“For far too long, the contributions of Black composers in the piano repertoire have not been brought to the forefront. Despite a persistent wave of great scholarship to bring awareness of these composers to light, only recently has there been deliberate inclusion of their works. Even with more awareness and attempts for inclusion, the myth that there is only piano music by Black composers for advanced pianists remains…
Finally there is a pedagogical piano collection that celebrates Black composers as pedagogues and gathers together piano music that can be enjoyed by the most novice beginning piano students through their musical progress.”
So writes Leah Claiborne in the compelling introduction to her two new music collections, Expanding the Repertoire: Piano Music of Black Composers, published worldwide by Hal Leonard.
Let’s take a look…
Expanding the Repertoire
The agenda of expanding the repertoire is one which Pianodao, along with piano teachers and players around the world, very happily buys into. And I have no doubt that Claiborne is correct in her analysis that the music of black composers is a specific, and hugely important corner of the repertoire which has been wrongly overlooked, and for way too long.
In recent years we have glimpsed the breadth and quality of this rich seam of music, and these new collections are an enormously welcome contribution to our ongoing discovery. That they focus, respectively, on music for elementary and intermediate players is particularly helpful. And that the music within is organised broadly in progressive order of difficulty adds to their appeal as supplementary books which can accompany any pianist throughout their formative years playing the piano.
The books themselves are attractively presented with striking covers, white paper within, an extensive and superbly written Foreword and detailed Pedagogical Notes on each and every piece, taking up four pages per book.
Meanwhile, the notation is spaciously presented across fairly large staves, great for developing readers. Fingering is included throughout, and is of course expertly conceived having been devised by Claiborne herself.
So let’s consider the musical content…
Elementary to Upper Elementary
In her “Level 1” book, which would be suitable for players at around UK Initial to Grade 2, Claiborne sets out to showcase a wide range of character, styles, periods and musical concepts for the young pianist. Her Pedagogical Notes explain in detail how teachers can use this material to best advantage.
As for the music, it is as consistently enjoyable and artistically well judged as it is educationally useful. Here’s the pieces:
• Jumping the Broom
• The King’s Magic Drum
• Left Alone
• The Unsung
JAMES & JOHN JOHNSON
• Lift Every Voice and Sing (arr. Claiborne)
• Slumber Song (from 10 Short Essays for Piano)
• Lady Mary Montague’s Reel (from 12 Country Dances for the Year 1779)
• An Asphodel for Marcel (from Faces of Jazz)
• Blooz (from Faces of Jazz)
BLANCHE K. THOMAS
selections from Plantation Songs in Easy Arrangements
• Go Down, Moses
• I’m Troubled in Mind
• Lord, I Want to Be a Christian
• Steal Away
• Tryin’ to Make Heaven My Home
• We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder
Claiborne has stated before that she doesn’t see herself as a composer, which seems too modest: her pieces here are brilliant, combining catchy tunes, imaginative use of the piano and pedagogic strength of purpose. The King’s Magic Drum is my personal favourite, but all her pieces in the collection are just spot on.
Ulysses Kay proves to be a fascinating pedagogic composer, too. His Slumber Song challenges with its rhythmic displacement, both a nod to his heritage and a warning that the developing player really needs to count carefully.
Blanche K. Thomas’s Plantation Songs in Easy Arrangements prove a rich source of material for both books in this series. Claiborne tells us,
“Thomas stressed and advocated for the inclusion of Negro Spirituals in musical curriculum and to utilise these melodies in various ways of learning. The intentional inclusion of these Spirituals, with the lyrics, allows students to gain understanding of culture, history, rhythmic complexities, and phrase structures at an appropriate level for early beginners.”
Some will no doubt balk at the inclusion of such overtly religious material in a piano education beginner book, but these are fabulous melodies, and I certainly bow to the point that their lyrical content has a beneficial impact on the learning of idiomatic sung rhythm and phrasing.
Hale Smith is another really great educational composer, and it’s wonderful to discover more of his Faces of Jazz pieces here. An Asphodel for Marcel and Blooz are a notable step up in difficulty from the preceding pieces in the collection, but make a wonderful conclusion to this first book in the series.
Early Intermediate to Intermediate
The “Level 2” book covers the ground from around UK Grade 3-5, and offers a cornucopia of rich pickings. Here’s the full list:
• Fort Erie (from A Collection of New Cotillions in 1818)
• Make Believe (from 10 Short Essays for Piano)
• March Song (from 10 Short Essays for Piano)
• Rippling Spring Waltz
CHEVALIER DE SAINT-GEORGES
• Adagio in F minor
• All of One Mind
• That’s Mike (from Faces of Jazz)
• The Broken Saxophone (from Faces of Jazz)
BLANCHE K. THOMAS
selections from Plantation Songs in Easy Arrangements
• Go Tell It on the Mountain
• I Ain’t Going’ to Study War No More
• I’m A-Rollin’ Thro’ an Unfriendly World
• I’ve Got a Robe
• Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
• Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)
Hale Smith happily reappears in the second collection, and once again his pieces are a highlight. The Broken Saxophone is another piece where diligent counting is a necessity, and introduces some plush jazz harmonies. Meanwhile, That’s Mike is perhaps my favourite discovery of the whole series, one of those jazzy pieces that embeds itself into the psyche and seems guaranteed to be a favourite.
Ulysses Kay is once again determined to introduce rhythms that develop and depend on a strong inner sense of pulse, while Blanche Thomas again festoons us with classics from the Spirituals songbook.
The inclusion of music from the Classical Era is an eye-opener in both collections. In the first book, Ignatius Sancho’s Lady Mary Montague’s Reel is admittedly a slight piece (though pleasant enough) while here, All in One Mind offers an enjoyable introduction to the key of A major.
On another level entirely, however, Chevalier de Saint-Georges’s Adagio in F minor is a captivating treasure that offers the Grade 4 player the most wonderful introduction to the Classical slow movement. Poignant in its melodic weight and captivating in its (sometimes experimental) harmony, this is a piece that we should all have known for many years!
Bringing Claiborne’s expansion of the repertoire to a conclusion (for now), Estelle Ricketts’s Rippling Spring Waltz is an attractive six-page salon piece which has the distinction of being the first ever published piece by a Black female composer. And it’s a delight!
It is, of course, sad that this fabulous pedagogic repertoire hasn’t long been a standard feature of our piano education culture. Claiborne has done a superb service in providing these slender volumes, and we must hope more will follow. Given her obvious and well-placed passion, I think it likely that they will, and I’m certainly joining the queue for Levels 3 and 4.
At the end of her Foreword, Claiborne astutely observes,
“The pieces in these books not only celebrate Black composers but also aim to celebrate diverse student populations studying classical music. When students see themselves represented in the music that they study, it encourages and normalises their own musical pursuit.”
There is surely a profound truth here, and one which seems to have passed some educators by. I certainly won’t hesitate to use these books with Black students (and feel it would be a missed opportunity not to), but equally, the quality of the content makes a compelling case for introducing this music to all our elementary to intermediate students, regardless of their heritage.
I have recommended quite a lot of superb educational material of late, and am aware of several important publications about to be launched; I should no doubt apologise to cost-sensitive teachers for also promoting these two books, but they are truly superb, and I think they must surely be regarded as essential purchases…
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