‘Under the Rowan Tree’ by Robert Peate

Following in the footsteps of Robert Schumann, Bela Bartok and Dmitri Kabalevsky, British composer Robert Peate has created a delightful collection of piano miniatures for children. Like Bartok’s For Children and his Mikrokosmos, Peate’s pieces are both imaginative and educational, and range in difficulty from very easy (pre-Grade 1) to more challenging (cGrade 3/4). The early pieces are written in simple 5-finger positions, but utilise dynamics, contrasting articulation, accidentals and the pedal to create interesting and characterful music, which will appeal to children while offering teachers opportunities to explore technique, expression and contrasting styles. There are also duets to play with a teacher, parent or older sibling or friend.

Inspired by the birth of his son Rowan, Peate’s pieces have evocative titles which are immediately appealing to young pianists – Sleepyhead, Cheeky Chappie, Sunrise, Steps to the Stars, Music Box. I particularly liked the more impressionistic pieces such as New Moon, By the Sea and Wind on the Water, and all the pieces offer much scope for expressive shaping and musical imagination.

This is a very welcome addition to contemporary piano literature for children.

Order Under the Rowan Tree

Spectrum 5 – 15 contemporary pieces for solo piano

The ‘Spectrum’ series, published by ABRSM, and compiled by acclaimed pianist Thalia Myers, holds a special place in piano repertoire in helping many pianists, young and old, discover the world of new music for piano, what might loosely be termed “contemporary classical music”. The first Spectrum collection appeared in 1996. Commissioned by Thalia Myers, it was a response to the dearth of serious contemporary piano music accessible to the amateur and/or student pianist. The latest volume, Spectrum 5, is now available, making some one hundred and seventy seven contemporary piano pieces available to pianists and piano teachers. Works from the series (5 volumes for solo piano and 1 for piano duet) now appear in exam and competition syllabuses, and are used by teachers of piano and composition as important reference materials. Perhaps what is even more significant is that the series showcases the work of contemporary classical composers around the world, allowing them to distil in miniature, characterful pieces the essence of their compositional language and style.

As in previous volumes, Spectrum 5 offers a broad range of pieces by composers such as Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Howard Skempton, Michael Finnissy, Helen Grime, Chen Yi and Karen Tanaka. The pieces have appealing, evocative, and witty titles – Imaginary Birds, Schrödinger’s Kitten, The Jig is Up, Beethoven’s Robin Adair, Commuterland – to fire the imagination, and range in difficulty from around Grade 6 to Diploma level. The wonderful range, originality and variety of pieces prove that contemporary classical music is not “plinky plonky”, atonal, inaccessible or lacking in melody, and as such as Spectrum series is the best introduction I know to encourage young students in particular to explore contemporary music.

The book contains biographies of all the composers and in most instances, the pieces are accompanied by footnotes by the composers giving background information about their music and guidance on interpretation. There is an accompanying audio download of all the pieces, elegantly and characterfully performed by Thalia Myers.

Recommended.

Further information

‘Spectrum for cello’, compiled by William Bruce, and ‘Spectrum for Clarinet’, by Ian Mitchell, were published in 2004 and 2006 respectively.

 

 

Adventures in Interpretation

There is so much in music that is subjective and open to personal taste and interpretation. In order for us to play convincingly, we have to develop an interpretation that is meaningful TO US, vivid in all its details. Unless we are convinced by what we are doing, we are unlikely to convince our audience

Graham Fitch, ‘Practising the Piano’

I recently did an interesting exercise with all 12 of my students (young people whose ages range from 13 to 17) in which we examined and played a short piece of contemporary piano music by British composer Paul Burnell called ‘Just Before Dawn’. At this stage, I gave the students no more information about the piece.

