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Winning essay from the 2017 Clavier Companion Collegiate Writing Contest

collegiate-competition-winner

In the Spring of 2017, Clavier Companion sponsored its ninth annual Collegiate Writing Contest, inviting college students from around the world to submit 1,500 word essays on a pedagogical topic of their choice. We extend our sincere thanks to professors Gail Berenson, Pamela Pike, and Suzanne Schons for serving as adjudicators for this year's contest.

We congratulate Hayden Coie, whose winning essay is published below, and we also extend our congratulations to two runners-up in this year's contest: Clara Boyett and Yee Wing Chan. You can access their articles, which are published here on the website by following the links at the bottom of the page.

Clavier Companion is proud to support young writers and encourage the future of our profession. The entry deadline for the 2018 contest will be June 1st, 2018.


The actual children's corner: making impressionistic music accessible to elementary and intermediate piano students

When many teachers think of the Impressionistic style, the works of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel immediately come to mind. While the works of Debussy and Ravel are staples of the piano repertoire, they lie well beyond the reach of elementary and most intermediate students; however, teachers should begin to incorporate Impressionism's style elements at earlier levels of study. There are many benefits to teaching Impressionistic music to pre-advanced students. This article will discuss those benefits along with teaching strategies and significant repertoire collections.

Impressionistic music for elementary and intermediate students develops many important aspects of piano playing. While many approaches to technique and musicality can be addressed in other styles of music, Impressionism emphasizes these elements in unique and engaging ways. Playing this music encourages students to emphasize imagery by using clear pictures and strong programmatic associations. Impressionism also uses varied pedal techniques including fractional pedaling, and use of the sostenuto and una corda pedals. Many pieces composed in the Impressionistic style employ multiple layers of sound and sonority, creating expressive and evocative writing. There are also many instances of twentieth-century theory including unique harmonic extensions, modal writing, complex rhythmic relationships, and exotic scales—such as the octatonic and whole-tone scales. This exposure to new forms of theory familiarizes students with harmonies unique to this style of this music. Overall, playing and experiencing Impressionistic music requires greater ranges of pianistic color and expression, which can prove beneficial to students.  

Why teach Impressionistic music?

Figure 1: Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise, 1872.

Important aspects of Impressionism

Impressionistic music for elementary and intermediate students develops many important aspects of piano playing. While many approaches to technique and musicality can be addressed in other styles of music, Impressionism emphasizes these elements in unique and engaging ways. Playing this music encourages students to emphasize imagery by using clear pictures and strong programmatic associations. Impressionism also uses varied pedal techniques including fractional pedaling, and use of the sostenuto and una corda pedals. Many pieces composed in the Impressionistic style employ multiple layers of sound and sonority, creating expressive and evocative writing. There are also many instances of twentieth-century theory including unique harmonic extensions, modal writing, complex rhythmic relationships, and exotic scales—such as the octatonic and whole-tone scales. This exposure to new forms of theory familiarizes students with harmonies unique to this style of this music. Overall, playing and experiencing Impressionistic music requires greater ranges of pianistic color and expression, which can prove beneficial to students.

Benefits for students

The many benefits of teaching Impressionistic repertoire to students at an earlier age make it something worth exploring as a teacher. The expressive writing of the Impressionistic style helps students play with more imagination and creativity by giving them concrete images and colors to explore. Multiple layers of sound force students to listen more carefully to their tone than they might in music of other styles, thus developing more refined balance and voicing skills. Technically speaking, because of the many layers and qualities of sound required, teaching Impressionistic repertoire develops a more relaxed touch at the instrument while reinforcing varied arm weight and its relationship to sound production. Music of this style also works well in a recital or festival—Impressionistic music is pleasing to both students and audience members alike!

Strategies for teaching Impressionism

 Strategies for teaching Impressionism

Because the playing techniques of the Impressionistic era might be unfamiliar to students, certain teaching strategies may be helpful for introducing carefully selected Impressionistic repertoire.

Imagery, visual art, and culture

Using imagery in the lesson is crucial for proper interpretation and can make the learning process more enjoyable for students. Finding actual pictures or visual art helps students connect their sound to color and imagery. For example, if a student were working on a piece called "Summer Mists," certain visual learners would benefit from seeing Claude Monet's painting, Impression, Sunrise (see Figure 1).

Many pieces in the Impressionistic style reference other cultures, inviting students to explore music from a more international perspective. In some instances, pieces in the Impressionistic style use the pentatonic modes and reference Asian cultures, such as Randall and Nancy Faber's "Pagodas in the Purple Mist" from Piano Adventures Performance Book Level 2B, which could spark a conversation about international music in the lesson.

Pedaling

Pedaling is often thought of as a landmark trait of Impressionism. This skill can be taught through demonstration and experimentation, therefore helping students to become more acquainted and comfortable with the various functions of the pedal in music. Teachers and students can experiment with how the pedal changes the sound color and how using different pedals can help them accomplish their interpretive goals in the music. For example, a student playing William Gillock's "On a Quiet Lake" might need to experiment with half-pedaling measures 13 – 16 to achieve the desired decrescendo marked in the score without sacrificing the desired tone color (see Excerpt 2).


Excerpt 2: Half-pedaling to achieve desired tone quality. “On a Quiet Lake” from Accent on Majors, by William Gillock, mm. 13-16.
Excerpt 3: Playing the left hand as a gesture. “The Lake at Evening,” Op. 5, No. 1, by Charles Tomlinson Griffes, mm. 38-39.

