Jakub Metelka: Modern Piano Studies

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Jakub Metelka’s Modern Piano Studies is an educationally useful and thoughtfully produced collection of 30 miniature pieces which address aspects both of technique and notation-reading at upper intermediate level.

The book is certainly novel, and may have what it takes to establish itself as a contemporary classic in the pedagogy literature…

From Concept to Publication…

Brought to us by leading publisher Bärenreiter, the book has an appealing soft matt paperback, and is presented in standard house style with cream pages.

After the contents, credits and composer’s introduction, the music itself is beautifully and clearly engraved across 24 pages, a point which underlines the brevity of the 30 pieces included. They range in length from 6-36 bars, with most being around 16-24 bars long.

Each has an imaginative title, and the book includes charming pencil illustrations throughout, credited to Andrea Tachezy.

In his introduction to the album, Metelka writes:

“The album of thirty short pieces that you now have in your hands is unique both in the diversity of keys it uses (the complete range of keys is utilised) and in its melodic accessibility and “modern” sound. Every study has its own mood or even story. When you play through all of the studies you will have an excellent understanding of all the major and minor keys and will have also improved your music-reading ability. Every study deals with a specific technical problem – you will practise melodic ornaments, glissandos, third and sixth progressions, or arpeggios…”

The Pieces

The music here is immediately appealing. Given that the pieces are billed as “studies”, one might fear the dull repetitions of Schmitt or Hanon; instead, these pieces have the playfully descriptive charm of a latter-day Burgmüller.

The publicity for the book makes much of the “modern” sound, but modernity can mean a range of things to different people. In this case, there are neither stark dissonances, nor “extended techniques” that involve faffing around inside the piano with a set of clothes pegs or fridge magnets.

The pieces largely eschew impressionistic washes of sound, too; there are no “silently depressed keys” weeping in the corner; there isn’t even any pedalling required.

Instead, Metelka paints his sound pictures using the notes and fingers alone, although pedalling would in my view be a welcome addition in some of the pieces (but is unmarked, left to player and teacher’s discretion).

Perhaps the sense of modernity comes from the sense of alive freshness throughout the collection; harder to pin down, this is perhaps rooted in the composer’s use of simple pop harmonies, melodic immediacy and occasional syncopation. The pieces at times also have a filmic quality due to their appeal to the visual imagination, which I expect players of all ages will easily relate to.

All of that said, jazzy elements are minimal, and minimalistic elements are non-existent. My sense is that overall these studies are firmly classical in their musical tone and stylistic gestures, and as such, not a million miles away from the pedagogic material of the 19th century composers.

All About Technique?

One would be right to assume that all the pieces here include a nugget of technical challenge built into their DNA. Between them, the pieces serve up many of the typical fingering challenges that an intermediate pianist is likely to encounter in standard and popular repertoire.

And they do so in a far more musically intelligent and interesting way than one usually finds in such miniature exercises. This musicality provides scope for interpretation, too, and perhaps suggests a context for teacher and student to venture off exploring beyond the literal page.

Sight-reading my way through the collection, however, I found that the “hidden traps” embedded in each piece often require the player to be alert to details in the notation, quite aside from developing their technical ability.

A particular strength of the book is in my view the way the composer has integrated physical and intellectual aspects of learning. For example, in Sweet Tooth Squirrel the main theme is in quaver triplets in the RH, accompanied by standard quavers in the LH, “twos against threes”. This could equally be the first time the player has seen the notation or needed to master the coordination of this construct between the hands.

This helpfully integrated approach applies throughout, but to my mind an even more important strength of this publication is the systematic introduction of all thirty major and minor keys…

Thirty Keys, you say?

That’s right! Metelka helpfully reminds us that there are indeed thirty standard major and minor keys, counting all those up to and including seven sharps or flats, and allowing for enharmonic equivalents.

In terms of organisation, the first two miniatures in Modern Piano Studies are in the relative keys of C major and A minor. These are followed by pieces in the major and minor keys with one sharp, then one flat, then two sharps, two flats, and so on. The book thus ends with the pieces in keys with seven sharps and finally seven flats.

Some of these latter keys are rarely encountered in repertoire, and I have to admit that even I had to scratch my head a little when reading through the piece in A# minor. But what a wonderful skill to encourage!

The composer notes in his introduction:

“Do not avoid the compositions that have a larger number of sharps or flats, because they hide the most beautiful melodies and the most interesting technical elements.”

This is certainly true and of course, approaching the end of the book, they are in any case aimed at the by now more experienced player.

It’s possible for the student simply working through “the grades” or following a repertoire-driven approach to have several gaps in their knowledge of keys. Modern Piano Studies does pianists a huge service by treating all thirty keys equally, and ensuring they are systematically encountered. How great too that they consistently appear as relative major and minor pairs.

This strengthens the point that as well as being useful for technical development, these studies are a fabulous resource for developing and consolidating musical understanding and theory knowledge.

The student at around Grade 5, perhaps also approaching a theory exam, will find this invaluable. And although I couldn’t prove it, I suspect that working through these pieces will also pay dividends for players who later need to transpose at the piano.

Closing thoughts

To conclude, then, these quirky and enjoyable miniature pieces are useful not only for the development of a good finger technique, but for the acquisition of musical knowledge and developing key awareness.

As technical studies, I think it might have been useful had the composer identified the specific technical goal of each piece and offered some practice tips, as sometimes happens in such materials elsewhere, but this is a minor quibble and most teachers will easily spot the challenges and benefits.

Whether treated as studies or pieces, the miniatures range in difficulty from around Grade 3-6 level. Equally usefully, they could be assigned as “quick study” material in the same way as Paul Harris’s Piece a Week series, and would make an attractive follow on from that excellent series after Grade 5.

Above all, Jakub Metelka’s Modern Piano Studies offers a set of fun little pieces which marry the benefits of piano studies to the delights of musically engaging bonbons suitable for informal performance and student recitals.

I suspect that teachers who try this book with a single student will soon find themselves returning to it with others, and that it will quietly establish itself as an essential studio favourite.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.