Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Album for the Young 1

Here is a new thread of book reviews focusing on piano music for young players. It's an area I am keen to explore, first because I started playing at an early age, and also because I'm trying to put together a care package for some friends of mine on the Left Coast whose kids are starting to play. I hope these reviews will help others choose the right albums for their young.

Album for the Young
Twenty-Four Easy Piano Pieces,
op. 39
by P. I. Tchaikovsky

This is a fine set of "easy" piano pieces suited to young players of an intermediate level of skill -- like, say, a fourth-grader who has been diligently practicing since second grade. It is not for beginners, and nor for gormless klutzes. Its 24 brief (1-2 page) pieces are full of charm and ethnic character, and touch lightly on a variety of moods.

1. Morning Prayer is a slow, Romanticized chorale in G major (1 sharp) and 3/4 time, and it is fairly easy. In playing this piece, however, the young musician will show his mastery of correctly-counted dotted-quarter and dotted-eighth figures, cresc. and dim., dynamics ranging from pp to f, musical accents, and a "pedal" G in an eighth-note pulse that throbs through six of the last nine bars. The harmony is mildly chromatic and requires the youngster to be able to attack, for example, a first-inversion F#-major chord.

2. Winter Morning is in a moderately paced 2/4 and B minor (2 sharps), though the key only gradually becomes apparent. To learn this piece, a kid will need to develop a keen eye to read four-voiced chords, many of them with dissonant notes and unexpected chord progressions. On a less technical but more broadly musical level, he or she will also practice the art of phrasing a musical line in which virtually every bar ends with an eighth rest. Musical terms to learn will include smorzando, which is not a marshmallow snack.

3. The Hobby-horse is in a brisk 3/8 and D major (2 sharps), a continuous run of four-voiced chords in running eighth notes, staccatissimo, and mostly quite soft. Besides (again) an exercise in shaping musical line, this piece calls for a lightness of touch and tightness of control. Done well, it will reward the player with music of magical delicacy and good-humored warmth.

4. Mamma is a sweet, pretty, music-box-like number in a 3/4 G major, with rocking eighth-note figures running throughout the left-hand part and a quarter-note-pulse melody. Technically, the challenge will be to sustain the first of each pair of eighths for a full quarter-note value (observe the stem direction and fingering!). Musically, the challenge will be to shape the line so that the strong beat isn't necessarily Beat 1 (observe the accents and dynamic markings!). It can be a very touching and expressive piece.

5. March of the Tin Soldiers is in 2/4, D major, and "Tempo di Marcia," which isn't a Ford belonging to the eldest Brady sister. It needs to sound like toy music, which calls for a certain imaginative touch. Accurate rhythm, especially regarding the rests, is essential to the articulation and character of the piece. The youngster at the keyboard may need to work especially on distinguishing between dotted-eighth figures that do and don't have a rest in them.

6. The Sick Doll asks Kiddo to play in G minor (2 flats) and a slow 2/4. The rhythm of the broken-chord figures in the left hand is the key technical feat to achieve, while musically it is creating an expressive line out of melodic notes that are surrounded by equal parts rest.

7. The Doll's Burial, with the totally appropriate tempo marking Grave, switches to C minor (3 flats) and has lots of three- and four-voice chords, many dotted-eighth figures requiring finger-substitution to play repeated notes, and a bit of chromatic harmony to negotiate. It's a solemn funeral march, building from pp to sf (is sforzando a new word for you?) and returning to pp again in a dramatic arch that poses the main musical challenge for our youngster.

8. Waltz calls for left-handed nimbleness, with the bass note on Beat 1 alternating with L.H. chords in a lively 3/4 tempo and E-flat Major (3 flats). The right hand has its own share of challenges, with frequent Beat 2 accents, rests that are intended to create "lilt" without making the line wilt, and rapidly alternating phrasisngs of slurs and staccati over what may be kiddo's first encounter with the word leggiero ("lightly"). Can he keep it graceful, light, and lively? That's the trick!

9. The New Doll moves to a more moderately-paced 3/8 time and B-flat major (2 flats). The L.H. has a "one-two" accompaniment figure, to be played in a light, detached way and attention to the dynamic marks. Meanwhile, the R.H. alternates between two rhythmic groupings that both require a certain independence between the two hands. And, of course, there's the challenge of the chromatic harmony again!

10. Mazurka, a dance of Slavic character in 3/4 time, is in the key of D minor (2 flats) and requires a technique similar to, but distinct from, the Waltz. Again, observe the rests that regularly separate the key rhythmic figures, the unexpected accents, the strange intervals (like C# to Bb, and A to B#), changes of clef and ledger-line notes in the L.H. part.

11. Russian Song is a very short piece in an easy-going 2/4 time and the one-flat key of F major. Nevertheless, it forces Master or Miss to be think carefully about phrasing musical sentences of uneven lengths. And though it is pretty much all loud, the trick is to avoid pounding the brains out of it.

12. The Peasant Plays the Accordion is a piece in the Mixolydian key of F that, frankly, I just don't get. I suppose if I had heard a Russian peasant playing an accordion in a similar style, I would understand the humor of this piece. As it is, I don't see much appeal in it. Mostly it alternates between two thickly-voiced chords, most notably (and finally) the F major-seventh chord. There is some tricky fingering though, as the two main chords rapidly alternate at a couple of points.

