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Australian composer, speaker, writer,
pianist, teacher, Elissa Milne
answers the following question...

Elissa Milne

October 2010

The Question:
What is Different about Composing Educational Music?

by Elissa Milne share this - email, favourites, social bookmarks and more

Music composed to be studied and performed by student instrumentalists has a long tradition in western music, with notable collections for the keyboard by J.S.Bach for his wife (the Anna Magdalena Notebook), Leonard Mozart for his children (‘notebooks’ for each of Nannerl and Wolfgang Amadeus), with an explosion of composing for the emerging market of amateur pianists after the turn of the 19th century.

But whereas names such as Schumann and Tchaikovsky are associated with writing for student pianists in the Romantic period, by the time the 20th century had come to an end there was an almost absolute disconnect between composition for the concert stage and composition for the teaching studio.
This could be because composers found tenured employment at tertiary institutions (in comparison to, say, Grieg, who supported his compositional career by maintaining a busy private piano teaching practice), or maybe it’s a reflection of increased career specialisation in the second half of the 20th century.

In any case, composers these days can’t be expected to know how to write for educational contexts. What follows are a few of my thoughts as to what makes educational music a different compositional challenge to other kinds of music.
Most importantly, composers of educational music need to understand how teachers think and how they operate. If you can’t persuade a teacher to teach your music then it simply won’t get played. And while how teachers think and operate will be different from one instrument (or instrument family) to another, there are certain things in common:

  • Teachers are looking for music that will be appealing to students (because that will guarantee increased practice).
  • Teachers are looking for music that has a coherent (and therefore restricted) range of technical difficulty.
  • Teachers are looking for music that isn’t very long.
  • Teachers are looking for music they can use in exams and assessments at school.
  • Teachers are looking for music that encourages students to master new technical skills of an appropriate and/or make students want to think about music in a new way.

Whereas a composer might usually be interested in expressing something about themselves, or making a commentary on the world, or demonstrating their mastery of some particular musical insight or compositional technique, when writing educational music it’s not about the composer: it’s about the student.
That’s not to say composers can’t express themselves, make a commentary on the world or demonstrate compositional mastery, it’s just that this all comes second to writing music that connects with the interests and interior lives of instrumental students.

Connecting to the exterior lives of students is equally important: students past the absolute beginner phase increasingly find themselves facing examinations and assessments, and composers of educational music do everyone a favour when they write beautiful, exciting performance material (not simply useful teaching material). Part of this comes down the pieces being based on strong motifs and ideas, but it’s also about constructing well-formed yet compact musical statements. Composers should strive to present their educational music as pithy aphorisms rather than expansive narratives or detailed arguments.
Educational music is all about the student in another way: rather than showing off the timbral and technical extremes of which the instrument is capable, composers of educational music need to be exploring specific (and often extremely limited) things the instrument can do. Further, composers benefit from being familiar with the standard pedagogical practice of that instrument: what gets taught first, which instrumental techniques are more easily accomplished, and so on.

I’ve had commissions to write for instruments I’ve never played where I am supplied with a list of notes the student will be able to play and a list of musical concepts the student should be familiar with at the specified grade or level of difficulty. In addition I might be instructed as to which articulations have been introduced, and what kind of dynamic range is reasonable to expect from a student at this particular stage.

With all these parameters laid out for me I can easily create a work that will be performable by student instrumentalists. But without performance experience on the instrument, and without conversing with teachers of that instrument, I cannot know if my performable (and engaging) work will actually provide any forward momentum in the context of a teaching program.
And I suppose this is the difference between competent educational music and brilliant educational music: competent educational music is well-graded and appropriately interesting for young instrumentalists, but doesn’t necessarily educate. Brilliant educational music has all the attributes of competence but in addition it stimulates the student to learn something new, and even provides the conditions for a new kind of learning experience.

I’ll conclude with a couple of inspiring examples from my particular area, educational piano music:
“Lydia’s Sandwich” is a piece by Australian-born, UK-based composer Kevin Wooding, which I included in the second book of the P Plate Piano series I created for the AMEB last year. “Lydia’s Sandwich” uses hand positions piano teachers normally would not consider using when working with young beginners (the left hand only plays three notes: D flat, A flat and G, for example), but these positions lie beautifully under the hand and create exciting contemporary harmonies. With a minimum of notes, and a minimum of technical difficulty, Kevin Wooding created a piece that sounds sophisticated, feels sophisticated to play, and yet can be quickly taught to a student who has had a year or two of lessons. It sounds nothing like the five finger positions of the major piano methods, and it is brilliant.

