“Hidden Figures” in Piano Pedagogy: Leveling Piano Music by Black Composers
A Call for Representation
In 2016, the movie, Hidden Figures, based on the novel by Margot Lee Shetterly, put a spotlight on African American female mathematicians who worked at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the 1960s. This biographical film exposed the significant contributions that Black females made to NASA during the Space Race, which had largely gone unnoticed until the movie premiered, nearly fifty years later. Hidden Figures was immensely successful because it highlighted intelligent, talented, and accomplished Black characters whose impact in a field, which was largely dominated by White males, went "hidden" or unnoticed to our society for far too long. In the same way, the field of classical piano pedagogy often fails to highlight the significant contributions made by Black composers.
Although Black composers' contributions in the field of classical piano literature have been enormously significant, their work still largely fails to be included into the standard teaching repertoire and on the concert music stage. By incorporating piano music by Black composers into the teaching literature, pedagogues will have the opportunity to diversify their repertoire while presenting highly beneficial pedagogical challenges to their students in unique and innovative ways. The inclusion of music written by Black composers creates greater representation while breaking the stigma that classical piano music is an elitist art form created solely by White, European males.
Leveling is a system that is used by pedagogues to gradually sequence music based on the musical and technical difficulties of a piece. Leveling acknowledges that there are more complex layers than the broad categories of beginner, intermediate, and advanced. One of the biggest challenges pedagogues face is the selection of appropriate repertoire at the right skill level to help facilitate the advancement of the students' growth. The "ideal" student would be one who has developed technical, musical, theoretical, and aural skills at relatively the same pace; however, the "ideal" student is hardly the norm that most teachers encounter. In reality, many students can have great strengths in one area and large holes in other musical areas. Leveling music helps to create a guided path for a student's systematic progression through the repertoire.
Many method books and keyboard literature collections use a numeric system to level repertoire where Level One represents the most fundamental musical and technical challenges, while Level Ten represents more advanced challenges. In Jane Magrath's, The Pianist's Guide to Standard Teaching and Performance Literature, Magrath characterizes the numeric leveling (one to ten) as repertoire that represents, "Beginning to Early-Advanced Levels."1
The Royal Conservatory is a widely celebrated music methodology which uses a leveled, sequenced curriculum for students. Although the Royal Conservatory includes Canadian and women composers, the 2015 editions of the repertoire books only include two pieces by Black composers. Further, these two pieces, "Jazz Exercise No. 2," by Oscar Peterson (Level 8), and "Juba Dance," by Nathaniel Dett (Level 10) come toward the end of the curriculum. Therefore, a student following this program would never be exposed to the rich and fruitful music by Black composers until they reached the most advanced stages in this program.
The lack of representation of music by Black composers at the early levels of many repertoire series illuminates an exciting opportunity to create greater cultural relevance and participation across all dividing lines of our society to make piano teaching literature more diverse and inclusive at every stage of a student's musical development. By incorporating music by Black composers at every level in the teaching repertoire, pedagogues will find innovative and unique approaches to challenges while expanding the perception of what classical piano music looks and sounds like.
There is an enormous body of piano music written by Black composers for all stages of piano learning that fails to be utilized. One "hidden figure" in the field of piano pedagogy that represents early teaching repertoire is Blanche K. Thomas (1885–1977). This powerhouse composer believed in using Negro Spirituals in piano teaching to help build a well developed and holistic piano foundation. Her unique approach and creative compositional style would be a wonderful addition to the piano literature canon.