Gesture and color

Teachers also have the opportunity to emphasize musical gesture and color in ways that are not common in other pieces. Certain passages, which on the page may seem difficult to students, become simpler when they are conceived as a coloristic gesture instead of a difficult 'clump' of notes. If a student were working on "The Lake at Evening" by Charles Griffes, for example, they may struggle to play the notes of the left hand in some phrases until they are able to perceive it at as a gesture instead of a string of difficult notes (see Excerpt 3).

Theoretical concepts

Teachers can also use Impressionism to emphasize certain compositional and theoretical aspects such as exotic scales and harmonies. For example, many Impressionistic pieces make use of the whole-tone scale. If a student were learning "Under the Sea," by Catherin Rollin, the teacher could use the opening measures to teach a student about the whole-tone scale (see Excerpt 4). 


Excerpt 4: Whole-tone scale introduction. “Under the Sea” from Spotlight on Impressionist Style, by Catherine Rollin, m. 1.

Impressionistic repertoire for the elementary and intermediate student

Finding suitable Impressionistic repertoire for elementary and intermediate students can be challenging for teachers because standard Impressionistic composers do not have pieces accessible at the earlier levels. It is important for teachers to know where to look for repertoire supplements that are appropriate for their students.

Elementary repertoire

At the elementary level, it is recommended that teachers find newly composed pieces and  pedagogical literature that emulate the Impressionistic style, since period music is more difficult to find. However, two important period teaching collections exist for this level: Pictures for Children, Op. 37, by Vladimir Rebikov and Menus propus enfantins, by Eric Satie. Aside from these collections, teachers might consider any of the following sample pieces from popular method books and anthologies:

• "Wind in the Trees" by Randall and Nancy Faber; Piano Adventures Performance Book, Primer Level

• "Tall Pines" by Jon George; The Music TreePart 2B

• "Bells" by Jon George; The Music Tree, Part 2B

• "The Haunted Harp" by Christine Donkin; Celebration Series, Level Prep A

• "Pagoda in the Purple Mist" by Randall and Nancy Faber; Piano Adventures Performance Book, Level 2B

• "Purple Twilight" in Alfred's Premier Piano Course Performance Book, Level 2B

Intermediate repertoire

There is a plethora of options for music at the intermediate level. Teachers and students will enjoy exploring the numerous teaching collections of Impressionistic music written for this level. Some of the most notable collections are:

• Three Gymnopedies by Eric Satie

• Three Gnossiennes by Eric Satie

Enfantines: Ten Pieces for Children by Ernest Bloch

Petite Suite en Quinze Images by Jacques Ibert

• Silhouettes, Op. 31 by Vladimir Rebikov

• Three Preludes by Charles Tomlinson Griffes

Many of the same popular method books and anthologies on the elementary list contain supplementary pieces at the intermediate level as well. Teachers might also seek out newly composed pedagogical collections for their intermediate level students, such as Catherine Rollin's Spotlight on Impressionist Style.

Resources for teachers

In addition to the repertoire resources above, teachers can consult other resources to gain even greater insight into teaching strategies and further information for students. Ingrid Jacobson Clarfield and Dennis Alexander's series Keys to Stylistic Mastery provides a more in-depth look at playing various historical styles at the keyboard, giving special attention to playing Impressionism. Within the method, there are newly composed pieces by Dennis Alexander in the Impressionist style, giving teachers yet another opportunity to introduce more accessible music to students. Maurice Hinson also has a number of anthologies on Impressionistic music including Masters of Impressionism and The Anthology of Impressionistic Piano Music in which teachers can find late intermediate Impressionistic music and become familiar with other composers of that style.

Teaching Impressionistic music to elementary and intermediate students is challenging, yet beneficial to their pianistic growth and development. By understanding the benefits, teachers can employ new, creative teaching strategies that engage students in exciting ways during the lesson. Exploring new repertoire will help teachers introduce the Impressionistic style to students much earlier in study. Finally, by continuing to explore other resources and composers, teachers can effectively unlock this style of playing for their students at much earlier levels. In doing so, young pianists will become even more expressive and creative in their musical endeavors! 


SOURCES CITED

Alexander, Dennis and Ingrid Jacobson Clarfield. (2003). Keys to Stylistic Mastery. Books 1-3. Los Angeles: Alfred Publishers.

Hinson, Maurice. (2004). Anthology of Impressionistic Piano Music. Los Angeles: Alfred Publishers.

Hinson, Maurice. (1989). Masters of Impressionism. Los Angeles: Alfred Publishers.

Rollin, Catherine. (1997). Spotlight on Impressionist Style. Los Angeles: Alfred Publishers.

Under the Sea (Sous La Mer) by CATHERINE ROLLIN

© 1991 ALFRED MUSIC, All Rights Reserved

On A Quiet Lake by William Gillock

© 1964 by The Willis Music Co., Copyright Renewed

International Copyright Secured All Rights Reserved

"On A Quiet Lake," from Accent On Majors For Piano,

Hal Leonard Item No. 415748; $5.99

Available at local music retailers nationwide 


To read Clara Boyett's article, follow this link: Developing confident performers: the teacher's role in combating anxiety


To read Yee Wing Chang's article, follow this link:  Ironic Processes of Mental Control: Implications for Musicians

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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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