"Miss Kaley, why is the camel wearing a turban, and why is he riding a magic carpet?"
I grimaced a bit. Really? I am preparing this six-year-old for a life of musical pioneering, and this is the kind of question I have to answer in music lessons?
"I don't know, John. I think because this song is about a Persian market, and, well, apparently there are both turbans and camels in or around a Persian market." He looked confused. "And magic carpets do not exist."
"Why is there a magic carpet if they don’t exist? Why is this song Persian? What's Persian?"
Oy. Is there any way I can answer this question without encouraging him to eternally associate the complex, artistically magnificent, ancient culture of Persia with camels, turbans, and magic carpets? And how do I justify a displeasing tune with a flatted second that is both difficult for him to play and sounds like death on an equally tempered keyboard? Neither of these things are AT ALL like Persian music, and I’m sure that James Bastien didn’t intend for it to be authentic. So I struggle, because, I believe it’s a positive situation for the child to be asking about other cultures, but the music in the Bastien method that encourages these questions is so terribly written, simplistic, and offensively illustrated that it reminds of a 19th century child learning about African-American culture from any one of Eurocentric, misguided avenues. (I should mention that dumbed-down versions of racist Stephen Foster tunes, such as “Old Black Joe,” with extremely unpleasant, racially stereotyped drawings appear in the earlier editions of the Bastien method).
John fidgets, inventing some story about the camel and the magic carpet. I am selectively listening (as usual with six-year-olds). He asks again what Persian means. “Persia is a part of the middle east, now including Iran and Iraq. Persian music often uses scales and sounds that we don’t have on the piano, but in this song, the composer tried to make it sound Persian by adding a D-flat in C-position! What do you think of the sound?”
John huffs. “I think it sounds BAD!”
Well, there you have it. It DOES sound bad. In fact, flatted seconds are no more a characteristic of Persian music as they are of late Schoenberg; sure, they appear, but they aren’t definitive. So what we have from Mr. Bastien is a lazy musical forgery. See the piece below:
I have witnessed many of my students struggle with pieces like this and others in the Bastien method. Each student proclaimed wildly that the music sounded terrible and they had no motivation to practice. Sadly, I’m sure if I played little John a piece from one of my favorite albums, Faryad by the Masters of Persian Music, he would be enthralled at the beauty and skill of the performers and their content; but, to play, he gets nothing more than a dumbed-down, insensitive noodling around C-position with an added “weird note.”
This and similar events occurred about a year ago, and this was the time I pledged to do away with all James Bastien materials, and move exclusively to my own methods or the Piano Adventures method by Nancy and Randall Faber, which I will defend in detail. Because children absorb their early musical influences like a starving sponge, paralleling the path of language acquisition. A child who is exposed to native Spanish speaking at an early age may not retain fluency in the language, but will almost definitely retain the ability to recall Spanish phrases and, most importantly, will retain a superior accent. Music is the same: by exposing our children to different musical languages at this young age, they will exhibit more musical flexibility later on. It is important to expose children to authentic musical content and not forgery; and equally important to expose them to authentic musical context and not arbitrary cartoons. This is essential for the future of our art, as we need to train open-minded, genre-crossing composers and performers. Most teachers today will defend this ideology – but they must be active with it, purchasing method books or “going rogue” in a way that honors the idea. Method books are much, much, much more influential than we expect. It is a child’s first exposure to self-created musical expression and organization.
Let’s examine some Bastien material in detail. In the Level 1 Piano book, there are 41 short pieces. Only one – “Fiesta” – exhibits an inkling of syncopation:
Problems abounding; an anthropologist’s nightmare. We have the Spanish guitar dressed like a Mexican Mariachi player, wearing a sombrero and playing maracas. He is playing alongside a Spanish Flamenco dancer, complete with skirt, shoes, and castanets. Immediately, some form of arbitrary, lazy cultural grouping. Will this child ask about this picture? Most definitely, because of its colors and prominence. The teacher then has the responsibility to explain that Mexico and Spain are actually completely different places with completely different musical cultures, but in this song, they’ve been smushed together, presumably because they share a common language, but most likely because James Bastien thought American students didn’t need to distinguish one way or the other. (Lack of distinction between Latin Ameican and Spanish culture is a lingering problem in American youth). Musical analysis shows the use of triple meter and an unaccented downbeat, which can be common to both styles; diatonic harmony with a prominent dominant seven, evoking the Mariachi; and the flatted second (apparently Bastien’s preferred and only method of evoking an alternate tonal system), which is typical to Flamenco music in this case. Also typical to Flamenco is the ending exclamation “Ole!” The most unsettling thing, however, is the conscious choice to illustrate the two styles at once in the cartoon, showing a complete indifference on the part of the publishers as to whether or not the child deserves accurate musical and cultural knowledge.