Plantation Songs in Easy Arrangements for the Piano by Blanche K. Thomas
A graduate of The Juilliard School of Music, Thomas was a prize-winning composer and educator. Thomas dedicated her life to educating the youth of Harlem, NY, and exposing them to the rich music composed by African Americans.2
In the introduction of Plantation Songs in Easy Arrangements for the Piano, Thomas writes about the importance of youth having folk music as part of their learning. Thomas writes:
The repertoire of any musician is incomplete unless it contains some folk-music. All of the great composers have realized this, and folk songs have been used in many of their great works...The deep pathos, the sincere appeal to all peoples, the simple yet beautiful melodies, the rich harmonies of the Negro Spirituals have caused these songs to live, and they will continue to live for a long time. As teaching material for young people, they are here presented in arrangements for piano.3
With youth in mind, Thomas composed this pedagogically fruitful collection of Spirituals to be used as a teaching tool for young pianists. This collection contains twelve Spirituals which represent music appropriate for students studying at Levels One through Four. The collection contains isolated technical scale passages and the composer explains how they should be practiced before the student begins a piece. Thomas also includes rhythmic exercises to be studied before each Spiritual.
Along with rhythmic and technical exercises, Blanche K. Thomas writes that these pieces should be used as simple transposition exercises as well. Transposition is such an important and fundamental skill and often falls by the wayside in many piano method books or is presented in a manner that is isolated from the solo repertoire. Thomas includes the words of the Spirituals in the score and encourages the student to sing along as they perform the music. By encouraging young pianists to sing while they are physically playing, students are able to develop their aural skills which is a vital aid to their transposition studies. The addition of rhythmic, technical, theoretical, and aural exercises included in these pieces makes this collection a wonderful addition for both students and teachers.
"Troubled in Mind" from Plantation Songs in Easy Arrangements for Piano
"Troubled in Mind" is the most accessible Spiritual in the collection. This Spiritual includes half, quarter, and eighth notes, all of which a Level One student would be familiar with in her development. Though the note values presented in this piece are fundamental, the displacement of strong and weak beats may be unfamiliar to a beginning student. In a 4/4 meter, the student expects to feel strong beats on beats one and three. In this Spiritual, beats two and four are emphasized which is common in Negro Spirituals.
Having the student singing or speaking the words as she plays will also help to develop this shift of accented weak beats. The reading level is standard for Level One, though the student is asked to perform a brief two bar imitation in the left hand.
Imitation can be challenging for beginning students to coordinate though it is found throughout the first volume of Bartok's Mikrokosmos. Jane Magrath characterizes the exercises found in the first volume of Bartok's Mikrokosmos as music that is suitable for Level One students.4
"Go Tell It on the Mountain," from Plantation Songs in Easy Arrangements for Piano
"Go Tell It on the Mountain" which is a Level Three piece is quite similar to the "Die Waldhörner und das Echo," No. 18, in Türk's Pieces for Beginners. Not only are the same rhythmic patterns introduced, but the moving notes in both pieces are often separated by a sixth. Although Magrath characterizes Türk's Pieces for Beginners as Level Two music, Thomas's arrangement of this Spiritual requires the student to reach a minor seventh in the left hand which could be difficult for small hands.
These twelve short pieces by Blanche K. Thomas would be a wonderful addition to the teaching repertoire. A student could have the opportunity to continue building their reading and finger independence like the music found in Bartok Mikrokosmos and Türk's Pieces for Beginners, while simultaneously building aural, theoretical, and rhythmic skills at an earlier time in their development. Plantation Songs in Easy Arrangements for the Piano can be found at the Library of Congress.
There are numerous solo piano pieces written by Black composers that can be incorporated into the canon at every grade level of the piano teaching repertoire. Plantation Songs in Easy Arrangements for Piano, by Blanche K. Thomas, does not begin to scratch the surface of all the piano music written by Black composers that is readily available for teachers to use at all levels of a student's piano studies. The compositions that pedagogues select in their teaching gives weight to the importance of that music in the piano field. It is vital in the field of classical piano music for there to be more inclusion and representation of piano music by Black composers. By doing so, these pedagogically fruitful pieces will begin to take their rightful place in piano studios, schools of music, and the public concert stage.
1 Jane Magrath, The Pianist's Guide to Standard Teaching and Performance Literature (Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Publishing Co., 1995), xi.
2 Helen Walker Hill, Piano Music by Black Women Composers (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1992), 104.
3 Blanche Thomas, Plantation Songs in Easy Arrangements for the Piano (New York: Schirmer, 1937). Print.
4 Magrath, The Pianist Guide, xi.