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Space Songs: Pieces for the beginning pianists.

Composers' Comments about Space Songs

Space Songs are a series of pieces for the beginning pianist. Most of them are appropriate for use during the first through fifth year of piano study. Space Songs are wonderful pieces--for the right student who is studying with the right teacher! The comments below will give you a good idea of what the "Space Songs" are about and how you might go about teaching/learning them.

Several of the "Space Songs" are available for free download; click here.

"Space Songs" are:

  1. Intended to introduce the concepts and sounds of 20th century music to beginning students in a way that is relatively easy for them to grasp and play (but not necessarily easy for them to read--see below). Such concepts might include: cluster chords, glissandos, non-traditional harmonies, scales, and rhythms, non-traditional use of pedal, etc.  These concepts, although considered "advanced" by some, are easily grasped by youngsters--in fact, more easily grasped by them than by their teachers, who have been "programmed" to think a different way.  For instance, my two-year old spontaneously and effortlessly plays glissandos--on a seven-foot grand piano with a "hard" action--all up and down the keyboard, and this despite the fact that glissandos are usually considered an "advanced" technique.

  2. Intended to complement the usual method books, giving the students experience in areas often neglected in beginning method books: playing all over the keyboard, playing black and white notes, playing in a variety of simple hand positions (not just C and G position), using pedal, playing with different dynamic elements (louds, softs, crescendos, decrescendos), and so on.  All of this is presented in very simplified form that young students can easily grasp.  For instance, the student may play up and down the entire keyboard, but even the beginning student can easily do this because one simple hand position is repeated in every octave.  The piece may be written in E Phrygian, but the students learns that this five-finger position (the five white notes starting on E) is just as easy to find as the C Major five-finger position.

    Nevertheless, these pieces can be considered "difficult" in that they introduce new concepts to the student, and perhaps to the teacher, and these are concepts that are not usually covered in the first few years of method-book study. 

  3. Intended to be taught mostly by rote (i.e., by showing the student how to play the music at the keyboard), with the written music serving only as a guide for the teacher and an aid to memory for the student.  The pieces are constructed to be easy for the student to learn this way, with many repetitive elements and patterns that are easy to see on the keyboard (again, not necessarily easy to read on the page!). 

    Teachers should break down the pieces into simple units--of perhaps one or two measures each--and show the student how to play one or two simple units a week for several weeks.  The teacher can then explain (and perhaps diagram) to the student how all small units fit together to make a larger section.  The teacher might explain: "This pattern repeats 6 times, moving up one octave each time.  To help keep track of how many times you have repeated the pattern, you should count each repetition as you play, like this: 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6."

    When the pieces are presented in this manner, over a period of weeks, even very young students learn them quite easily. 

    This series of pieces was, in fact, brought about by this observation: things that are very simple to do at the keyboard are not always very simple to notate.  Think, for instance, of how easy it is to play all the Cs on the piano from bottom to top, compared with how difficult it is to read the musical notation of those same eight Cs.  Method books emphasize reading--and so, the things that can be easily notated--and ignore a vast repertoire of techniques and ideas that young musicians can learn quite easily. 

  4. Quite demanding of the teacher. The teacher must, for instance, be able to read the notation for notes all over the entire piano keyboard.  In my experience, many teachers of beginning students simply cannot do this, at least not fluently.  And if teachers have never themselves been exposed to the kind of music written after 1890, they may have difficulty understanding, playing, and teaching it.

    The idea behind the pieces is that the teacher must first learn the piece, then show the student how to play it.  If the teacher is a strong reader and performer, this will not be a difficulty.  But if the teacher is only a few steps ahead of the student, this may be a great difficulty, and if such teachers choose to teach this repertoire, they will find that they must spend a great deal of preparation time.

    The teacher must be prepared to demonstrate technical difficulties, illustrate musical ideas, break down difficulties into small steps, show the student how to practice, outline formal elements in a way the student can understand and use in practice and performance, explain the how and why of the music, and motivate the student to see the big picture and to put forward a significant amount of effort in order to learn a piece that is, for young students, of relatively substantial length and difficulty.  

    In short, in presenting these pieces to the student, the teacher must really teach, not just assign pages in a method book for the student to learn at home.

  5. Designed to sound much more difficult and impressive than they really are.  The pieces are very successful from that point of view--although they may take several weeks (at least!) for students to learn, students love to play them because when they are done, the music sounds like a real, long, difficult, sophisticated piece of music, not the sort of little ditty six-year olds usually play. 

--Brent Hugh
Composer of "Space Songs"

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