Let’s talk about intermediate piano students because, let’s face it….intermediate students come with a unique set of problems, tastes, and preferences. Most of these students are teens and not as willing to work on music that does not appeal to them. Their assessment of their skills are not always based in reality, but they regularly receive praise from well-meaning supporters that hear them perform. They can quickly become frustrated by technical challenges and can easily become distracted by the “new fun piece” rather than seeking to polish the one that is before them now. It becomes tantamount that teachers help intermediate pianists explore new sounds of the instrument while still providing plenty of opportunity to relax and enjoy the familiar that they can successfully achieve. In my personal experience, the intermediate student is at the highest risk of quitting their piano study. I have found that providing variety and guided choice in repertoire selection is very important to the retention of the intermediate pianist.
Grace and Serenity (Arlington J. Jones II)
Composer Arlington J. Jones II was born in 1973 in Chicago shortly before moving with his family to Texas. A Steinway Artist, Jones’ study has combined his love for both jazz and classical music. Notably for this West Texas educator, Jones received his Bachelor’s degree just down the road at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. Jones states that his musical styles are heavily influenced by Debussy as well as jazz greats Oscar Peterson and Duke Ellington. In addition to his composing, Jones tours as a soloist and with his band, Arlington Jones and The Brethren, as well as being active in jazz preservation. To learn more about this exciting artist, visit his website.
A quick examination of Jones’ piece Grace and Serenity will immediately evoke thoughts of warm jazz harmonies with its slow moving tempo and contemporary chords. At first glance, there may seem little to challenge the intermediate pianist technically. What I find most exciting about the work is the opportunity to explore chromatic movement in multiple voices while also developing skills in calling attention to different moving lines in the inner voices of the piano. (That’s definitely a change for these students as most of our interest in the elementary repertoire is drawn to the uppermost voice.) With its clear print, it is also a tremendous resource to allow pianists to practice their reading of accidentals — with sharps, flats, and naturals often appearing in the same measure. Grace and Serenity was published in 2007 by La Jolla Music and is distributed by Neil A. Kjos Music.
Rain on the Lake (Mary Leaf)
Mary Leaf is an active collaborative pianist in the Bismarck, North Dakota region. She received her undergraduate degree in music education from the University of Washington with continuing education in pedagogy from North Dakota State University. Although retired from active piano teaching, Leaf continues to compose. Her works are available exclusively through FJH Music.
Rain on the Lake was published in 2012 and is a wonderfully evocative representation of a relaxing spring shower. With its perpetual triplet figure and careful attention to harmonic pedaling, the piece challenges intermediate pianists to allow the simplicity of the melodic line to soar above the active accompaniment. Most teen pianists will also enjoy the cross-hand movements required; to my ears, these delicate raindrops of sound provide an interesting countermelody to the work’s main theme.
12 Masterful Piano Solos (John Thompson)
Almost anyone who has been around the craft of teaching the piano for any amount of time will quickly recognize the name John Thompson. While we immediately think of his best-selling Teaching Little Fingers to Play and Modern Course for the Piano, many fail to remember that Thompson was a major concert pianist of the 1920s. Following World War I, he became widely respected as a pedagogue, heading the music conservatories in Indianapolis, Philadelphia, and the Kansas City Conservatory of Music. A student of composition at the University of Pennsylvania, Thompson created interesting works for the intermediate and early advanced pianist that continue to stand the test of time.
12 Masterful Piano Solos of John Thompson is one volume in The Classic Piano Repertoire series published by the Willis Piano Company. The dates of composition range from 1925 to 1963 (the year of the composer’s death). Several of the pieces in this collection were first published under pseudonyms; for this volume, every piece has been correctly credited to Thompson based on the publisher’s opening note.
To give you an idea of the repertoire included in this volume, I will examine two of the pieces. Lagoon (1955) is a stunning piece for the intermediate pianist and a great way to introduce a third staff to the student in preparation for future work with composers such as Debussy. The third staff is used to allow for greater ease of reading; once decoded, the required choreography is a natural cross-hand pattern that students will enjoy. Harmonically, the piece is typical of the early 20th century and harkens to the French Impressionists. Graceful and gentle, Lagoon explores the importance of sustained chords and careful coloration of arpeggios and chords.
In contrast, the 1953 version of Scherzando in G Major is a delightful character piece that is full of vitality and mirth. (The piece first appeared in 1925 under the title The Fairies’ Frolic.) The piece is composed in a standard ABA form. The contrasting middle section in E minor is a study of harmonic progression back to the relative major. Throughout, this charming composition is a chance for the performer to show their speed and dexterity without demanding large hand spans that are sometimes challenging for our developing students.