20th-Century Theory It's about Time: The Compositional Techniques of Maurice Ravel

By Menard, Tonya | American Music Teacher, April-May 2013 | Go to article overview
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20th-Century Theory It's about Time: The Compositional Techniques of Maurice Ravel


Menard, Tonya, American Music Teacher


The disciplines of piano lessons, traditional music theory and 20th-century composition are typically separated from one another. The culmination of all three in one private lesson is quite rare since, all too often, a student's repertoire and technique is challenging enough alone. How is it possible then, to approach the topic of 20th-century techniques with any consistency? In recent years, piano teachers have included more contemporary music in their studios; however, the theory within the music is often neglected. This progressive music is complicated to learn and tricky to memorize; therefore, most of the lesson and practice time is spent simply trying to prepare a piece for performance. In fact, teachers sometimes believe they barely have time to teach the fundamentals. But this approach leaves serious students with inadequate training.

Twentieth-century composers, like Maurice Ravel, have a rich array of repertoire that, when understood theoretically, is much more interesting than simply learning to play the pieces. The illumination of this composer's theoretical language could be enjoyable and motivating to pre-college students, resulting in a more competitive product in auditions for higher educational institutions. For those pianists who do not intend to major in music, musical satisfaction increases. Private music teachers and university professors who include theoretical study of contemporary pieces (most of which are not so contemporary anymore), develop their students' appreciation and understanding of the composers' ideas. In addition, their own musicality is richer and their intellectual level rises. In this way, the techniques of 20th-century masters would be common knowledge to young students everywhere and would allow for more intensive score study and understanding in the college piano studio.

In my personal experience with the Virginia MTA, I have felt pride as my students participated in the state theory testing. Its high standard has kept them in a constant state of progression. The vigilance of my local and state organizations to foster improvement in theory and other areas made me feel secure in our ongoing progressiveness. Although I began this project with the knowledge that VMTA did not include 20th-century techniques in its 13 levels of testing (primer through level 12), subsequent discussions have prompted a resolution to add them into the theory syllabus.

In my research, I conducted a survey in 2011-2012 of MTNA state affiliates that participate in regulated theory testing for pre-college private students. Of the 50 states, 33 responded stating they do have some type of leveled testing. Only six states (New Hampshire, Texas, Tennessee, California, Illinois and Kansas) include the past century's techniques in their tests, and most of those are quite limited. The following chart shows the type of content each of the six states includes:

PARTICIPATING   20th-CENTURY THEORETICAL CONCEPTS
STATE EXAMS     INCLUDED IN STATE THEORY

New Hampshire   Definitions: Level 6

Texas           Bitonality: Level 11

Tennessee       Terms and Composers in Music History
                Portion of Exams: Level 7 + 8

California      Styles, Scales, Rhythmic and Harmonic
                Elements, Percussive Elements, Textures,
                Listening Skills, Serialism, and Composers:
                Level 8 and up

Illinois        Rhythmic and Harmonic Elements:
                Level 10 and up

Kansas          Styles, Scales, Rhythmic and Harmonic
                Elements, Textures: Level 7 and up

Some of Ravel's compositional techniques appear in the tests above, while others, such as contrametrics and pitch counting, are nowhere in the mix. To the credit of the states' exams, they do include concepts not discussed here (polyrhythms, atonality, 12 tone/tone row and avant-garde). Virginia is actually contemplating the addition of prepared piano as well. All of these suggested terms are teachable concepts that can be addressed in both private and group lessons alike.

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20th-Century Theory It's about Time: The Compositional Techniques of Maurice Ravel
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