Teaching the Music of Our Time: Contemporary Classical Piano Music for Students of All Ages

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I began studying the piano at age 4 in a small town, in the middle of Iowa farmland. It probably will not come as a shock when I confess that in my formative musical years, I neither played nor listened to a great deal of contemporary classical piano music. I would also guess I am not alone in this confession, but that the majority of pianists across the United States could make a similar claim. It is generally understood that piano students, whether young beginners or conservatory-trained advanced performers, do not typically study the classical music of our time.

A 1993 dissertation study by Colleen Hunter (1) supports this. From 1960 to 1991, Hunter found that the most frequently performed 20th-century composers in university degree recitals were Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff and Bartok--creators of wonderful music, but not particularly contemporary to our present time.

This deficiency begins early. Piano exam syllabi, anthologies and competition lists often do not include many truly contemporary pieces. For example, the Illinois State Achievement in Music (AIM) syllabus draws heavily from works of Bartok, Kabalevsky, Khachaturian and Prokofiev for its contemporary performance requirements. While high-quality pieces, they do not represent the current variety of contemporary styles. Additionally, AIM levels 1A through 8 allow students to perform either a romantic or a contemporary piece, allowing students to bypass contemporary works until high school. This begins a vicious cycle, with young pianists eventually teaching their own students in this same way.

I did not explore truly contemporary music until I began my doctoral study. One day, while watching a documentary on the 2001 Van Cliburn competition, I saw an excerpt of George Crumb's A Little Suite for Christmas. The audience was transfixed by the eerie sounds of muted strings, and so was I. I ordered the score and began making my way through the unfamiliar landscape of Crumb's sound and notation.

My audiences and students were uniformly engaged by this new music. I began to search for ways to introduce my students to contemporary composition and found that much of the standard "contemporary" pedagogical repertoire for piano was written in the first half of the 20th century. I was seeking truly contemporary music, which I consider to be works and styles common after about 1970--after, as Grove Music Online notes, "Modernism was in retreat." (2)

As I searched, I found an overwhelming lack of satisfying contemporary additions to the American pedagogical repertoire. Collections by Samuel Adler, Seymour Bernstein, Mary Elizabeth Clark and Walter and Carol Noona were mostly written around 30 years ago and are outdated and somewhat unappealing to me.

The FJH Publishing Company has tried to remedy this with a series of Contemporary Keyboard Editions, writing, "Too often both students and teachers get discouraged with contemporary compositions because of their avant-garde sound. This series addresses that concern by providing excellent music that is both contemporary and intuitively musical."

Two recent additions, Contemporary Collage, Music of the 21st Century, Vol. 1, Book 2, and Outside the Box by Kevin Olson and Wynn-Anne Rossi, include many wonderful intermediate pieces, discussed in more detail below.

Though it is sometimes difficult to find accessible, engaging new music for students, it is important for us to champion this cause. Students enjoy performing contemporary music and have not developed the aversion to it that plagues many adults. When I first showed a 7-year-old how to strum, pluck and strike the strings inside the piano, he smiled and said "It's like two instruments in one!"

In preparing future generations to perform piano literature that spans four centuries, instructors must question the concentration on only three centuries worth of materials. …