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Essential Characteristics of Teaching Pieces for the Lower Grades.


Every experienced teacher necessarily formulates in some interior part of his mind certain elements which he thinks pieces ought to have or not have for pupils in the early stages of learning. Yet it is rare that he is able to state precisely what are the qualities such music ought to have, and still more difficult to say what are the things it certainly ought not to have.

Object of Giving Pieces:—Beginning with your seventeenth question, since this affords a good start, I will say that the object of giving pieces is to promote facility of reading, musical feeling, and ease in playing, and either one of these merits in a piece makes it worthy of selection, upon occasion, even though the remaining elements be not quite up to grade. Musical quality, the quality of pleasing the ear when the piece is carefully heard, is the first thing, and I would not select any work lacking this.

Repetitions:—When it is a question of reading, and the pupil is really in the very first stages, it is evident that pieces must be chosen in which the same form occurs repeatedly, such as certain positions of chords, certain phrase forms of melody, and so on. A piece in fugue form or canonic imitation is impossible at the beginning, both because the hands are too untrained and the eye also. Even when the pupil is expected to learn the piece entirely by heart, and to learn it even to the perfection required by Miss Dingley (who wants each hand alone, all the chords in succession, the accented notes of the measure in time and without the intervening notes, etc.), even in this case the forms must contain a good deal of repetition, both for the eye and for the memory, because in these very early stages the mind has very little material to work with, and we are beginning to form music-tracks, or routes, through the ear-circles and through the eye-circles of perception.

Reading Helps:—It will be a great deal easier if the pupil has had all the chord forms to play and to write before being called upon to read them off the notes. Melody-tracks also might be formed in advance. A true pedagogy requires us to keep the thing itself always in advance of the sign, but we commonly ignore this in our elementary lessons. Our staff notation adds to our difficulties, since it is not enough for the pupil to be able to hear the kind of measure when the piece is played to her; she must also be able to read it, whether we chance to give her a piece in which a quarter note or an eighth stands for one pulse. The tonic sol-fa people avoid this difficulty, because as soon as the pupil is trained to feel and hear the simple measures and the pulse, combined and divided pulses, she finds a large circle of music open to her; whereas upon the staff, our elementary music is brought together from so many sources that it contains too many difficulties at once—some of which are net at all vital.

New Music Needed:—I formed the idea quite a while ago, and time has only confirmed me in it, that it is quite time that all our early music for piano was rewritten. I mean we need new stuff. The old- fashioned music is too poor as music, particularly German music. The German musical world is divided into three classes, and the composers into two: Those who have musical genius, and those who are simply good carpenters. Now, all the easy German music for children, excepting some by such writers as Reinecke, Gurlitt, Alban Foerster, Gayrrhos, and a few others, is written by the carpenter class. The late and most worthy Louis Koehler was one of the the (sic) latter class, and I have yet to see the first piece of his which is fit for a lesson to a young pupil. The French, on the other hand, used to be very good, indeed, in this line.

We are undergoing just such a transition in music as was formerly experienced in reading circles. The old idea is given up that the child must begin with words of two letters, go on to three, then four, then five, and from one syllable to two, then to three syllables, and so on. The same thing was always happening to the sentence as often happens to the geography in well-graded circles. The pupil starts out to design a journey, and gets ten or fifteen miles away “from home, only to run off into another State, which does not “belong in her grade.” So with another sentence: “The old white horse jumped over the fence into the meadow.” We get the horse all right in the first grade; also the old and the white. We have the fence for him to jump; but what he jumped into lies two grades higher, and we will leave the sentence unfinished until the second year from now, when, please God, we will discover this unknown land where the horse has probably killed himself long before now.

Chords:—Chords must be given as ear exercises and hand exercises among the very first things a child has to learn. Accordingly, only practicable positions can be used,—three tones, never four; that is, no octave positions. Chords are excellent for technic, and it is a great mistake to leave the solid hand unformed and unacquired until later. It is merely a question of adjustment, and the trick is easy to teach.

Modulations:—Musical modulations or allusions to related keys are permissible if the music is good enough. It does not particularly matter whether the new key is a fifth relative or a third above or below. Any musical change of this kind is its own reward, provided the teacher does not permit it to pass without being really heard.

Rhythm:—All the pieces for children ought to have a good reliable rhythm, not necessarily of the quick dance variety, but with music enough to make them worth studying. Quick dance forms are extremely useful for developing reliable and spirited playing. When one desires to make a beginning in velocity, playing a piece with fast, running work like the old- fashioned running “spinning songs” is good. Sidney Smith’s “Mountain Stream” has done many a good job for me in former days.

