MUSIC FROM CHOPIN’S LAND
In 2020, I was commissioned by PWM Edition to record five films showcasing educational piano music by Polish composers. Captivated by my new musical discoveries, I have continued to independently explore and review the music of Chopin’s land…
Since visiting the Kraków headquarters of Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne (PWM Edition) to make a series of educational films back in 2020, I have been continuing my deeper dive into the educational piano music of Poland, discovering some fascinating and often enchanting gems along the way.
When reviewing PWM’s many excellent publications on Pianodao, I have of course been aware that they are rather “niche” in terms of the UK market, most of the composers being relatively unknown outside their homeland. There are exceptions: Feliks Rybicki and Janina Garścia being obvious examples of Polish educational composers whose music has circulated widely.
Krystyna Gowik deserves a spot on that list. When I discovered My Little World and My Favourites, both collections reviewed here (including my film introducing them), I was immediately struck by the appeal and pedagogic quality of her music.
Gowik’s latest collection is called Piątki na fortepiano, in English, Fives for Piano. The book is aimed at relative beginners, and contains 25 new compositions which are all written in five-note positions, but in a surprising range of keys and modes…
A pentascale is the fancy term for the first five notes of any scale. They are handy as a means to introducing the circle of fifths, another obvious benefit for piano beginners being that they offer one note for each finger in a closed position.
The pieces in Fives for piano are written with hands together, using the same note positions in each, usually an octave apart. The hands rarely remain fixed however, but rather transition between different octaves across the range of the piano, using the same pentascale consistently within each piece.
The book introduces pieces written using all of these keys and pentascales:
- C, G, D, A, E, F, Bb, Eb, and Ab major
- A, E, B, D, G, C, and F minor
- Phrygian and Lydian modes
Looking at the list, it’s immediately clear that the player’s hands will explore the black keys to discover a range of hand shapes and finger stretches that might not usually be encountered so early in lessons.
The inclusion of three modal pieces, and several in minor keys, also sets this book apart from some of the less-varied material routinely served up to beginners. Having said that, from a UK perspective I would probably introduce this collection at around Grade 1 level, rather than earlier.
According the publishers, the educative aims include:
- to teach the quick recognition of notes on the stave
- to teach how to move around the keyboard and to recognise the sounds of the instrument’s registers
- to make the music more interesting
Gowik explains (translated by John Comber):
“There are always five notes, one for each finger, so the fingerings are not numbered and we do not introduce any techniques for crossing fingers. We assign particular fingers to specific notes, with the help of an insert included with the edition, and we play.”
The insert mentioned is a sixteen full-sized page pull-out booklet, each page including two sets of hand illustrations which the player can use to indicate the notes played by each finger in a piece. No doubt, more creative and colourful uses will also be made!
Gowik goes on to say,
“Thanks to the systematic use of all five fingers, we can develop all the fingers evenly and at the same time, which is particularly important with regard to the fourth and fifth fingers. These works may touch on five-finger exercises to a limited extent, but not entirely, as in that method there are different notes in the right and left hands, while here they are the same for both hands. In my works, we learn different keys and modal scales.
Each work is preceded by information about the key or scale employed and about the notes that are used. I have also taken care over articulation and dynamics. The budding pianists might try playing some of the works with pedal.”
In addition to naming the key of each piece (and noting here that all text appears in both Polish and English), it’s worth stressing that the appropriate key signatures are included in the scores throughout (even though only the first five notes of the scale are used). This could prove useful for discussion with learners, even a prompt for introducing the full scale to the inquisitive.
Were this the full story, Gowik would already have done teachers a helpful service by providing these pentascale pieces. Happily, the strong educational value of this publication is more considerable.
Of particular note, I must again stress that most pieces involve moving from one octave to another (but keeping the same pentascale pattern transposed across the piano). Later pieces in the book require these octave shifts at speed, really testing and honing the player’s developing spacial awareness at the keyboard.
As the book progresses, the player is frequently required to cross hands, too, and rhythmic patterns are at times spread between the hands. In short, this is great material for fostering elementary piano playing technique.
Gowik mentions “taking care” over dynamics and articulation, and both are used intelligently throughout. Their use here extends beyond guiding players in the development of different touches to include balance between hands; as the book progresses, several pieces instruct the player to use a different dynamic in each hand, or to play staccato in one hand, legato in the other. Non-legato is also specifically introduced in some of the pieces.
In tandem with these technical challenges, the pieces foster expressive engagement, their lyrical folk-like melodies drawing the player in. That the pieces have a traditional tone will perhaps give them more universal appeal, but it’s worth noting that musically, Fives for piano is closer to Kabalevsky than it is to, say, William Gillock.
Gowik’s resumé, which appears in a short biography at the rear of the book, explains the experience underpinning her pedagogic writing. We learn that she has taught piano to children at a primary school for more than 30 years, worked in pre-school education teaching eurhythmics and dance, and composed several collections of childrens songs.
Regarding the publication, regular readers will already know I am fond of PWM’s educational CAT series of books, in which this appears. As ever, Joanna Rusinek’s eye-catching cover illustration immediately stands out, while within the scores are spaciously and clearly presented on pale-cream paper.
I missed the exquisite colour illustrations which were such an eye-catching triumph in Gowik’s previous two book, but no matter: I have no doubt that the gorgeous presentation of this new collection will charm young learners.
In the absence of audio material or sample pages, teachers will no doubt want to take a closer look before buying, but I certainly recommend checking our Fives for piano if the opportunity arises.
Returning to my opening comparison with Feliks Rybicki and Janina Garścia, the common ground Krystyna Gowik shares is her deft ability to spot a gap in the piano literature for young players and fill it with appealing and educationally rich music. There’s a real and obvious “point” to this collection, and that isn’t always the case!
That she succeeds again with Fives for piano, having already contributed two stunning collections to the elementary pianist’s repertoire, marks Gowik out as an educational composer of substance. And while her later elementary books gave her more scope to impress musically, this new collection is perhaps her most pedagogically unique and valuable yet.
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