And then there’s “Allegretto Leggiero” by Hungarian composer Pal Kadosa. It’s in five time and has one hand or the other playing up and down the A minor five finger position throughout. It explores the connection between the five fingers of the hand playing the five notes from tonic to dominant in the minor scale and five beats in the bar. The piece is fast and soft, providing plenty of technical challenge without actually being ‘hard’. Succinct, dramatic, and all without the student having to stretch a finger. Brilliant.

Elissa Milne

© 2010 Elissa Milne

Have Your Say
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Well written Elissa! Bravo! A subject very dear and close to my heart so this won't be a short reply I'm afraid 8). When I did my series of books for clarinet & saxophone for Boosey & Hawkes Publishing (London),with the first book (grade 2-4), I drew from the types of songs that I grew up with-Gershwin, Porter, Kern etc. Well constructed and logically based melodies that were designed to be easy to perform. For example, "Latin Sunset" is inspired by "I'll never smile again", "Smiles"-Chaplin's "Smile" and so forth. This works really well for the beginner grades given that you know exactly what you're writing and how it will develop the skills of the instrumentalist that it's designed for. Book 2 however (grade 4-7) I had to look at catchy riff-based compositions using funk, rock or jazz styles. Usually these riffs are repeated and are based on an easy to play pattern or melody so that the student feels that they can cope with and instantly enjoy the piece. The bridge section however is usually "the meat in the sandwich" , loaded with the challenging material that needs practice and builds the skills that I want to introduce. I find that this formula works really well for my style of writing. I even use the same formula when I write classically oriented educational material but the professional level stuff...well, all bets are off and write what I hear. It is disturbing though how "student books" tend to be packed with simplified, recycled classical themes or nursery rhymes which personally I avoid like the plague for my students. Those books that slap together 101 "great or best-loved classical themes" for this instrument or that, do not necessarily build technique or enjoyment and usually written or arranged by people that don't actually play the instruments that they write for! I guess it's seems like a good way to make a quick sale-an easy sell to the unsuspecting student, parent or teacher that wants to play that melodies they hear on TV or films etc. "Ode to joy" is a marvelous theme in the context of Beethoven's 9th Symphony but when extracted from the fabric of the harmonic and counter melodic environment of Beethoven's genius, is not necessarily the most inspiring or educationally sound composition for a student. I hate those books that have jazz standards arranged for an instrument but that don't come with a CD of how it should sound when played by an expert in the field. Jazz is passed on as an aural tradition and 40-60% of it can't be written down at all! As such, I applaud the efforts of writers such as Kerin Bailey and Richard Percival that can inspire students by writing in a variety of musical styles and so very authentically-and they come with excellent demonstration CDs. Merely transposing or, as is often the case these days, merely compiling a book of popular themes taken from the sheet music, is not something that I encourage my students to purchase especially if it doesn't have a CD of the actual arrangement being performed. I remember the thrill I got from playing to an MMO (Music Minus One) and Jamey Aebersold backings when I was a small lad. The Brahms Quintet with real strings and you're the soloist-brilliant! Improvising on Donna Lee with Kenny Barron, Ron Carter and Ben Riley laying down the backing for you-Heaven! One thing worth remembering is to also include a piano part with educational products however as these days examinations and school assessments require live accompaniment and it gives the student the ability to play at a different tempo if needed. If an educationally-oriented composer or arranger is to be of any use in actually developing student's abilities on a given instrument, there must be a thorough and careful study made of the instrument that is being written for. I don't write tutors or educational instrumental books for any instruments that I can't play and composers that do this annoy me greatly! I can always spot the pianist that writes for woodwinds- semi-quavers from "A" to "B" for a piano or flute/saxophone are fine, but over the break on a clarinet is very difficult for a beginner player. Low "B" to "C#" likewise for the saxophone! Saxophone players writing for trombone and trumpet? Fine, pull out the horn and let's hear you play what you just wrote for a young kid. Can't play it? Well, don't write books for that instrument unless you can. Dentists writing books about optometry, plumbers writing books about tiling-it doesn't happen in any other industry, why do we tolerate in ours? Sorry, the soap box got in the way and I stepped on to it for a moment...8) Educational music, as you rightly point out Elissa, should be designed to develop, inspire and motivate the student to want to discover and learn more about their instrument and own abilities. It is an honour to be able to write and publish music for for the future generations of musicians, but one that we need to take very seriously with always the interests of the student at heart, not the cash register.

Posted by Andy Firth on Friday 1 October 2010
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