So of all the composers in the twentieth century it seems that Bartok is the one we piano teachers revere the most, and of all the works for students of the piano ever written by Bartok we reserve our highest regard for that collection of the pieces he wrote for the lessons he gave to his son, Peter: the Mikrokosmos.
It’s systematic, it’s progressive, it was written for the composer’s own nine year old son, it’s designed to be used from the very beginning (Bartok’s own words), it draws on the folk music of a wide area of eastern Europe (at least we think it does) and it represents a very ‘modern’ (in that first half of the 20th century sense) way of playing the piano.
What’s not to like?
And yet, whenever I speak with piano teachers about the Mikrokosmos the same guilty secret is whispered all over the land: we respect this collection above all others, and yet – we very rarely, if ever, teach from it.
Which makes it all the more odd that when I hear piano teachers discussing introducing music from beyond the Baroque-Classical-Romantic triumverate of preferred styles to their students, it is the Mikrokosmos that is broadly agreed should be the entry point students use to their own contemporary pianistic experience.
Context wouldn’t go astray at that point: firstly, a reminder that we are now into the second decade of the twenty-first century, and then let’s refresh our memories regarding the timing of this pinnacle of pedagogical pianism: Peter Bartok was nine years old in 1933. During the Great Depression. No, not the Global Financial Crisis, that other financial meltdown some 75 years earlier.
Since 1933 (and not in chronological order) we’ve had the rise and fall of Hitler, the Cold War, genocides in nearly every continent on the planet, ideological purges in both western and communist nations, decolonialisation, the arrival of television, Polaroids, electric guitars, cassette players, FM radio, digital keyboards, video recorders, laptops, mobile phones, the internet, Elvis, the Beatles/Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, Björk and Britney Spears. We’ve had Woodstock and Womadelaide, CDs and YouTube. Most of us have taken a Pilates class (or at least have an idea what one might be like) and drink cappuccinos/lattes. We eat laksas, kebabs and couscous (well, maybe outside Australia you don’t – substitute ‘curries’ and ‘stir-fries’), and know what a naturopath is. We download. We text. We twitter.
And in this context (as compared to the rarefied air of the pianist’s canon) Bartok seems outrageously non-contemporary, in fact a museum piece – the Mikrokosmos predating Citizen Kane, Death of a Salesman, Waiting for Godot, anything much by Rothko or Pollock, anything at all by Salman Rushdie or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. And maybe more importantly, anything at all on television or even 33 rpm vinyl (LPs).
So there should be no problem reaching a similar broad agreement that whatever claim to ‘modern’ the Mikrokosmos compositions may have (had) in the history of musical style, in the history of the world they are now a good 77 years old, and much has transpired and many generations emerged since their appearance.
And yet, we feel an obligation or a sense of duty to this collection. It will surely impart musical virtue to our students, if we can just find a way to work it into our curricula….
So, what’s good about it?
Well, for starters, Bartok feels no compunction to keep the hands in the same position for piece after piece (in the mode of modern methods) but even better than that, he doesn’t stick to major five-finger positions, neither does he have the right hand thumb on the key-note all the time either. Out of the first 7 pieces, curiously titled “Six Unison Melodies”, the first two are in a standard C Major five-finger position (albeit with the hands two octaves apart) while the next two (2b and 3) are in minor positions (A and D respectively). The fifth piece (number 4) is ‘in’ C, but ‘on’ B: it’s the Locrian five-finger position, but the key-note is C – a position that’s great for reading and nice to play. The next position plays the same trick (right hand thumb is the note below the key-note) with the G Major five-finger position producing an A minor melody. And then we finish with a melody in the same position, but this time actually ‘in’ as well as ‘on’ G.
This fluency with white note positions continues: piece 7 (“Dotted Notes”) is in the Phrygian five-finger position on E, while piece 8 (“Repitition (1)) introduces the F sharp to the same position, giving us the minor. But not so fast: this piece is the first to ask the student to change positions mid-piece, and we end in the D Major five-finger position, but still ‘in’ E minor.
Piece 10 (“With alternate hands”) does something fabulous: it uses a five-finger position not possible in a major or harmonic minor pattern. It’s a minor pattern with the 5th note diminished. This shape exists in the melodic ascending scale when you start on the 6th degree (and also in the scales I call melodic diminished and harmonic diminished). So here we are in a D minor five-finger position, only the A is changed to A flat. Stunning!
And piece 11 (“Parallel Motion”) is equally startling in this beginner phase: the hands use different five-finger positions! The right hand in the G Major position, the left hand in the E white note position (Phrygian). And piece 12 (“Reflection”) continues the theme with the right hand again in this G Major position while the left is in the D minor position.
You may have noticed that the only thing I’m remarking on, really, is the use of hand positions – no commentary on touch or tone or tempo, no observations of and kind at all, in fact, beyond the interesting places Bartok takes beginners through this first Mikrokosmos volume. And that would be because these pieces are unwaveringly legato, unstintingly without dynamic indications (until we reach piece 22, still some ways off), and almost uniform in the required speed (out of the 24 pieces which make up the first two thirds of the book 18 are between 96 and 112 beats per minute), use the bare minimum of syncopation or any other kind of rhythmic intrigue (unless you count 3 bar phrases as being intriguing), apart from a change of time signature for a single bar in piece 12 (“Reflection”).
And this might be why, despite all the good intentions and the ideological commitment to incorporating these pieces from the Mikrokosmos into our teaching with our young students we (the piano teaching profession) never seem to get our act together until Mikrokosmos Book 6. What’s good about these pieces doesn’t include the rhythmic vitality of the 20th century or any hint at the range of moods, expressions and articulations we hear in the space of a 25 second tv theme.
And more than this, these pieces presuppose reading. You try them on your own piano and think about it – they would be tedious to teach by rote! Our students would struggle to take home a sense of what they were about without having the text to remind them which note followed which. As compared to the pieces our students teach each other in play-breaks at primary school, these pieces have no hook, no single point they wish to make, no bursting-out-of-the-soul-of-the-musician element to them that makes a student want a piece of them, like a student wants “Chopsticks”, “The Entertainer” and “Für Elise”, with the exception (in Book 1) of piece 17 (“Contrary Motion (1)”), which I suspect students would pick up in a trice if taught it by rote.
Lurking in the teaching notes of Book 1 are a couple of other seriously cool suggestions from Bela Bartok as regards things to do when assigning and teaching the various pieces: students are encouraged to stamp their feet on the beat of the tied notes in piece 9 (“Syncopation (1)”), and one piece (14, “Question and Answer”) has lyrics included to demonstrate the question and answer effect that should be created when performing each of the phrases, lyrics the students are encouraged to learn to sing prior to ever sitting at the piano to play this piece.
Yes, there were literally exactly two seriously cool suggestions.
And yes, I have restricted my engagement with these early books to just the first volume in this blog post, but my mind rests easy – when I fail to teach these pieces I’m not failing my students at all, or lazily ignoring material that is ideally suited to their needs. While the pieces in the first Mikrokosmos books explore territory that is still unbelievably novel in piano pedagogy terms (modality and keyboard geography) there is even more that they do not do.
I’m content to look for new compositions in these still enticingly unfamiliar pitch patterns in the works of my contemporaries, where touch and rhythm and tone also feature in the learning experience, while still acknowledging the huge debt we piano teachers owe to Bartok for this magnum opus which really did start to change people’s minds about what was right to teach children.
Oh, and to start teaching by rote the fabulous piece 17 (with the not so engaging title “Contrary Motion (1)” which, even 77 years later, is super fun and funky.