Expression:—Of course, I believe personally that it is a great mistake not to form the playing toward real expression in the very earliest stages. A soft, round, and musical tone, full and satisfying, yet never hard,—this is something which every pupil may just as well have as not if the teacher will go about it aright. The ear also needs to be formed for poetic harmonies, and for this reason I prize very highly many little pieces, such as are found in my “Introduction to Phrasing” and the “First Book in Phrasing.” Heller is by no means gone by.

Short Forms:—All pieces for very young players ought to be rather short, because I believe that everything they learn that is really musical ought to be learned by heart; and this means that the form should not be too long. I know of a little miss of seven, who is a very slow reader, but who plays the Minuet finale of Beethoven’s sonata in G-major, opus 49, with lots of gusto. She brings to this task a wholly unusual experience, being able to hear chords and all sorts of things clearly, and remember them in a series of six or more. Beethoven in this piece confines himself within very narrow limits.

Dr. Mason’s Idea:—Dr. William Mason gave his idea of what pupils might read and play in the little pieces in “Mason and Hoadley’s” methods (1868 and 1870). He there introduces all sorts of remote keys, and the pieces worked. The children liked them. We have too many, far too many, in the key of C.

Titles:—Titles are valuable, but I am against this modern woman’s idea that nothing in music is intelligible to the child until associated with some doggerel words, like those of Mother Goose. Without meaning to deprive anybody of their parentage, I must draw the line personally at this classic for filling up time and avoiding ideas. A child beginning music wants to learn music. A musical perception is one thing; a “Mother Goose” perception is another. They do not belong together. Those err who mix them up. Experience shows that the child feels the incongruity and enjoys a true musical training better.

Harmonic Qualities:—Simple accompaniments, as a rule. Chromatics occasionally. No objection to dissonances. In fact, we are at the beginning of a new world in child-teaching. A teacher of my acquaintance not only requires and gets correct hearing of chord sequences, but also forms the habit of the child dropping down upon any three notes and singing the true root of the combination thus made; she also tells whether it is major or minor, and resolves the dissonance if any there be. In other words, the beginnings of artistic perceptions are here formed and a real foundation of musical taste. When this kind of thing becomes ordinary instruction (and the world does move rather fast, on the whole) all our elementary music will move down from one to three grades in the rating, just as all our advanced music already has—the studies of Chopin, for instance—fallen at least three grades lower than twenty-five years ago.


Bearing in mind my personal experience, it seems to me that for the earliest pieces those involving repeated notes or repeated chords should be rejected. Pieces with arpeggiated chords or pieces with large, hard-to-finger chords, and pieces with “hard spots” more difficult than the main portion of the piece are to be avoided in all grades.

The great desiderata are, First, to find pieces worthy of the pupil’s respect and liking; and, Second, to find pieces that he is bound to like. Whether the teacher likes them or not is another matter. With different sorts of pupils different sorts of pieces; some pupils “take” to the better class of music; others can never arrive at a just appreciation of the good in art; but the teacher is bound to keep working for their improvement. By all means choose pieces with decided rhythm, good harmony, and rich melody in all grades —if there be such. Descriptive pieces with really poetical bases are invaluable.


First of all, I wish to say that the following answers are to be construed as applying to the average child only. The opinions contained in them may be indefinitely modified in their application either to very talented or very dull children. Perhaps I should premise that I am one of those teachers who believe that music should be made just as simple for children as is at all possible. One reason is because they grow to love it more than if they have to struggle over its difficulties. Another reason is that those of our pupils who attend the public schools have long study-hours, and when they leave school the need of recreation and exercise in the open air is urgent. If the practice-hour interferes with this it does harm rather than good; therefore the practice-hour should be shortened as much as possible, and, the simpler the work is made for the pupils, the more they can accomplish in the brief time at their disposal. Of course, there are some pupils to whom work is as the breath of their nostrils, and their treatment should be different, although even such pupils must not be allowed to work to the detriment of their health.

Chromatic Progressions:—I would not use pieces containing chromatic progressions in the very first grades; but they can be introduced with great advantage as the pupil progresses, since they accustom the fingers to using the black keys readily, and short chromatic passages are useful not only for that purpose, but for practice in using the thumb.

Modulations Used:—In the earlier grades I prefer to use pieces which are formed upon the tonic, dominant, and subdominant triads of the very simple keys. Later on, I think, the modulations should, as a general rule, be confined to the most nearly related keys, so that the pupils can be made to understand the harmonies of every piece they study.

