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When I began studying music it was all a mystery.  All the notes seemed to be fixed and I couldn’t change them.  This was reinforced to my uneducated mind through the mistakes I made.  Whenever I played a note that wasn’t notated on the page it sounded terrible.  I assumed that any note beyond the notation was wrong.

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I thought it was like the story I read of a famous sculptor who was asked how he would sculpt an elephant.  The sculptor said it was easy.  All I do is eliminate everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.  I assumed music worked the same way.  To play Yankee Doodle all I needed to do is eliminate every note that wasn’t Yankee Doodle.

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There is a principle in teaching that instructs the teacher — GO FROM THE KNOWN TO THE UNKNOWN.  It was obvious from my childhood assumptions above that there was a great deal of the UNKNOWN in my musical education.  I remember that experience and assume the same process is going on in my student’s minds as they begin their piano instruction.  My goal was to help my students not fall into the trap and limitations of holding on to the assumptions I had as a young student that were limiting at best and downright wrong at worst.

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There are many ways I do that in my teaching but today I want to focus on only one of them.  I’ve made several anthologies of “classical music” for my students.  In several of the compositions I took some of the major ideas employed by the composer and applied it to a common folk song.  If a composer uses imitation in a composition I take a folk song and arrange it using the same type of imitation.  If a composer uses syncopation I take a folk song and apply syncopation within the arrangement.  When the young music student compares the similarity between the classical composition and the folk song; what is unknown becomes known.

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This method of learning helps the student understand far better than just giving a text book definition of imitation or syncopation.  Let’s take a couple examples to demonstrate using this method in applying the principle of going from the UNKNOWN TO THE KNOWN.

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Here is a popular teaching piece by Kabalevsky – Chit Chat.  The piece is a simple piece of imitation; a measure is first played by the left hand and is directly imitated by the right hand in the following measure.

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I always mention to students that imitation is something they are going to find very common in the music they will study.  It will enter into their compositions in many different and creative ways.  I use this piece as my “entry level” piece to teach the concept of musical imitation.

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This little arrangement of Are You Sleeping?  uses the same imitation technique as Chit Chat by Kabalevsky.  To add a little variety and to give students another example I created a variation on the Are You Sleeping? theme.

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Using this method helps students become aware of how a composer can use an idea like imitation to create a composition.  For teachers who teach composition this is a good simple technique that can be used to guide students to make their compositions more interesting.

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The page on the left is another way to reinforce the concept of imitation.  The student is given the major phrases of the folk song Three Blind Mice.  The student is given two measures to write out the imitation.

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The teacher may certainly aid the student in helping him write out the imitation but most students do rather well in understanding the assignment and knowing what to do to fulfill the requirements.

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A good piece to introduce students to syncopation is Morning Greeting by Gurlitt.

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The same syncopation is repeated throughout the piece.  Also, there is always a chord to play on beat one to help the student feel/create the feel of the syncopation.

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To reinforce the concept of syncopation to the student I created an arrangement of the popular folk song Cockles and Mussels.  I used Cockles and Mussels because it also could be syncopated with the same rhythmic arrangement of notes as Gurlitt’s Morning Greeting.

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The pedagogical use for the Ecossaise in G major by Schubert is that it is one of the few pieces that uses root position dominant 7th chords.  Root position 7th chords makes a perfect springboard for the introduction of teaching 7th chords.

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To compliment the Ecossaise in G I took the old madrigal Now is the Month of Maying by Thomas Morley and arranged it with several root position dominant 7th chords.  Again, when students get an opportunity to see the similarity between the two compositions the student grows in understanding that music follows rules and traditions.  When students are made aware of these rules and traditions their understanding and assimilation of their repertoire will be facilitated.

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Finally, I would like to explain my way of helping students experience the common practice of changing from a major mode to the parallel minor.  Kabalevsky makes use of this technique in a piece he wrote called The Little March.  The first phrase is in C major and the second phrase repeats the same material in C minor.

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To further the students understanding of the changing from major to minor I took the popular folk song Shortnin’ Bread.  Through the little arrangement I alter the mode of the phrases going from major to minor.  Being that most students are familiar with Shortnin’ Bread they can more easily discern the dramatic difference that this change of mode creates.

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Using folk songs in this way has been a great way to teach my students the great musical tradition we follow.  It has been one of the major ways I use to help my students go from the UNKNOWN and make it KNOWN by going from the KNOWN (folk songs) and showing the connection it can have to the UNKNOWN (our musical tradition).

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