Barbara Arens in Conversation

Barbara Arens will be known to most Pianodao readers as an excellent and prolific educational composer – I have previously reviewed several collections of her music, and most recently the Piano Exotico and Piano Tranquillo/Vivace collections published by Breitkopf & Härtel.

Around the time I was writing that review, I heard from Barbara that she was publishing a further five books via her own Editions Rensakov publishing on Amazon.

I decided it was about time I caught up with Barbara for a chat about all this fresh activity!…

The Interview 

Andrew:  Hi Barbara, and thanks for agreeing to chat with me about your latest publications – which you have published yourself via Amazon.

Can you start by telling readers a little about why you decided on this different publishing route for these particular books?

Barbara:  Five such totally diverse books would be impossible for any one publisher to put in their programme.

But all five were just perfect for self-publishing, as I could have all the creative processes in my own hands – which I really enjoy! Drawing illustrations, designing the covers, engraving the scores – a delight to be able to realise my ideas in these books!

My main publishers, Breitkopf & Härtel, prefer either very simple pieces from me (like 21 Amazingly Easy Pieces) or unusual collections (One Hand Piano, Piano Exotico, Small Hand Piano, Piano Misterioso etc.) – and definitely not books with English texts, such as The Herakles Challenge or Chubby Hippo & Friends.

And as I really wanted these books to be readily available on the other side of the Atlantic, Editions Musica Ferrum or Spartan weren’t ideal for these books, much as I enjoy working with them…

Let’s take a look at each of the five new publications one by one then – and why not let’s start with Chubby Hippo & Friends

Readers can click on the image – and the others that follow – to purchase from Amazon in the UK.

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With its subtitle 10 Really Easy Piano Pieces with Really Silly Lyrics, I’m guessing that this book is aimed at younger players, but the pieces certainly aren’t for beginners! 

That’s right – they’re for younger players – but by no means absolute beginners. Late elementary/grade 2, I’m thinking.

Jazzy rhythms can be hard to count, but with lyrics you can sing/shout/mumble like,

“The grumpy gorilla wanted choc’late ice-cream.
But they only had vanilla so he started to scream…”

the student can feel and so get into the rhythm better – and, I’m hoping, have fun not always being serious at the piano.

My Little Earworm is unique with its snippets of Mozart, Schubert, Bach, Beatles, and Beethoven!

The Herakles Challenge stands out to me as another quite unusual book. Based around 12 Epic Tasks for Piano based on Greek Mythology, there are twelve new pieces here, suitable for intermediate players, each preceded by a page focusing on a particular technical challenge.

And I love the way you have linked this to stories from Greek mythology too – do tell us more …

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Not for the first time: the idea came from a post in a Facebook piano forum, The Art of Piano Pedagogy. A teacher was looking for any pieces related to Greek mythology for a student – and, surprisingly, there were practically none!

As my husband teaches Ancient Greek, our family is heavily into Greek mythology, so I asked for favourite mythological characters. There happened to be exactly 12 – just like the 12 Labours of Hercules (or Herakles) – which gave me the idea of the students having to achieve 12 Tasks, i.e. technical challenges, which in turn should enable them to play the next piece.

It was a really fun challenge for me, as it required a lot of pedagogical thinking. I originally explained the technical challenges in my own, piano-teacher, voice. But Alison Mathews had the inspired idea of a character from Greek Mythology being one’s mentor – I chose Euterpe, the Muse of Music, to do the explaining for me.

And the subjects themselves were extremely inspiring: Circe casting a spell; Charon’s Ferry over the Styx; Ikarus soars – and falls; Andromache’s farewell to Hektor

I think its great, a real highlight among these new publications, and I hope teachers will take time to explore the pedagogy along with the music!

Dreaming at the Piano, meanwhile, is a more conventional collection in many ways, containing 12 musing, meditative pieces for intermediate pianists.

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These are again lovely pieces – very imaginative, too. Can you tell us how the idea and music for this collection developed?

I was just messing around on the piano and came up with Dreaming under Starry Skies – with a distant picture in my mind: camping in British Columbia watching shooting stars in the night sky. Then of course I just had to write Dreaming under Dark Clouds!

I had such a lovely time writing a whole collection of dream-based music – which has to be as varied as dreams themselves are! My students gave me titles which inspired me: Dreamcatcher, Lake of Forgotten Dreams, Recurring Dreams

Musically, they somewhat remind me of your Rendezvous with Midnight collection, though perhaps these are slightly easier, and lighter in mood. At the opposite end of the tempo spectrum, perhaps…  Fast & Furioso – 13 Fast & Furious Pieces for Piano

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How did this set come together?

I’ve had this collection around for a while (it’s too difficult for Breitkopf’s pedagogical programme), but it has been immensely popular with my teen students.

For years, I think I’ve never had a student recital without several of these pieces being played, as they’re contagious! A pupil will say after a recital that their next piece has to be A Minor Incident or Rhapsody or Toccata Bombastica as heard in the last recital. So glad this is finally in print now!

The Toccata for S. has been used at at least three competitions.

Pupils do so love these pieces which sound quite flashy, don’t they?! Which brings us neatly to the most advanced collection so far: Grand Piano: A pot-pourri of Seven Early-Advanced Piano Pieces. These are certainly more challenging pieces, and I’ve found it interesting to see some more difficult pieces from your pen!

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When writing music at this more advanced level, what are the particular challenges as a composer, and how did your creative process change?

The main difference here is that, with one exception, I was composing for myself: Apple-Tree Rag and the Frankenlied Variations as encore pieces; commemorations of such different musical personalities as Shostakovich and Gustav Leonhardt; experiments in getting maximum romantic sound from the piano (Fountains of Rome by Night, Fantasie).

The exception is Barcarolle on the Styx (Greek Mythology again!) which I wrote for a talented pupil for a competition – I wrote this after listening to a lot of Stravinsky – very untypical for me!

Thanks for sharing with us about the background to these collections. And after such a diverse and interesting set of first publications, can we now expect more from your own Editions Rensakov publishing on Amazon?

Definitely! I have two books I’m presently working on which are perfect for this format.

I’m so delighted to have my books so easily – and cheaply!– available in the US – and in Kindle form, even cheaper (no postage!) in Canada, Australia, etc., too!

I look forward to finding out more! And many thanks for sharing so generously Barbara – such a pleasure chatting as always!

My pleasure!

Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs Keyquest Music - his successful independent music education business, private teaching practice and creative outlet.

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