Melodic Quality:—In the first grades melodiousness is most certainly a necessity. Afterward, when the development of finger-dexterity becomes a necessity, little study-pieces which do not contain such a very pronounced melody are useful in connection with the more melodious compositions.

Homophonic Structure:—I should select for the very first grade pieces which are homophonic in structure; for the next grade pieces in two-part harmonies; while the next step would be to pieces formed on the tonic, dominant, and subdominant triads of the simpler keys, such as I have mentioned in answer to question No. 2.

Polyphonic Treatment:—I would not use polyphonic music for the average child; it would appeal only to the very few

Rhythm:—Decided rhythm is always attractive to children; it develops the rhythmic sense in those who lack it, and for these reasons I think it should certainly be an element in music for children.

Dance Rhythms: — Dance rhythms, especially waltzes, aire, it seems to me, indispensable. A pretty waltz will appeal to a child who can scarcely be made to take an interest in any other form of composition. I do not believe that a child’s taste should be forced any more than its technic. If a child shows a preference for the lighter styles of music his taste should be gratified for the moment, and it should then be the aim of the teacher gently and gradually to wean him from his natural preferences and to develop his taste along the best lines. Any effort to force music upon a child whose taste has not been developed so that he can love and appreciate it is likely to prove injurious.

Descriptive or Characteristic Piece:—Descriptive and characteristic pieces are very useful, and can be made to arouse the imaginative sense by a few apt words of description. For instance, a “boat-song” or a “cradle-song” can easily be made attractive by a suitable word-picture, as can also any of the large family of compositions in imitation of brooklets and mill-wheels. A title is valuable in the same way.

Left-Hand Parts:—In the first grades I think the left-hand parts should be written principally with a view to securing a good legato; therefore they should be very simple, and in single notes. The next step would be simple chord-harmonies, at first dispersed, and later close. Thus progress will be gradually made toward using the hands independently.

Chords:—The size of the chord should depend upon the pupil’s hand. Very few children could play chords of four members; therefore smaller ones would be more suitable in most cases. I would not advocate wide skips from bass-note to succeeding chord, as it would lead to inaccuracy and blurring in striking the bass-note.

Passages in Chords:—I consider forcing technic in children one of the seven deadly sins; therefore I should carefully avoid passages in chords, octaves, thirds, and sixths, except in very unusual cases.

Easy Hand-Position:—I think an easy and natural hand-position one of the first requisites in teaching children, and I should consider any stretches wide enough to interfere with such a position unadvisable.

Use of the Pedal:—I would not advise the use of the pedal until the pupil can understand why and where it should be used; also until the use of it will not interfere with a good position at the piano.

Objects for the Use of Pieces:—It would be difficult to say what cannot be taught by pieces if they are well selected and rightly used. Perhaps the most direct results achieved by their use are independence of the hands, legato, melody-playing, phrasing, expression, and rhythm.

Suggested Pieces:—Good teaching pieces have different requisites in different grades, and I think they should be used systematically to produce certain results. For example, the first necessity in music-teaching is to establish a good hand-position and form a good legato, and any piece which interferes with these objects had best be avoided. To attain them very great simplicity is needed, and in that grade I like the “Five-Note Melodies” of Miss Kate Chittenden, because a perfect hand-position and a good legato can be maintained with the least possible effort. They are short, easy to memorize, and great favorites with children.

When the legato and hand-position are, perhaps, not established, but progressing in that direction, the questions of tone-production, phrasing, and expression should be suggested to the pupil, and to do this pieces of a different character are needed. At this stage I find the “Primary Tone-Sketches” of Mrs. Crosby Adams the most suitable material I know of, because, in addition to the qualities above enumerated, they unite charming little melodies with simple harmonies.

The next step would be to give some work in the direction of finger-dexterity, and for this purpose I should use pieces with easy finger-passages, on the five notes, and the very simplest harmonies. In this grade I find very useful two little pieces by Marston, called “Melody” and “Playtime.” Also the “Merry Bobolink,” by Krogman.

For developing rhythm I use, among others, “The Rainbow Fairy,” by Krogman, and “See Saw, Margery Daw,” by Lynes.

In somewhat more advanced grades I find the now too little used music of Lichner and Spindler admirable for the development of a smooth and even technic. The Clementi sonatinas, which are, unfortunately, the only very easy classical literature we have, are invaluable not only for technical, but for mental, development as well.

As a rule, I find it better to develop the fingers, wrists, and the rhythmic sense, as well as the qualities I have mentioned above, before giving any music with harmonies which are in the least difficult. By these means a pupil can be taught to memorize more readily. When more difficult harmonies are introduced, every faculty is in better preparation for them, and more intelligent playing is the result.


