Back to the Piano Education Home Page

Musical Discovery:  Some Thoughts on Choosing Repertoire


by Linda Holzer, D.Mus.
University of Arkansas - Little Rock


usic teachers fill a special role in modern American society. In the 21st century, we are both innovators in the present and keepers of the cultural flame that was passed to us by our own mentors. We want our students to appreciate the relevance of music and musicians to their lives. The repertoire we choose to teach becomes an important tool in this process.

The piano has been blessed with a truly vast repertoire, representing centuries of keyboard material. The piano repertoire continues to grow, with modern composers adding to it each year. The blessing in this condition is that the possibilities for musical discovery are endless!




American music is one of my special interests. Two modern composers whose works I especially enjoy are William Bolcom, born in 1938, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, born in 1939 (pronunciation of her name rhymes with "safe hillock"). Bolcom and Zwilich have in common an international acclaim for their music and commissions from some of the world's leading orchestras and soloists. In 1983, Zwilich became the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Symphony No. 1. In 1988, Bolcom was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his "Twelve New Etudes for Piano." A native of Seattle, Washington, Dr. Bolcom is currently on the faculty of the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. Now the holder of the Carnegie Hall Composer's Chair, Dr. Zwilich, a native of Miami, Florida, resides in New York. Both composers have shown a special fondness for the piano, and in recent years each has written a composition that would be of particular interest to pre-college students. The titles of the works readily hint at the spirit of fun that imbues each:

"Monsterpieces (and others)" by Bolcom
"The Peanuts Gallery" by Zwilich

"Monsterpieces (and others)" is a set of 10 short works, crafted to introduce young pianists to contemporary keyboard sonorities in engagingly imaginative ways. Bolcom's wit and good humor, a feature of all of his music, whether for young children or advanced concert artists, is evident throughout this set. Titles include "The Mad Monster," "The Bitty Town," and "Big Mountain." Students who are capable of playing music at the level of the Classic composer Daniel Türk's "Pieces for Beginners" are ready for the challenges in the first 5 "Monsterpieces." The last 5 pieces are somewhat more complex, but not by far. The score is published by Edward B. Marks Music (Hal Leonard) for $4.95.

William Bolcom is a pianist-composer, and his music shows a real idiomatic affinity, a real love, for the piano. As a boy in Seattle, Bolcom absorbed many American musical traditions: parlor songs, Broadway musicals, ragtime, and jazz, as well as receiving training in Classical standard repertoire. In fact, Bolcom first became famous for his part in the ragtime revival of the late 1960s and for his work as a composer of American art song. (He and his wife, soprano Joan Morris, still perform widely in a cabaret program.) In Bolcom's art, as in his life, the worlds of classical and popular music enjoy a thriving coexistence. Intermediate students who are capable of playing ragtime of Scott Joplin would likely also enjoy Bolcom's works in that genre, including "Seabiscuits Rag" and a suite, "Three Ghost Rags." A collection of rags by William Bolcom is published by Edward B. Marks Music (Hal Leonard) for $12.95.

"The Peanuts Gallery" is a 14-minute work for piano and orchestra. A suite of 6 movements, the work is intended for the advanced intermediate pianist, one who has mastered some of the Bach 3-part inventions, and is playing at the level of the Kabalevsky "Youth Concerto." The textures in the solo piano part are generally lean and accessible, so the soloist is able to focus more on the lively rapport with the orchestra. Again, good humor abounds; the work is a treat for the imagination. Titles include "Schroeder's Beethoven Fantasy," "Lullaby for Linus," and "Snoopy Does the Samba." This score is available in 2-piano format (the second piano part is the orchestral reduction), published by Merion Music (Theodore Presser) for $9.95.

Although Ellen Zwilich was at one time a professional violinist, she also studied piano, and writes very sympathetically for the instrument. Her music, like Bolcom's, feels good in the hands. At the Carnegie Hall premiere last March, the concert program included a note from the composer entitled, "An Open Letter to the Peanuts Gang" which warmly describes the style of each movement:

"Dear Peanuts, I have written some music for and about you.
For Schroeder: 'Schroeder's Beethoven Fantasy' is based on a few bars of a piece you play on your toy piano (Beethoven's 'Hammerklavier Sonata'). Since you love Beethoven so much, I imagine you improvising and creating a new piece (a fantasy) on Beethoven's music.
For Linus: It seems that nap time is never far from your mind or, at least, that you're always prepared with your blanket, so here's 'Lullaby for Linus' just for you.
For Snoopy: I think you're really 'cool," and I know you like to dance so get your paws in gear for a hot-blooded Brazilian whirl in 'Snoopy Does the Samba.'
For Charlie Brown: for all those times when life causes you to cry 'Good Grief!', a rather wistful, but not terribly sad, 'Charlie Brown's Lament.'
For Lucy: who can go from perfectly calm to absolutely wild in a single cartoon frame: 'Lucy Freaks Out.' (I hope you can hold your composure during this concert!)
For Peppermint Patty and Marcie: with thanks for encouraging me in my work ("Good Going, Ellen!") and because you're such good campers, 'Peppermint Patty and Marcie Lead the Parade.' Yes, Sir!
--Ellen Taaffe Zwilich"

Dr. Zwilich has also arranged 2 movements of the concerto for piano solo: Lullaby for Linus, and Snoopy Does the Samba. These are available as single sheet music pieces from Merion Music for $3.50.

Although Zwilich has not written other intermediate repertoire for piano, she has composed several advanced chamber music pieces. Her "Chamber Symphony," written in 1979, and "Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano," composed in 1987, are perhaps her two most famous and often-performed works featuring the piano.

There is so much good music out there! The process of musical discovery would be daunting if the territory were totally uncharted. How does a pianist find out what the choices are? We are fortunate to have several valuable guides to piano repertoire, two of which have been published within the past 10 years. These books list compositions alphabetically, grouped by composer's name, and identifies such important information as the publisher, the length of the piece, and the approximate level of difficulty. The first book is by Maurice Hinson: Guide to the Pianist's Repertoire, 2nd, revised and enlarged edition, published in 1987 by Indiana University Press (ISBN # 025332-656-7) for $37.50. The second text is by Jane Magrath: The Pianist's Guide to Standard Teaching and Performance Literature, published in 1995 by Alfred Publishing Company (ISBN #088284-655-8), for $39.95.

For pianists, there is never a shortage of choices, and the process of musical discovery is joyfully perpetual. As Sergei Rachmaninoff once observed, "Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music."

Page created: 9/3/97
Last updated: 01/30/15
Site Policies Credits About Feedback Reprinting

Reprinting from the Piano Education Page The Piano Education Page, Op. 10, No. 1,
© Copyright 1995-2016 John M. Zeigler. All rights reserved.