13. Folk-song is a gentle piece in 2/4 D major with a perky melody line. The first quarter of it has a drone bass (D) and a chromatically-descending tenor line. Then it goes into a sort of "middle section" where the L.H. provides a crisp, chordal accompaniment while the melody goes perky one better. The third quarter of the piece is all strong, cleanly-articulated chords; then the melody comes back, only with a new L.H. part that adds a rhythmic kick to the end of the piece. Getting the rhythm and the touch right is what it's all about - but it sure sounds neat!

14. Polka, in a fastish 2/4 and B-flat major, is a jaunty little dance exercising the nimbleness and independence of the L.H. and requiring both hands to play "grace notes." Notice how the melody and accompaniment switch hands in the middle of the piece, then switch back again in a most ingenious way. It's such a fun piece that I reckon it will be a favorite for a lot of kids.

15. Italian Song, a D-major number in a fast 3/8, calls for rapid L.H. work of a waltz-like nature, rhythmically tricky R.H. phrasings, and a couple of brief passages of bubbly sixteenth notes. All this for a piece very much in the "popular style" of Tchaikovsky's time.

16. Old French Song is a short, melancholy piece in G minor and a very measured 2/4 time. Cookie crunchers will be challenged to interpret such dynamic markings as the "alligator teeth" in bar 7 (kind of a musical sob, I think) and the double-dotted quarter in the same bar. Similar effects come later in the piece, but by then you'll be worrying about wide staccato arpeggios in the L.H. part.

17. German Song doesn't actually sound like something you could sing, but it certainly does remind one of German culture. As you play its relaxed 3/4 time in E-flat, try not to let thoughts of lederhosen and wooden shoes distract you from waltz-like L.H. figuration and the accented staccati in the R.H.

18. Neapolitan Dance-song brings lass or lad to the next level of difficulty, with a a crisp, fiery rhythmic figure in the L.H. and a very delicately articulated melody in the R.H. At times the runs of sixteenths, against the continuing L.H. rhythm, may lead the young player into difficulties that can only be escaped via hours of practice - hours well-rewarded by the sheer joy of hearing this piece!

19. The Nurse's Tale is a quirky 2/4 piece in C major which, for all that its key signature has no sharps or flats, is loaded with accidentals. Phrasings include slurs, staccati, and combinations thereof. The main cadences include cascades of octave and unison C's. The middle section features a pedal C in the R.H., repeated on the accented last eighth-note of each bar and tied across to the next bar, while the L.H. ratchets up the drama in chromatic steps.

20. The Witch, possibly a character in the nurse's tale, is an unsettling little E-minor (one sharp) piece in a rapid 6/8 time, i.e. with two beats to the bar each subdivided into three pulses. I called it unsettling because the tonality is left somewhat vague, thanks to weird harmony and a lack of root-position triads. The hands trade back and forth between the weirdly dancing melody and its spare accompaniment. It's got a hint of twisted ritual in it, but the spell seems to take hold toward the end.

21. Sweet Dreams begins to induct the youthful pianist into the world of music where he will find, for example, Tchaikovsky's The Seasons (a more advanced book of pieces depicting the months of the year). A lyrical C-major melody, at first in the R.H., yearns forward in 3/4 time against a L.H. accompaniment that is part countermelody, part off-the-beat strumming. Then the hands switch roles for a while. The technical challenge is to do two things "in character" with the same hand, while the musical challenge in the central part is to make the L.H. sing while the R.H. stays in the background.

22. Song of the Lark, a slow 3/4 piece in G, strikes me as the most advanced piece in this set. It presents more than one technical problem for young problem-solvers to puzzle over. First, there is the rhythm in the R.H. part, with its frequent sixteenth-note triplets. Then there are the frequent "tweety" grace notes, often preceding a note in ledger-lines high above the treble staff. There are also "8va" brackets to deal with, some interesting "5-4-2" chords, and a few brief hand-crossings at the end.

23. The Handorgan Man is a comparatively relaxing 3/4 piece in G, with some L.H. waltz figuration in the first half and, later, an exercise in the R.H. accompanying itself with both a the melody and a strumming accompaniment at the same time. For much of the piece, the L.H. has to do two things at the same time too: holding down a pedal G while oscillating between D and E in the tenor range. I suppose this is the part that is supposed to sound like a hurdy-gurdy.

24. In Church is another slow, pious piece, this time in 2/4 and E minor. Compared to the first number, however, this one is distinctly more sacred-sounding, possibly based on an Orthodox chant tone. Since there isn't much technically challenging about it, the task for the young pianist will be to give expression to its dynamics, which cover a range from mf to ppp and include a new vocab word: perdendosi (dying away, lit. "getting lost"). The final bars are a steady drawing down into darkness and silence over a steadily throbbing pedal E.

Tchaikovsky's piano music for the young would, in my opinion, appeal greatly to an imaginative child who has a couple years of piano lessons under his or her belt, and who is either a reasonably good note-reader or willing to spend time working out problems. The music is very rewarding, reminding anyone who plays it that the same Tchaikovsky wrote The Nutcracker with all its characteristic dances. The music is not at all patronizing, and I daresay even an adult learning to play piano would enjoy it. And, as we shall see as this "piano" thread progresses, it's a lot more kid-friendly than many another "Album for the Young."

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