Editor’s Note: All technical skills referenced in this article are explained in the Technique Books of Catherine Rollin’s Pathways to Artistry series. Specific books that contain each skill are cited in the body of the article that follows.
Imagery is one of the most successful teaching tools for helping students with technique and interpretation. As a composer, I have also found imagery to be useful. In my newest collections, Museum Masterpieces, Books 1-4, I used art works as a source of inspiration for the music that I was writing. I spent a great deal of time thinking about the art works that I had seen in person and the images that they portrayed to me. In writing the pieces, I transferred these visual images to music and tried to reflect the artist’s thoughts through my music. At the same time, my goal was to help students elicit creative and imaginative responses to the music while developing their interest in the visual arts.
The remainder of this article highlights selected pieces from Book 1 of Museum Masterpieces. In Ėdouard Manet’s Le Fifre (The Fife Player, 1866), the viewer sees only a fife player, but not a military drummer (often associated with the fife). In writing the corresponding piece, I imagined a drummer playing drum rolls behind the fife player. To create the sound of a drum roll, I used a four-note cluster (g-a-b-d). To sound like a drum roll, the student will need to use three technical devices – strong fingers, a fast rotation movement, and a short push-off staccato (Technique Book 1, pages 7, 8, 14). Once these skills are mastered, the left hand of the piece has been learned as the drum roll is repeated throughout. Written in a high register, the right-hand melody emulates the sound of the fife.
Reeds and Cranes from the 19th century is a screen painting by the Japanese artist Suzuki Kittsu. When I first saw this screen at the Detroit Institute of Arts as a child, I was immediately struck by the peaceful mood that it conveyed. In the music, I used a pentatonic scale to capture this floating, tranquil mood. The left hand consists of two different groups of four eighth notes that repeat (G-flat, A-flat, B-flat, D-flat and E-flat, G-flat, A-flat, B-flat. Encourage the student to use strong fingers on these patterns using a rolling wrist to shift the weight gently from finger to finger (Technique Book 1, pages 7, 16). Relate the smooth rolling movement to the calm water where the swans are wading in this art work. Similarly, gently shift the weight in the right hand from note to note with a slight rotation movement to create a flowing, legato melody (Technique Book 1, page 8). Avoid lifting the fingers one by one. At measures 9-12, the clusters that move up the keyboard represent the cranes gracefully taking flight. Use a slightly detached movement based on alternating hands technique with a forearm staccato (Technique Book 3, page 18 and Technique Book 1, page 13).
The piece American Gothic is based on Grant Wood’s painting of the same name from 1930. The piece employs the most iconic of harmonies to capture the sounds of American music – the movement from the I chord (C major) to the flat VII chord (B-flat major). Other features include open fifths in the left hand and syncopation, often used in ragtime, jazz and other American genres. Ask students to follow the articulation precisely to capture the distinctive syncopations and the folk spirit shown in this American art masterpiece. Use a push-off staccato on the notes of beat 1 of measure 3 followed by an elastic wrist on the notes that following the measure (Technique Book 1, pages 14 and 6).
When my three-year old niece recognized the reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503-1506) on a tee-shirt, I knew that I had to include this famous painting in this series. My goal in this piece was to use a traditional, harmonic pattern that captured the Mona Lisa’s timeless beauty. To reflect this, I created a quasi-ostinato in the A section of the left hand that harmonizes in thirds (10ths) with the legato right-hand melody. Balance between the hands is important to project the right-hand melody.
A Dash for the Timber (1889) by Frederic Remington truly captures the pioneering spirit of the American West. In the music, a broken-chord rondo theme captures the excitement of galloping horses (measures 1-5). These root position chords (D minor, C major, B-flat major, and A major) are in contrary motion with the same fingers of each hand playing at the same time. Drop with weight into the slur and push off on the thumb for the staccato release at the end of each slur (Technique Book 1, pages 12 and 14. This will give energy and momentum to emulate the energy of the horses. The subsequent melody that follows (measures 5-22) uses a repeated left-hand chord. Ask the student play this chord with a short, portato touch using an elastic wrist (Technique Book 2, page 14 and Technique Book 1, page 6). Use the imagery of the horses bending at their knees for the elastic wrist – helping them to understand not to push down into the keys to avoid taking away the energy and spirit of the music. As in the broken chords, the right hand slurs in this section will end with energetic push off staccatos.
I hope that you will find these pieces fun to teach and that your students will enjoy the entire series! In addition to the pieces that I have discussed, Book 1 contains five additional pieces:
- Black Square and Red Square (Kazimir Malevich)
- Carmencita (William Merritt Chase)
- L’étoile (Edgar Degas)
- The Nut Gatherers (William-Adolphe Bouguereau)
- Senecio (Paul Klee)
Art highlights from other books include:
- Book 2: Washington Crossing the Delaware (Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze)
- Book 2: Girl with the Pearl Earring ( Johannes Vermeer)
- Book 3: The Great Wave off Kanagawa (Katsushika Hokusai)
- Book 3: A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (Georges Seurat)
- Book 4: The Kiss (Gustav Klimt)
- Book 4: Watson and the Shark (John Singleton Copley)
Author, Arranger, Composer