The selection of suitable pieces for pupils who are doing primary work demands careful thought on the part of the earnest and conscientious teacher.

Objects of Pieces:—One of the principal objects in giving pieces is to please the pupil and lead him to take greater interest in his musical studies. Now, if this were the only requirement, it would seem easy of accomplishment, as one can soon learn what best pleases a pupil. But other considerations are to be taken into account, and one of these is the necessity for pleasing the parents or guardians as well as the pupil. This may seem to the teacher like “bowing the knee to Baal,” but a moment’s thought will convince him of the wisdom of the policy. In nine cases out of ten the musical taste of the pupil will be a little in advance of that found in his own household, and he may be quite pleased with a piece when the teacher plays it over for him and gives him a lesson on it; but if it happens to be lacking in that indefinable “something” that attracts and pleases the ear of the non-musician, he will soon be told by some member of the family that his new piece is “the ugliest thing I ever heard.” Now the mental effect which this opinion produces upon the little student is anything but happy. He has been taught to respect the opinions of his elders, and believes them worthy of consideration; consequently their adverse criticism cools his enthusiasm and lessens his desire to learn the new piece thoroughly. On the other hand, a piece that elicits the approval of the home-circle will call forth the pupil’s best efforts; he will be called upon to play it for visitors,—possibly before he has learned it thoroughly,—but this will only incite him to renewed effort in his desire to please his admiring listeners.

Musicianly:—The teaching piece, no matter how simple, should also be a musicianly composition, for its mission includes not only the giving of pleasure to pupil and parent, but the development—as well—of a correct musical taste. These two qualifications form the “Scylla and Charybdis” between which the teacher must steer to the best of his ability; and in so doing he finds himself using—over and over again—a few pieces that contain this happy, but rare, combination.

Melody:—From the technical standpoint, a teaching piece should possess a fresh and attractive melody that will admit of being broken up into short phrases for the purpose of imitation, so that the left hand may have a partial share in the guiding theme, or motif.

Rhythm:—Rhythmic vigor is also an important feature, not of the “turn, turn,” sort, however (which, if strictly adhered to, will make even a beautiful melody tame and commonplace), but a well-marked, easy-flowing rhythm, free from any complications that would be likely to prove a stumbling-block to the beginner.

Harmonic Quality: — A fourth qualification is smooth and correct progression in the harmony. The following example of progressions frequently used in first and second grade pieces is simply unpardonable:


To allow the pupil’s ear to become familiar with the above kangaroo-like specimen is as reprehensible as to permit a grammar-school boy to say: “I ain’t going nowhere.” The generally accepted rules of good part- writing ought to govern the structure of the simple piece as well as that of the more advanced composition. Aside from the harmonic ugliness of the above example, it should be avoided on account of the long skips, which interfere with a quiet and easy position of the left hand, and force it to be constantly changing position. In first and second grade music it is better that both hands be kept as quiet as possible, and, where a decided change of position becomes necessary, it should be accomplished by a scale passage rather than by a skip.

Descriptive Titles:—An attractive title is a valuable adjunct to the teaching piece; that is, if the music and title are happily wedded. For example, a piece in rondo form—consisting of light scale passages —will create more enthusiasm if named “The Merry Skylark” or “Song of the Thrush,” from the fact that it connects the music with the bird-world, and thus arouses the imaginative faculties.

Keys Used:—It is good policy to give pieces in keys with which the pupil has been made familiar, as the scales, finger-exercises, and chords of a key form the logical basis for work upon pieces, and make them much easier to master. A judicious use of the minor modes is also a desirable qualification, as the dislike which many pupils entertain for the minor scales changes to admiration when they come to make acquaintance with the minor mode through the medium of pieces.

Use of Pedal:—In pieces of first and second grade the necessity for the use of the pedal is questionable; and, if wide skips in the melody are avoided, and the accompanying harmony formed of conjunct chords, its use can very well be dispensed with.

Editing:—Careful fingering is always an important consideration; many seemingly difficult passages are made quite easy when the proper fingering is applied, and become not only a pleasure to the student, but also a source of profit in the line of technical development.

It may sometimes seem advisable to give a piece that is a little beyond the ability of the pupil, hoping it may prove a stimulus to his ambition; but, as a general thing, the teaching piece should be an epitome of the technical work already accomplished, and of a grade of difficulty which makes it possible for the pupil to play it before his family and friends without becoming in the least frightened or nervous; unless this be the case, the piece fails of its most important mission, for it becomes a terror instead of a pleasure.

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