In addition to educational topics (like my previous post on Peak), I also plan to use this blog space to write about important pieces of teaching literature. The first piece that I’m going to discuss is from Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen, Op. 15. Kinderszenen means “scenes from childhood.” But don’t let the title fool you! This set is not for children and is much more difficult than the Album for the Young, Op. 68. Although Kinderszenen is Schumann’s easiest mature set of character pieces, it’s still quite difficult. This makes it a desirable set of pieces as it’s so much more approachable than Schumann’s other sets, like Carnaval or Kreisleriana, which are terribly difficult and ought to be played in their entirety.
The first piece in Kinderszenen is Of Foreign Lands and Peoples and it’s the easiest piece in the set. Dr. Magrath’s book (The Pianist’s Guide to Standard Teaching and Performance Literature) ranks it as a Level 6 piece, an upper-intermediate level work. A student at this level needs to start understanding more than just the mechanics of playing the piano. For example, a student at this level should start thinking about what time period a piece was composed in, where the composer was from, and how this might affect their performance.
A significant feature in the music of German (and Austrian) composers during the common-practice period (late 17th-early 20th centuries) is that it is written with distinct layers. The technical term that musicians and composers use to talk about this layering is counterpoint. Particularly in the music of Schumann, there is usually a top (melody), a middle, and a bottom layer (bass). The middle voice is often shared between the right and left hands. In fact, nearly every piece in Kinderszenen is written in this three-layered texture. Of Foreign Lands and Peoples is a great introduction to this type of contrapuntal writing. So, how does this affect the performance?
In one word, VOICING! Of Foreign Lands and Peoples is a perfect piece to teach a rather sophisticated lesson in voicing. Piano teachers often stress that the voicing should be directed towards the top layer, the melody. While this is true, it’s a bit of an oversimplification. Really, the voicing should be directed towards the outside voices, both the top and the bottom. In common-practice music, the bass is nearly as important as the melody (Meghan Trainor would be glad to hear this!). The middle voice should be the quietest. So, there should be three separate layers of dynamics: the melody the loudest, the bass not quite as loud, and the middle the softest.
How would a student practice this deliberately? The quick and easy answer is to separate the voices before they are all played at once. So, the first step would be for the student to play just the outside voices together. Then, they could play just the middle voice, which is split between the hands. They should focus on playing the middle voice as legato and quietly as possible. In particular, the right hand thumb should be played delicately. After the student can handle these preliminary steps, the three layers can be reassembled.
With From Foreign Lands and Peoples, the student could learn a few important concepts that will transfer to a lot of common-practice music by German and Austrian composers, especially Schumann. First, they will learn about national style and counterpoint (music separated into individual voices). Second, they will learn about voicing (melody and bass are most important). Third, they will learn practice strategies to accomplish their goal of playing with three clearly identifiable voices.