When I started giving my older daughter piano lessons when she was about four-years-old, I was convinced that she needed to start with the blues. Many years later, having subsequently taught several young children (in this case, I am paid to do so,) I’m not so sure of the wisdom of that decision. Maybe, I think to myself, that’s why she became a Harvard Law School graduate instead of going into something sensible like music. Oh, well…
Here’s the thing: I’m a composer first and a very opinionated one at that. Therefore, my teaching decisions, while based on sound (literally) musical logic, tend to skew towards my creative view of the art. And, as I said, my creative outlook of the art is highly opinionated.
The Modern Foundation
One of my long-held opinions is that our modern musical vocabulary, what we speak even today, was founded on the blues. Now some, including my musician son, will claim that the blues is dated. In some respects, he may be right. Indeed, the blues, particularly as played in a rock guitar format, relies heavily on cliches, which, while fun, can quickly degenerate into a kind of musical dogma that squelches the possibility of any creative thought.
But to me, that’s missing the larger point of what the blues represents. On both the micro and macro scales, it means a revolutionary shift away from a domineering and overbearing approach to making music that was evident in European art music’s late romanticism. On the micro-scale, what became the blues scale is, while seemingly innocuous today, a radical statement in its own right. Why? Because with its minor third grinding against a major chord, it essentially creates a new kind of tonality.
But it’s really the macro-scale that I’m concerned with in this little set of intermediate beginner piano’ variations—the form. The twelve-bar blues structure brought back something both fundamental and endless to the world of music. You can, if you are creative and thoughtful, do anything with it.
And I think that’s even the case with something like this little piece. The theme itself, a comically simple waltz, could almost be something out of 18th century Vienna—a court dance. Almost. Because, in fact, it follows a 12-bar blues structure, using only the I, IV, and V chords in F Major. That structure, as far as I know, simply didn’t exist in 18th century Europe.
Upon that simple structure—a mini-three-part form that literally has a beginning, middle, and end—I build a surprisingly sophisticated set of variations. And, by the way, I do so without resorting to any tired blues cliches. As I said, the blues is endless if you follow its possibilities.
And, by the way, after much cajoling (AKA, yelling), my daughter did master these variations when she was six or seven. Not that it helped one iota with her career.