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Piano instruction: Arrangements of Classics or the real deal?

One of my adult transfer students brought an arrangement of Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude” that was an insult to the composer’s original intention. It was poorly transcribed in an alien key, awkwardly fingered, and contained a mountain of additional challenges– a no brain reason to terminate this particular learning adventure. (besides even the “arrangement” was over her head)

The teacher, by the way, to whom I sent the student when I relocated to Berkeley from Fresno, had initially inquired if I had given her Fur Elise in transcription. (or easy arrangement)

My answer was resolute! “Of course she was given Beethoven’s manuscript and not a sugar-coated reduction.”

The adult pupil began lessons with me about 7 years before, so her baby-step advances over that time brought her from Celebration Book one selections, (Toronto Corservatory) “Minuet” by Hook, J.S Bach “Bouree,” Kabalevsky “Joke,” etc. through Album for the Young (“First Sorrow”) and Anna Magdalena collection of Minuets, to Clementi Sonatinas, etc. Over a vast period of time she was primed to learn more advanced music such as Fur Elise, Chopin Waltz in A minor, Op. Posthumous. (And her study included playing scales and arpeggios around the Circle of Fifths in various permutations: parallel and contrary motion–thirds and tenths)

Currently, having returned to my studio, by lessons over Skype, she’s working on J.S. Bach Invention 4 in D minor, and Burgmuller’s “Clear Stream” and “Sorrow.” (She previously studied “Sincerity” and “Angel’s Voices” from Op. 100, Twenty-Five Progressive Piano Pieces.

A Classical Sonata is next on the menu. (no arrangements, transcriptions or reductions)


The age of quick and easy shortcuts, sadly does not appeal to me, but if students want such attenuated musical passage they can find any number of teachers who’ll go along for the ride.

Some Exceptions:

Certain pieces have been scored for piano and orchestra that are part of the mainstream concert repertoire.

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is a good example, and Flight of the Bumblebee has a few dazzling arrangements that are warhorses to play.

I have an album of Tchaikovsky Nutcracker transcriptions that are appealing and well-scored for piano.

But if given a choice of offering the Nutcracker transcription to a student over an original selection from Tchaikovsky’s Album for the Young, I’d opt for the latter.

Same applies to Shostakovich who composed his own memoir-driven collection with programmatic titles. Bartok, a Hungarian composer joined in.

This past week I previewed Schumann’s Intermediate to advanced offerings in the composer’s Album for the Young which have built-in in teaching goals. The same technique/learning dimension applies to collections I’ve previously referenced.

With Kabalavesky’s Children’s Pieces, Op. 39, for example, you don’t have to be a child to play and enjoy.

“A Game” by the same composer

An ADULT SKYPE STUDENT works on “A Game”

Without doubt, a feast of original manuscripts can whet a students appetite and prime him for long-term musical development.

And if we’re discussing a beginner adult student (as this is my demographic) he/she could learn Minuets and Dances that may be in five-finger positions but having modulations that make the journey appealing.

While some popular Classical works are scored in duet form such as Brahms Lullaby, I would rather hunt down an original four-hand composition that is within reach of a student but in the composer’s own pen.

In the contemporary music realm there are many duets that are extremely appealing and worth the time and effort to learn. Same applies to jazz solos and duets. A few of my younger students are playing Boogies while composing their own. These adventures are sandwiched in with classical repertoire, plus scales, arpeggios, chords, inversions, etc.

I’m sure many of my colleagues will disagree with my purist approach to piano teaching, but such a world of differences is part of our landscape.

“First Sorrow” (Schumann Album for the Young)

10 thoughts on “Piano instruction: Arrangements of Classics or the real deal?”

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more Shirley. We need purists such as yourself as educational opportunities are continually dumbed down elsewhere. As I have said to my students many times. “There are no shorts cuts, and yes, I know you can do this better at home!”


  2. Yes I agree with you too, but as a music learner who is also a language teacher I would say there is educational benefit to an adult student to have a look at a simplified version or an adaptation and compare with an original. I recently insisted on getting hold of an adaptation for the piano of the adagio from Bruch’s violin concerto in G minor, just because I liked the tune. My teacher was tolerant of (though not enthusiastic about) my choice and we set to work. After several weeks of effort, I began to ‘feel’ for myself that the music begged to be played by a violin, not a piano, so I have now left that piece. My teacher was right to say nothing about her reservations, allowing me to work it out for myself and in the process, learn something about instrumentation.

    BTW: I am also learning masses by regular reading of your blog and viewing of your videos. I don’t know where you find the time, but please, do keep it coming!!!


  3. Can anybody help me to start a discussion? When I go to type in the “Start a discussion” box, nothing happens………………..Help!


  4. I would do it only with great trepidation just because there actually ARE a large number of classical pieces at all ability levels, so there’s little need to water things down. Also … well, I recall very clearly my teacher giving me watered-down arrangements and not telling me that they were watered down arrangements. What can I say — I was very naive as a child, and we spent most of our time at home listening to opera and orchestral classical music and not piano classical music. I knew the overtures to everything Rossini every wrote, but the piano music I listened to for pleasure was mostly Scott Joplin and Billy Joel.

    The disappointment I felt when I learned what Chopin’s music really was like, and that all of the pieces I had worked to play and learn were essentially diluted junk is something I will never forget. It sounds silly to us as adults now because we know what these pieces really sound like, but a child who hasn’t encountered them before might not know. I still remember feeling like I had been lied to all that time, and how worthless all those years of effort really were.

    There is no need for cheapie arrangements of anything. Instead of crapo watered-down Chopin, why not the Grieg lyric pieces? Instead of Beethoven through tissue paper, why not Clementi? There are good, beautiful, worthy classical pieces at all ability levels. Use them instead.


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