Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Time Capsule

Some years ago, I rescued a pile of sheet music from my Grandmother's piano bench.  The collection included a bunch of primers and elementary courses for beginners — my Grandmother gave lessons from time to time — including a number of volumes by a prolific compiler of piano methods, John Thompson, all of which appear to still be in print.  In search of some material for my daughter, I recently thumbed through one of these, John Thompson's Easiest Piano Course, which carries  a copyright of 1955.  

While the little book is nicely laid-out, and is not badly organized as a course, including well-integrated lessons in notation, the treatment of both hands (and two clefs) from the beginning with equal emphasis, and some surprisingly adventurous harmonizations for the teacher to accompany the student, the book soon introduces material that is uncomfortably inseparable of an era gladly gone, and suprising to encounter in an educational work still in print: The Old Cotton Picker,  In a Rickshaw  (a bit of pentatonic chinoiserie accompanied by a picture of a man in a western suit and hat riding in a carriage pulled by a man in traditional Asian clothing), and The Banjo Picker (with a minstrel-style blackface caricature).

While there is no reason to suppose that Thompson's intentions were overtly racist, and it seems likely that he was just gathering arrangements for young hands of tunes with patriotic and Americana themes  (the collection also includes Yankee Doodle, The Seabees, and The Paratrooper), and he may even have intended to project a — for its time — culturally diverse viewpoint, it is hard, if not impossible, to escape the complex and often ambiguous  (minstrel shows, for example?) baggage carried by these materials, even when they were once part and parcel of American musical life.  But using these materials today introduces some heavy culture baggage into childrens' piano lessons.    

So — although it sometimes raises some ethnographic issues of its own — I'll be starting my daughter on the Bartok Mikrokosmos  instead.  For the time being, Thompson's time capsule can stay in the piano bench and perhaps, when it comes time to discuss historical topics in a serious way with my daughter, it can usefully be revisted as realia, illustrating a far different time.


1 comment:

sfmike said...

Mikrokosmos is more fun anyway.

Your story reminds of taking a generic English/math entrance exam at San Francisco City College in the early 1980s and coming across questions like, "If a farmer has 20 acres and needs to use 45 pounds of DDT on each acre, how much DDT will he need?"