Piano teaching

Seeking diversity in anthologies and exam repertoire 

We are very lucky as pianists/piano teachers to have such a wide repertoire, and one which is constantly being expanded as composers continue to write for the piano. Which is why I find it rather disconcerting when new anthologies of piano music are released purporting to offer “variety” when in fact they merely present a narrow corner of the core canon. Two recently-published anthologies, one with the name of a superstar pianist attached to it, offer depressingly standard fare, from Bach’s C major Prelude from the WTC to Brahms’ A major Intermzzo op 118 No. 2. Undoubtedly wonderful music, challenging and enjoyable to play, but these pieces can be found in any anthology of “the greatest” or “the best” piano music.

It is no longer acceptable, in my opinion, to offer anthologies with such a narrow focus. In one of the books in question, there is not a single piece by a female composer; in the other the most “modern” work in the repertoire list is by Hindemith, thus omitting anything written post-1945.

In my teaching – and indeed in my own playing – I have always sought a broader range of repertoire. Too often, students of all ages approach classical music with the misconception that it was all written by dead white men in periwigs, and, as a teacher, I believe one has a responsibility to encourage students to explore the wilder shores of the repertoire, thus thoroughly debunking that tired old trope. And publishers of music anthologies and exam syllabuses also have a responsibility to offer a broad range of music, reflecting the diversity of the pianist’s repertoire – and the diversity of those who wrote, and write, for the instrument. It really isn’t that hard to include a selection of music by women composers, for example – Clara Schumann, Lili Boulanger, Mel Bonis and Meredith Monk to name a mere handful.

There are practical reasons too for doing this, which transcend “inclusion”, diversity or gender/race identity politics. As teachers, we want to encourage our students, whatever their age, to keep playing the piano – and enjoy playing it. When I was having lessons as a child in the 1970s I recall being quite bored in my lessons a lot of the time – bored with the pieces which seemed dull, unimaginative and pretty much the same from one anthology to another, one grade syllabus to the next. When I started teaching in 2006, I decided no student would be bored by the music they were learning and playing. Boredom is a terrible enemy to enjoyment and, more importantly, motivation. A student who is bored with their repertoire will be less motivated to practice it.

Here are some thoughts and practical suggestions on broader repertoire from my friend and fellow teacher Rebecca Singerman-Knight:

I do think [what] is needed is a much wider variety of musical styles and more inclusion of styles that really appeal to a modern audience – teenagers and adults. Particularly for teenagers – the number one priority has to be KEEPING THEM PLAYING THE PIANO – and for most teenagers that does not mean a diet of the traditional classical canon.

And the same for many adults – many of my adults are not motivated by the classical canon but love more contemporary music. That means good pianistic arrangements of classic popular songs – and songs from films (recommended anthology – Ultimate Piano Solos).

Also overlooked are composers such as Daniel McFarlane, Jennifer Eklund, Forrest Kinney – all of who write very popular pattern based music that teenagers, in particular, really like, but also many adults. And in a variety of styles – minimalist, Rock, pop, modal etc…

Why not also consider songs from other cultures – Klezmer for example or Indian Raags?

I don’t think it should be a tick box exercise to include a certain percentage of female or BAME or contemporary composers, but if the approach is broadened to include music that people want to play TODAY then this will inevitably include a wider diversity of composers. 

Rebecca Singerman-Knight, piano teacher

Many teachers use the exam syllabuses to create a teaching curriculum and therefore the exam boards have a responsibility to offer a broad selection of repertoire, and to be more imaginative and forward-looking that selection. The London College of Music is the trailblazer in this respect, for which I can claim some direct input as I was involved in the selection of pieces for the current syllabus. From Grade 1 right through to the diploma syllabus, LCM offers a refreshingly varied and imaginative selection of repertoire which will introduce students to a broad range of musical styles and genres, with a decent percentage of pieces by female and contemporary composers as well as works from the core canon. With other exam boards’ syllabuses continually under review, there is scope to offer repertoire which is relevant to teachers and students in the 21st century while also offering cornerstones of the core canon.

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