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Bartók’s Mikrokosmos has, since the first half of the 20th century, been a potent force in the pianist’s repertoire, hugely impacting pedagogy worldwide, while his charming collections of pieces For Children have delighted elementary to intermediate players of all ages. But what of his other little collection, The First Term at the Piano?
Largely overlooked, except as a curiosity for completists to consider, this seemingly innocuous sequence of 18 short pieces has passed under the radar of most piano teachers, and even though some of the pieces are brilliantly inventive and melodic, they have too rarely surfaced in other collections, exam syllabi or student performances.
Now the US-based pianist, teacher, lecturer and editor Immanuela Gruenberg is looking to turn the tables, resurrecting this work for a new century, and for a new audience.
Her stunning new edition of the pieces – which comes with complete commentary, imaginative lesson plans, and a series of online videos – has recently been published by Hal Leonard in association with Boosey & Hawkes. And as we shall see in this review, it is a genuine must-have purchase for anyone who teaches beginners.
The Eighteen Pieces
First of all, an introduction to the 18 Pieces which make up the collection, for those who’ve not come across them before.
You can listen to them all in this YouTube performance by Alan Huckleberry of the University of Iowa Piano Pedagogy Video Recording Project:
Teachers will no doubt notice straight away that there is a rapid progression in technical and notation-reading requirement between the pieces. The earliest pieces could certainly be attempted within the first weeks of lessons, but by the end of the collection we have arrived at pieces which are more suitable at around (ABRSM) Grade 2 level.
So the title presents something of a problem. The majority of students will not simply progress from one piece to the next, or complete the whole collection within the First Term of lessons.
However, this is a progressive sequence of pieces which could happily be used as additional repertoire or study material that sits comfortably alongside the beginner pianist’s other books.
From a musical point of view, I think the pieces that make up The First Term at the Piano are generally more melodically appealing than the first two volumes of Mikrokosmos, but easier to play than the pieces in For Children. So I think that The First Term at the Piano actually makes an ideal introduction to Bartók’s work, which can be integrated over the course of the first year or so of playing piano.
Some of the pieces would make great additions to any student concert too – in particular 11: Minuet, 13: Where have you need, little lamb? and 18: Waltz stand out as lovely characterful pieces that audiences would enjoy hearing.
Immanuela Gruenberg’s edition is newly researched and engraved, and comes as a beautifully presented book:
The gorgeous cover conceals a very pleasing publication printed on high quality cream paper. The notation, when it comes, is clearly presented and well spaced, although some might have preferred a larger music font for younger beginners.
But perhaps the first thing to note is that the actual pieces take up just 11 of these 28 pages – the rest of the book comprising the additional resources which I will now describe.
After the initial Contents pages, there is a succinct Composer Biography which provides a good background for those unfamiliar with Bartók’s life and work. This is followed by a Historical and Pedagogical Commentary which tackles issues of key importance in Bartók’s compositional style, interpretation of his notations, a brief note on his interest in teaching and an introduction to The First Term at the Piano itself.
Published in 1929, The First Term at the Piano extracts original pieces which Bartók had composed in 1912 as part of a bigger project, the Piano Method he jointly developed with Sandor Reschofsky. That Piano Method unsurprisingly begins with ear training, singing and basic solgège (for a summary of evidence that the best music teaching has always started aurally, check out my post Sound Before Symbol: Lessons from History).
Immanuela Gruenberg notes:
“Singing these little pieces should be an integral part of learning them. This is also good ear training for the student.”
Lesson Plans on the Individual Pieces
The next part of the book is taken up by an eight-page section which provides fabulous models for teaching the pieces.
For each of the 18, Immanuela provides two sets of bullet points – firstly, “About this Piece” and then “Practice Tips for the Student”.
“About this piece” essentially lists each piece’s new musical features. It is fascinating to read through these lists, observing how Bartók progressively introduces the elements of music.
The first piece, for example (and as you all hear in the clip above) requires hands together playing in parallel motion, in a five-finger position. Phrases are each three measures/bars long, and the rhythm uses only quarter, half and whole notes (crotchets, minims and semibreves). Motion is entirely stepwise, and the pieces is played f which should be interpreted as playing with a full tone.
Bartók’s approach to introducing fresh learning elements in each piece is not only exemplary in terms of piano pedagogy but also fascinating as history. Those with an interest in exploring the thinking of one of the piano’s great teachers will undoubtedly spend hours absorbed here!
All of us would do well to consider the progression, and to compare it with our own preferred methods. This will of course be important in informing our use of the material alongside those!
The “Practice Tips for the Student” can perhaps be regarded as sample lesson plans, offering a range of activities and suggestions for introducing and teaching each of the pieces.
These are often particularly imaginative, and few teachers who take the time to apply these suggestions will come away without feeling that their own teaching had been truly enriched as a result.
By now we are more than half way through the book, and not yet reached the music itself. And before that there is also a full-page Bartók bibliography which lists most of the seminal works on this most important composer, as well as a biographical note about Immanuela Gruenberg herself.
The Video Lessons
Much is made of the included Video Piano Lessons that come with the book. There is a lesson for each of the 18 pieces, although each is just a couple of minutes long, and focusses on one or two suggestions.
Once again, these lessons are excellent. Firstly, they complement rather than repeat the already good suggestions included in the book itself. Secondly, they are in their own right full of outstanding ideas for piano teaching, and worth watching quite apart from use of The First Term at the Piano itself.
Access to the videos is online, via the Hal Leonard website. Entry of a sixteen digit code (printed in the book) opens up access to the video content, which can be streamed online or downloaded depending on your preference.
These are well-filmed, simple and effective video clips and add considerably to the value of the whole package.
Immanuela Gruenberg’s new edition of Bartók’s The First Term at the Piano is without question one of the best surprises to land on my doormat in a long while.
Quite simply, this combination of an excellent edition, exemplary supporting notes, brilliant pedagogic analysis, creative teaching ideas, and superb video content raises the bar in terms of outstanding teaching material.
I’ve not come across any other publication which so effectively mobilises each of these teaching and learning approaches to such stunning effect. And in the process, this publication has dusted off and given new life to an unjustly overlooked collection of great pieces, which in themselves encompass so many important pedagogic strategies.
A truly exceptional publication – buy this today!
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