In a recent review I praised Gayle Kowlachyk and E.L. Lancaster’s Piano Studies for Technical Development books, and I’m pleased to say that the duo are back with another set of interesting and highly useful books, Easy Teacher-Student Piano Duets.
This new series collects 59 original compositions, mostly from the pedagogy literature of the mid-late Romantic Era, in three progressive books. As such, it offers an invaluable source-book for teachers everywhere.
Let’s take a closer look…
The Three Books
The three books in the series cover:
- Elementary to Late Elementary
- Late Elementary
For reasons we shall see, it would be difficult to equate the levels to UK standards on this occasion, particularly if the material is used primarily for sight-reading in lessons.
On first inspection, these books appeared to me a rather sober affair, with attractive if unassuming covers in matt card, and tidy interiors.
A short introduction by the authors sets out a few principles for the collections:
- the duets are written by teacher-composers of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries;
- primo and secondo parts are written on separate, facing pages;
- student parts are limited to a single five-finger pattern, with the notes falling mostly within the grand-stave reading range;
- student parts originally written on two treble or bass staves have been presented with more typical RH treble / LH bass organisation, with instructions to play one or two octaves higher as necessary;
- the composers did not include pedalling marks, but the teacher may choose to add them where appropriate.
“Arranged in alphabetical order by the composers’ last names, the duets can be used as sight-reading material or ensemble repertoire. Students will be motivated by the full sounds that result from the added teacher part as they acquire security with tempo and rhythm provided by ensemble performance.”
This is, in all, an excellent rationale which will resonate with experienced teachers everywhere.
The notation itself is clearly engraved and well-spaced throughout all three books. The font size is generous, making the material ideal for playing at sight. Fingering – ample but not excessive – is included for both the student and (helpfully) in the teacher’s parts.
Each book ends with a very short biographical sketch of the featured composers, shining a necessary light on the provenance of these lesser-known writers, their lives and work.
The Piano Duets
The teacher-composers whose works are featured in the series are:
- Hermann Berens (1826-1880) Books 1, 2 and 3
- César Cui (1835-1918) Books 2 and 3
- Anton Diabelli (1781-1858) Book 3
- Arthur Foote (1853-1937) Books 1, 2 and 3
- Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938) Book 2
- François Grimaldi (dates unknown) Book 2
- Cornelius Gurlitt (1820-1901) Books 1 and 3
- Albert Landry (1866-1913) Book 3
- Josef Löw (1834-1886) Book 1
- Carl Reinecke (1824-1910) Book 2
- Arnoldo Sartorio (1853-1936) Books 1, 2 and 3
- Heinrich Wohlfahrt (1797-1883) Books 1 and 3
From this list it’s perhaps apparent that (somewhat contrary to the author’s claim) the book doesn’t include much music in the 18th century manner (the notable exception being a charming Diabelli Sonatina in the third book). It’s also fair to point out that the 20th century works look backwards to the 19th, rather than embracing early-c.20th modernism. Horses need not be scared!
As a compendium of little known piano duets from predominantly the 19th century, these collections offer a fascinating insight into domestic and educational music-making at the height of the piano’s first wave of mass-popularity, as well as being a highly useful addition to the 21st century piano teacher’s music library.
The thing that perhaps impresses me most about these books is the imagination of the music itself. Almost all the pieces have the sort of fanciful titles popularised by Schumann’s famous Album for the Young and other early Romantic pedagogic music (although it should be noted that some of the titles are editorial), and those content to invoke the timeless charm of such childhood pleasures as The Brook, Playing Games, Victory March, The Bike, Adventure at Sea and so on, will no doubt enjoy sharing these pieces at the piano.
Time to return to the subject of difficulty levels, and here I suspect many teachers will be in for a surprise.
The suggestion that all the pieces are in five-finger positions will be taken by many to imply that the included music is essentially for near-beginners. The music here is certainly quite a bit more difficult than I had expected from the book description.
The first book includes, as expected, several pieces where the student plays in the C position, hands in unison an octave apart, and with basic note-values. However, it also includes several pieces in G and F majors, and in A minor. Some of the pieces are in 6/8 and 6/4 time signatures, and one includes the hands playing in contrary motion rather than similar. For two of the pieces, players swap places, the student taking the secondo part.
Arthur Foote’s Good-By! (sic.) is somewhat an oddity in this first collection – composed int he key of A flat major, the student playing C, Db, Eb, F and Gb. I can’t help wondering whether this piece is actually an interloper from one of the other books!
The second book “ups the ante” with more difficult rhythms, including semiquaver, dotted rhythms and more fully established use of compound time. While the pieces in the first book are all a single double-page spread, here several pieces include page turns, and one piece – Grimaldi’s Valse – takes up 8 pages, almost all of which are also repeated da capo al fine. Something of an epic, at this level!
By the third collection, rhythms and key signatures have developed to around UK Grade 3 level. While the hands remain in five-note positions, they often strain to do so! Increasingly, the hands also act independently, rather than playing unison octaves.
As music to take home and practice, this perhaps makes it more difficult to identify the stage at which the collections will have most value; even more so when used as sight-reading material in a lesson.
In the case of the latter, I would suggest that these collections offer a wonderful “playing at sight” diversion, when time in lessons permits, that would be useful between Grades 2-5.
To summarise, the Easy Teacher-Student Piano Duets series considerably overshot all of my initial expectations.
Kowalchyk and Lancaster clearly have a fabulous knowledge of the duet repertoire – indeed they pitch these collections as sequels to their former Easy Classical Piano Duets series, although many readers will perhaps be even more familiar with their epic set of Essential Keyboard Duets books – a series which so far includes eight large spiral-bound volumes – which have proved to be such marvellous source-books for duet material over the last couple of decades.
With this latest series, Kowalchyk and Lancaster have brought back under the spotlight a succession of lovely and imaginative pieces which will delight players of all ages, and which have been organised with the care needed to ensure that they make both a useful and purposeful addition to any serious piano teacher’s collection.
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