Similarly, of the 41 pieces, only one utilizes non-diatonic harmony (“Morning Prelude,” an exercise in smearing notes together with the pedal). I have taught from all four levels of the Bastien books; each level contains the same pathetic ratio of square rhythm to syncopation, diatonic harmony to modal.
I say this not only for the sake of disparaging Bastien for a job poorly done, but because Faber and Faber’s Piano Adventures series is an infinitely better way of introducing children to authentic sounds. There is no reason to choose Bastien over Faber in today’s world, yet so many teachers do. This example from the Level 1 Piano Adventures: Performance book shows an interesting modal melody with odd phrase lengths:
Not only is the melody satisfying to play on its own, but, conscious of the need for musical satisfaction in the young player, the Fabers have provided a harmonically and rhythmically rich duet part for the teacher. In my experience, duets at this young age are incredibly inspiring to young children; they begin to learn essential “chamber music skillz” (my term for starting and finishing together without counting), and are also treated to a satisfying aural experience. Bastien offers no duets in any level. Further, this piece provides an interesting and relevant fact at the top, putting this authentic melody in historical and cultural context. Upon discussing this with the teacher, the student now has an understanding that music is not just notes to be read, but rather a vessel of cultural meaning.
Essentially, I find the selection of proper method books incredibly important based on my personal experiences as a young student and, now, as a teacher. Raised on Piano Adventures, I can recall vividly the satisfaction of learning “Erie Canal,” “Summer Blues,” “Malaguena,” and “Song of Kilimanjaro.” I credit my affinity for blues scales and Flamenco rhythms entirely to the piano method books of my youth: I came from a completely non-musical American family, and had no predetermined preference for certain scales or rhythms. But thanks to my teacher’s chosen method, non-Western sounds rest inside a deep part of my heart and my brain, cultivated from age three, now ready to be expressed and interpreted in combination with my classical training. The Fabers – trained composers and performers - have continually expressed the importance of multi-cultural pedagogy, particularly after the adoption of their Mandarin daughter, who is now the inspiration for several new pedagogical pieces utilizing Mandarin musical characteristics.
Since this incident with young John and “Persian Market,” I have switched my entire studio, regardless of level, over to Piano Adventures. The results have blown my mind. I now have students learning difficult pieces in two weeks; who practice daily, simply because they love their new songs; and who beg to play duets over and over again for the satisfaction of hearing a complete musical piece. They crave knowledge about their music’s origins; I regularly assign research projects, which entail looking up facts about their piece’s style and origins. Some of them even compose now, overwhelmed with the rich musical vocabulary they’ve acquired. This is a stark contrast from confused questions about weird cartoons, unpleasant and misplaced accidentals, and struggling with practicing because the pieces “just don’t sound right.” Bastien’s pieces are arbitrarily composed, with no inherent musical meaning to encourage the child along a path to expression. The typical American child sincerely comes from a musical melting pot – they are hearing new languages, new ideas, new tunes every day. Musical inspiration can only come from harnessing their inherent, beautiful, American affinity for multiculturalism. Take advantage: choose Piano Adventures over Bastien!
Oh, before I forget, here is a really, really, really racist piece in the Bastien book, Indian Life, which I think should be boycotted and taken off all websites and shelves:
Bastien, James. Bastien Piano Basics. Level 1. San Diego, CA: Neil A. Kjos Music Company, 1985.
Faber, Nancy and Randall. Piano Adventures: The Basic Piano Method. Level 1. Vol. Second Edition. Faber Piano Adventures, Hal Leonard, 1996.