On October 1st 1905, a young carpenter named František Pavlík was killed in a military intervention against a Czech student demonstration. This happened after decades of tension between Czech and Germans in the region. This event inspired Leoš Janáček to write his Piano Sonata 1.X.1905. He accompanied this composition with the following inscription:
“The white marble of the steps of the Besední dům in Brno. The ordinary labourer František Pavlík falls, stained with blood. He came merely to champion higher learning and has been slain by cruel murderers.”
This Sonata has two movements which are titled “Foreboding” and “Death”.
Since 2006, more than 80,000 people have died in Mexico due to drug-related violence. My home state, Chihuahua, has been hit especially hard by these homicides. It is now considered one of the most dangerous regions of the world, including ongoing war zones such as Afghanistan and Somalia.
Nearly everyone in Chihuahua has a friend or family member that has been murdered in recent years. Nearly everyone in Chihuahua has witnessed or been involved in one of the many shootings that occur almost daily. A dark sense of foreboding permeates everything one does and a fear for one’s life and for one’s loved ones is a part of everyday life.
On February 4th 2012, armed gunmen entered a nightclub in Chihuahua and massacred nine people, among them five members of “Quinta Banda”, a local music group. They were not the first musicians to be claimed by Chihuahua’s violence; working at night and at these kinds of venues has made being a musician in Chihuahua a very high-risk activity. Among the dead was Fernando Rivero, a young clarinet player and my close friend and chamber music partner. His death devastated Chihuahua’s community of musicians and a number of tribute concerts have been organized on the one-year anniversary of his death. Since last Summer, I no longer live in Chihuahua and cannot be present for these. However, I’ve recorded the Piano Sonata 1.X.1905 in memory of Fernando Rivero, the thousands of others that have died due to Mexico’s drug war, and the many friends and family who remain in Chihuahua and have to live with the constant threat of violence at any moment.
Sonata 1.X.1905, First movement. “Foreboding”:
Sonata 1.X.1905, Second movement. “Death”:
Fernando Rivero and I playing the Romanza from Francis Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata:
If you have never seen a piano keyboard what immediately catches your eye?
That there are white keys and black keys.
Even if you don’t know what they do, it is easy to understand that the white keys and the black keys are different from each other. All you need to know is black from white, something that most toddlers know by the time they’re two years old. The same cannot be said about many other aspects of the keyboard, which require knowing left from right or more complicated spatial reasoning.
The first thing a child will learn about the piano is that pressing the keys makes noise. Noise versus quiet is a good starting point for a game. You can play it with flashcards or with a sheet of paper (I prefer a single sheet of paper because it mirrors the act of reading sheet music better.) Make a drawing that means “noise” (for example, lots of squiggles) and one that means “quiet”. Then practice making lots of noise or lifting your hands and being quiet when you point to one or the other.
At this point, the student only needs to keep track of two elements: “noise” and “ssshhh!”
Making the transition from banging on the keys indiscriminately to finding and playing specific keys can be a struggle. Putting stickers on the keys is a common approach, but it carries its own set of problems. I prefer to start with the things that are immediately obvious about the piano and gradually work our way to specifics, one element at a time. Showing the difference between black and white keys is a great next step because it only requires adding one more element to what we already know.
First, we practiced playing only white keys or black keys at one time, so I could make sure that my kid was ready to understand the difference between them. Then we composed our score:
We already knew the difference betwen noise and quiet, so now we have two categories of noise: black-key noise and white-key noise, represented by the white and black circles. Whenever we got to a red circle, that meant “Ssshhh!” (put your hands up and be quiet!) As you can see by our sheet music, I drew the first few circles and then my kid took over. Once we had our sheet music, we started to play.
I would point to a circle and we’d do it together. Hold down the sustain pedal for each “event” (and remove it for the moments of quiet). After our first run-through he was the one playing and I was only pointing at circles. By our third run-through, he was reading the sheet music on his own:
At this point, a student is keeping track of three elements: “white”, “black”, and “ssshhh!”
What’s our next step?
The key is to add other elements gradually. For instance, we can add “loud” and “soft” playing, play with durations (with bigger and smaller circles), or we can play in different registers using four elements: “tweeting birdies”, “mewing kitties”, “barking doggies” (top, middle, and bottom registers), and “ssshhh!” As we combine all the things we know, things can get complicated very quickly. For example combining register with black and white keys yields seven different elements to identify in the sheet music:
1. High-register black keys
2. Middle-register black keys
3. Low-register black keys
4. High-register white keys
5. Middle-register white keys
6. Low-register white keys