I was excited to learn about Nate Holder’s book, Why Is My Piano Black and White? The Ultimate Fun Facts Guide published this year and the entire Why Books series. It’s a fun book to poke around in and there is a lot of information at hand. Nevertheless it left me with questions – some about the book itself, and some that pointed to issues in music education generally.
The book is structured much like an encyclopedia with entry pages for styles, periods or major composers, with smaller lists of short entries to provide further points of interest for readers and to include a range of performers and composers. It’s also loaded with fun illustrations by Charity Russell, and those play a key role in bringing the entries to life. For that reason it’s a resource book in my estimation, one to dive in and out of, not a straightforward narrative, which is not a negative attribute when trying to engage young readers in history and in this case cultural awareness. However, as I poked around myself I was left with questions:
What was the reasoning for the order of entries in the book? (More on that in a moment.)
What ages would this book appeal to? Older kids might be turned off by the illustrations, but the narrative would be quite challenging for younger kids. I arrived at a range of 8 to 12, but I could also imagine some of my older students posing similar questions to the ones I had, including: “He doesn’t even answer why my piano is black and white??”
Product testing with actual students would certainly be informative. But let me unpack my own concerns with the text while also providing moral support for the difficult task Holder has taken on.
The underlying premise of the book is clearly to bring together multiple players in the piano scene, both Black and White, just like the keys on the piano. But then, why do the early centuries of predominantly White composers get the full historical narrative (appropriate for a young reader book) while the popular and predominantly Black styles beginning with Ragtime are relegated to the ‘back of the book’ without a historical context to situate them other than what is provided for the key players and composers in their biographies. I will hasten to add that these entries are not at all the ‘back’ of the book as they take up over half of the book’s length. But as I mentioned these sections are simply given titles based on styles, but styles that students might not be familiar with. This is most easily summed up in questions, for example: What does “Hard Bop” mean? What am I listening for? Why do these players and composers go with that category? And I’m noticing dates that are also twentieth century – why doesn’t this fit in the Twentieth Century (with caps) of the “classical” discussion? These are partially my own questions about styles I’m not as familiar with, and also questions I would ask as an editor. Students at that age might not be putting the concurrent dates together, but that’s even more reason in my opinion to make it clear to them. Otherwise they are buying into the division of classical and popular simply by flipping through pages in a book.
As I grappled with these and other questions, I realized they were an exact mirror of the strategy I use with younger students when choosing repertoire, not necessarily the process of choosing but the process of identifying resources. Namely, there’s always the anthology to be purchased – those tried and true collections that cover all periods (well ok, not really the twentieth century very much, or not to the extent I would like), and then there are the additional books to cover the student’s range of musical interests. Scott Joplin is always a favorite so I suggest the attractive easy arrangements by Lawrence Grant. I also like to play some of Valerie Capers’ Jazz Portraits for students and see if they opt for that collection. And then of course, the Turkish anthologies I’ve spent time and energy collating, and I’m always thrilled when students take a liking to one or more pieces. So in fact, students often have an entire book devoted to one composer or region, which ends up dominating their practice time when compared to the classical standards. I have no problem with that and can only say, Hurray!
I also have plenty of students who look up favorite tunes as YouTube piano tutorials and learn pieces this way, and Holder’s book includes similar online resources in the form of Spotify playlists accessible through QR codes (graphic codes that are captured through an app on one’s smartphone and then link to the Spotify site). While a bit cumbersome for those of us used to surfing YouTube, the message is clear that providing royalties to artists (or labels?) through the Spotify service is priority. However, I wonder how many are turned off by the subscription service and the scant level of remuneration provided by Spotify? Perhaps links to streaming sites and services through the WhyBooks website would be a better tool? These are ongoing and difficult issues to grapple with concerning accessibility vs. remuneration. But Holder has provided unique resources within a print format to encourage young listeners.
He also provides quite an eclectic list of suggested reading at the end of the book, and I have much to catch up on! But I also found Piano Roles by James Parakilas conspicuously absent from the list. It’s the kind of book that bridges styles and time periods and provides a perspective that would greatly benefit Holder’s own project.