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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)

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An exceptional set of piano “arrangements” for Intermediate Level students (Carnival of the Animals) VIDEOS

In the past, I’ve ranted against giving piano students “arrangements” of celebrated compositions like Fur Elise and Chopin’s Waltz in Eb Major. The latter appears, significantly reduced, in the Faber Adult Accelerated edition. It’s a token Classical music offering interspersed by Boogie Woogie snatches. Oh, I forgot the revised Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, and a curious transposition of Mozart’s Theme and Variations Sonata, K. 331.

(The above prejudice does not circumscribe well-regarded, advanced level transcriptions by Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Brahms, and others. Examples: “Liebestraume,” and “Flight of the Bumblebee,” to name a few)

In the realm of elementary and intermediate level piano studies, however, transcriptions or arrangements as found in method books, can be easily replaced with comparably leveled music in original form that has greater musical and teaching value.

Examples: Minuets by Hook, Mozart, J.S Bach, Rameau, et al.

Having said that, I’m going to depart from my well-known inflexibility and praise a collection of Saint-Saens’s Carnival of the Animals “arranged” for piano by Hans-Gunter Heumann.”

I stumbled upon this treasure trove of miniatures after my Intermediate level students had been saturated with the Rachlin ensemble’s performance of Carnival on You Tube.

A feast of wondrous tableaux, it was my student’s entree into the colorful cosmos of French composer, Camille Saint-Saens. Yet, I hadn’t known at the time that my recommended listening assignment would be followed by a hands-on journey through his music in a reduced but appealing form.

As a preliminary, here’s the roster of Rachlin’s You Tube offerings that my students sampled before their playing adventures. (Roger Moore, narrator, serves up delightful Ogden Nash verses as accompaniment)

Now here are selections from Heumann’s colorfully illustrated collection that contains 14 pieces:

Introduction and Lion

This tableau was the springboard for a teaching opportunity:

The Aquarium

The Elephant

RACHLIN sample on the double bass:

Wild Asses


Composer, Camille Saint-Saens (1835 to 1921)

“Le carnaval des animaux (The Carnival of the Animals) is a musical suite of fourteen movements by the French Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saëns. The orchestral work has a duration between 22 and 30 minutes

“Le carnaval was composed in February 1886 while Saint-Saëns was vacationing in a small Austrian village. It was originally scored for a chamber group of flute/piccolo, clarinet (B flat and C), two pianos, glass harmonica, xylophone, two violins, viola, cello and double bass, but is usually performed today with a full orchestra of strings, and with a glockenspiel substituting for the rare glass harmonica. The term for this rare 11-piece musical ensemble is a “hendectet” or an “undectet.”

“Saint-Saëns, apparently concerned that the piece was too frivolous and likely to harm his reputation as a serious composer, suppressed performances of it and only allowed one movement, Le cygne, to be published in his lifetime. Only small private performances were given for close friends like Franz Liszt.

“Saint-Saëns did, however, include a provision which allowed the suite to be published after his death. It was first performed on 26 February 1922, and it has since become one of his most popular works. It is a favorite of music teachers and young children, along with Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. In fact, it is very common to see any combination of these three works together on modern CD recordings.”