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On first sight, the music looks both incredibly simple, yet also slightly confusing since there is only one stave with an arrangement of notes whose tails point both up and downwards. Most early and intermediate piano students probably have not encountered a score like this before. Initially, I asked each student to sight-read the music (the notes are not difficult). This in itself presented a challenge to a couple of students who found their left hand creeping down into the bass to play the notes whose tails pointed downwards. At this point, I simply highlighted the fact that there was only one stave marked with a treble clef and then left the student to work out how the notes should be shared between the hands.

After the piece had been played through once, I read the student the composer’s programme note for the piece

The music attempts to evoke a magical time just as as summer day is about to break, but when the stars can still clearly be seen in the sky

I then asked the student to play the piece again with the composer’s description in mind. The result was 12 distinct versions of the same piece – descriptive, expressive and personal. I then asked each student how they felt the composer indicated particularly aspects, such as the rays of the sun or the stars still visible in the sky. Some students felt the dotted minims with fermatas represented the sun, while others thought these notes were the stars still twinkling in the sky. One student referenced John Cage when we were discussing the simplicity of the music (this student “performed” Cage’s 4’33” at one of our concerts); the same student couldn’t believe I was playing ‘Just Before Dawn’ in a concert the day after his lesson and queried why one would play something “so easy” in a public concert. This led on to an interesting conversation about what constitutes “difficult” or “easy” music and what kind of music is “appropriate” for public performance (the subject of a forthcoming blog article).

I found the exercise really interesting (and I hope my students did to), for it offered an intriguing insight into the notion of musical “interpretation” and how one’s personality, perception, musical knowledge/musicality, life experience etc comes into play when we make music. As I said to each student, “there is no right way, I’m simply interested to hear what you make of this piece”. When I went to perform the piece in a public concert, my students’ individual performances and views of the music came to mind and I found myself shaping the music in a different way.

I am looking forward to repeating this exercise with some adult pianists at a later date.

Download the score of ‘Just Before Dawn’ here

Explore more of Paul Burnell’s piano music here

 

Beautiful music in motivating pieces

Why I love playing and teaching Ludovico Einaudi’s piano music – guest post by Maria Busqué

Ludovico Einaudi’s piano music is a delight to play. That aside, there are many advantages to teaching it. I’m still grateful to the person who first introduced me to his pieces.

Einaudi’s music is beautiful and unpretentious. It’s sincere, simple, and allows for a direct emotional connection. Why? Because it stems from improvisational work, fully open to the player’s fantasy. You can take the pieces as a starting point, a kind of “choose your own adventure”. Some of my students feel inspired, after playing a piece by him, to compose a new one exploring this style. That speaks for the openness of his work.

With teenage students, it’s especially important to keep the repertoire fresh, exciting, and relevant. This music is the perfect fit for all three, creating motivation out of itself.

There’s a reason why Einaudi’s music is so popular with students: It leaves them with a sense of accomplishment. He presents a few musical ideas, that he develops and varies. A genius move: students aren’t challenged every ten bars  and still can play beautiful long piano pieces.

Einaudi’s music prepares inexperienced players for long pieces and for other classical repertoire. They train rhythmic and technical aspects without the feeling of playing an etude.

As we know, piano players are expected to have a sense for harmony and structure. And you can never be too young to start. Einaudi’s music allows for straightforward musical analysis. His writing is very clear in that sense. I let students take a look at the whole piece. Which rhythmical patterns appear? These could be the indicators for the different sections. Basic analysis helps them gain a sense of structure and have it in mind when performing.

It’s a joy to play Einaudi’s works at first sight, discovering the emotion of the music as you go. You can just let him take you by the hand and explore together. And that’s really fun. And then, I keep coming back to those pieces of him which have touched my heart, and I can play them over and over again. Some of my favourites are: ‘Stella del Mattino, ‘I Giorni’, ‘Life’, ‘Run’, ‘Una Mattina’, ‘Divenire’, ‘Limbo’, ‘Bella Notte’.

We want to encourage in our students a love for sound and music as a means to self-expression. Einaudi’s works do that exactly, while at the same time bringing players forward pianistically. The perfect blend.

Maria Busque