hungarian girl had playing tone clusters with abandon. I honesty don’t think she would have had as much fun if the piece she was playing was a sequence of major and minor triads.

    I know from my own awful experience with piano lessons (which I had rejected as a pre-teen) how unfun it was to be forced to finger a major triad “properly” with a thumb, middle finger, and pinky rather than with thumb, index and middle. With banging, the visceral and tactile experience of interfacing with the instrument is unmitigated by such rules.

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  5. herb

    untrained little hands
    I too have witnessed countless times the painful spectacle of little fingers attempting unmanageable triads. Enormous patience and endless encouragement were sometimes required. Your idea is a good one, and I confess that I have never thought about it in those terms.

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