America's Music: Teaching the Works of American Composers

By Laughlin, Mark | American Music Teacher, February-March 2013 | Go to article overview

America's Music: Teaching the Works of American Composers


Laughlin, Mark, American Music Teacher


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Many times as piano teachers we feel we must teach the "classics"--that is, the works of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin--to ensure proper introduction to many musical and pedagogical concepts. These musical concepts include, but are not limited to: proper pedaling, texture, form, voicing, color, style, phrasing, mood, interpretation and articulation. However, many well-known and even lesser known American composers address all of these concepts and give students the opportunity to be exposed to "new" compositions. As pedagogues, we realize and understand the importance of teaching standard works for a student's musical development, but it is also important for teachers and students to explore new musical alternatives, many of which may be found in the works of American composers.

American composers offer a wide range of style, compositional techniques and approaches and various technical challenges; making many of the compositions excellent teaching pieces. Every aspect of piano pedagogy may be addressed in the works of such composers as Amy Beach, William Grant Still, Julia Perry, Mary Jeanne Van Appledorn, George Chadwick, Libby Larson, Margarite Bonds, Arthur Foote, Joan Tower, Mary Lou Demer, John Cage, Faustina Hasse Hodges, Jane Torry Sloman, Edward Kennedy Ellington, Florence B. Price, Mary Lou Williams, Clara Kathleen Rogers, George Gershwin, Carrie Jacobs-Bond, John Knowles Paine and Adeline Shepherd to name but a few. Therefore, we will look at several pieces by various American composers and discuss the pedagogical significance and teaching strategies of each work.

The first piece we will examine is Prelude for Piano by Julia Perry (1924-1979). Perry, a native of Lexington, Kentucky, studied with a virtual "Who's Who" in musical circles including Hugh Ross (1949), Luigi Dallapiccola (1951) and Nadia Boulanger (1952). Perry's early works were mostly comprised of choral music, which is filled with a strong influence of African-American spirituals. Prelude for Piano (1946, rev. 1962) shows this influence as well. Throughout the work, Perry demonstrates many wonderful examples of tone color, timbre, dynamics, mood and pedaling. She utilizes rich 20th-century harmonies by extending the harmonic vocabulary to include major sevenths, ninths, elevenths, blue notes (minor thirds) and chord substitutions, and she utilizes a common blues form, AAB. Perry also includes periodic meter changes throughout the work transitioning from three-four to five-eight, to three-four, and ending with a two-four time signature.

This particular work by Perry also introduces an interesting opportunity for students to learn the how to (what a performer physically does to create sound) of voicing inner parts. If we look at the first three measures of the prelude (Example 1), including the anacrusis, we find a plethora of voicing possibilities.

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Notice the unique way Perry writes for the inner voice and her distinctive voice leadings. The inner voice (quarter notes) in measure one (C to B to G) moves in a downward stepwise motion while holding an F at the octave. This allows the student the opportunity to develop voicing skills and to learn balance between the hands. These voicing skills may be easily mastered if the student uses the correct hand gesture or hand choreography. By the term gesture or choreography I am referring to the technique of movement that is required by the fingers, hands, wrists and sometimes the arms, to create a musical phrase or contour. In Perry's Prelude for Piano the gesture technique can be utilized once the first chord in measure one has been played. The student can then slightly raise and rotate the wrist/hand/arm in a small counterclockwise motion. This provides an excellent gesture for the musical line because the slight rotation follows the downward motion of the inner voice, therefore creating a smooth and correct musical contour. …

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