March 15, 2013

Racial and Cultural Depictions in Teaching Pieces

If you've taken piano lessons anytime within the last 50 years or so you've played a certain type of piano piece. It will have a steady beat in the left, usually with open fifths, and some sort of modal melody in the right hand. They're almost always appealing in their exoticism and are intended to sound primal and energetic. They may have an innocuous titles like "Forest Drums" or they may have more obvious titles like "Rain Dance" and "Medicine Man". What ties most piano methods together and thrusts the profession into an awkward situation is the reliance on appropriation of either culturally defined or stereotypically relegated characteristics of Native American culture.

There a number of ways to figure out which songs are "Indian", or at least draw on Native American themes. The most obvious way is through the pictures:

 Bastien, "Dance for the Buffalo", Indian Life, p5
The above picture comes from a book that I used as a child by James Bastien called Indian Life. Each song in this book has some sort of Native American theme and is often accompanied by a blurb explaining the tradition behind the title. What shocks me about the Bastien titles is not really the pictures as much as the fact that they haven't changed in decades. The artwork and sentiment have not changed significantly since the book's initial publication despite being republished a number of times since.

Artwork for these kinds of pieces has changed in some other books, although their roots are still fairly obvious:

Faber, "Rain Dance", Piano Adventures Performance Book Level 1, p34
This piece is from the books that I teach from, Nancy and Randall Faber's Piano Adventures series. The drawings are scaled back from the Bastien series and instead we have a sort of cave-drawing style. You can also see the blurb which tells us that rain dances are common across many different cultures, although the presence of a tepee in the illustration signifies that this particular piece is evoking Native American music.

In the Bastien books, many pictures depict children:

Bastien, "Indian Children", Indian Life, p16
 I think the above picture is actually relatively tasteful, although I could understand people taking issue with it. The children do not have any of the over-exaggerated facial features that we associate with offensive Native American imagery (we get plenty of that from professional sports teams), but the wardrobe and activities of the children shown match up with the romantic images that we often associate with Native American culture, especially as children. The kids are all wearing headbands, the girls are playing with dolls and the boys are shooting arrows at a tree.

Some books have completely abandoned this style of artwork:

Alfred, "Arrowhead", Alfred's Basic Piano Library Lesson Book 1, p36
This is where I start to get really interested, because the above piece is still basically a "Native American" piece, despite the generic picture and (mostly) generic title. One of the musical characteristics of the above piece, as well as "Dance for the Buffalo" and "Rain Dance" is the focus on open fifths. This means that there is an space of five notes between the two notes being played in the left hand. "Arrowhead" shows this perfectly. The open fifth plays two roles. In the case of the two "Dance" pieces at the top, it simulates a drum being played. As you can see in the video below, it is a somewhat accurate representation of actual drumming practices.

In Native American (and many indigenous) drumming traditions, there a constant quarter note pulse. What the piano music fails to include are the different volumes and attacks that can be heard in the quarter notes. If you listen to the beginning of the above video again, you can hear that certain beats are played louder than others, giving the song a steady pulse, but a shifting sense of beat. This technique can be heard in classical music in the form of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

Faber, "Forest Drums", Piano Adventures Lesson Book 1, p36
Another effect of the open fifths is that they don't evoke a particular key. A lot of indigenous music is either modal or pentatonic. Modal means that it doesn't exactly conform to our notion of major or minor (although much of it sounds minor to us). Pentatonic means that it uses only a five note scale, and is typically associated with Eastern Asia and Orientalism in classical music. In "Forest Drums" above, the open fifths give us the rhythm of the drums in the opening bars, but also don't establish the piece as major or minor. Once the right hand enters in measure 5, we know that it's modal, but if there had been an F-natural in measure 1, the piece would have sounded like D-minor to us. By leaving this note out, Nancy Faber has left it more open for interpretation later in the piece.

Faber, "Young Hunter", Piano Adventures Lesson Book 1, p20
"Young Hunter" also uses modal melodies, this time without the open fifths in the left hand. Normally in A-minor, a composer will use a G-sharp to lead us back into the home note. By keeping this note as a G-natural, it makes the piece sound modal and exotic.

Native cultures are not the only ones depicted in these books. East Asian music abounds in these books, with pentatonic scales and exotic titles. There's also a sort of generic "Arabian" sounding music that exists as well.

Kevin Olson, "Desert Caravan" Helen Marlais' Lesson and Technique Book 1, p30.
These pieces usually use a spread of an augmented second (flat the second note, sharp the third) to create a scale that has traditionally depicted the Middle-East and subcontinental Asia.

I don't really disapprove of these pieces in the general sense. All of the Faber pieces above are favorites of my students, and they've all appeared on recital programs at some point. The rhythms of "Rain Dance" and "Forest Drums" speak to students much more easily than a minuet or more "classical" piece can do. The harmonies and scales are also much more interesting to my students than a piece in C-major could ever be. It's not just my students who like these pieces, I like these pieces. But I wince whenever a student tells me they want to play "that Indian piece", or when I play a piece called "Snake Charmer" that is exactly what you think it is. It's not that these pieces are bad, they just try to wrap up an entire culture, slap a few cliche musical characteristics on them and plant that into a kid's brain.

The pictures on these pieces are not really all that offensive either. What I take issue with is the coupling of the pictures and titles with the music. Students like these pieces because of the rhythms, the harmonies, and the notes. All that the titles and images do is associate the music with a culture, and make that culture smaller and smaller. Many of these musical characteristics have been absorbed into the popular music lexicon already. By making them symbols of specifically Native American, Middle-Eastern, and East Asian music they become music of an Other, which as an adult I can overcome but is a strong impression to make on a child.

I understand that this is a difficult subject. By ending the associations of the music with their origins, it could be seen as abandoning the source material. Much of the Native American music above has real roots and ties to the music is purports to represent. I have heard the argument from groups that some representation is better than no representation at all. Music, however is a gargantuan melting pot. Unless a composer is using a direct quotation in their music of a Native melody, or a Japanese song ("Sakura" is frequently used in method books) I don't see the need to label it. These books are filled with songs that aren't explicitly "Native" or "Middle-Eastern". If a student asks, I can tell them.

If you're the kind of person who writes this kind of issue off as a problem for the politically correct, put yourself in my shoes. How do you explain to your Indian student why this song doesn't sound anything like music from her family's homeland, yet that's what it claims through title, picture, and sound. Imagine if every rag and jazz tune in your child's method book was accompanied by a caricature of a black jazz player from the 1930's.

Keep the music, change the pictures. 


  1. Hey, thanks so much for this post! I stumbled upon your blog because I am doing some research and writing about this issue. As you pointed out, the image used for "Rain Dance" from the Faber Level 1 Performance book evokes North American indigenous people because of the tipi. But the second page of the song uses a melody with an augmented second that evokes "Eastern" music (I think... just going by memory here). It's classic Orientalism: a mish-mash of non-Western references are used to signify Otherness. It doesn't matter which cultures, or if the references are accurate, as long as they aren't Western. I'm not sure if I agree with your conclusions that just changing the pictures alters the message of the music... I still wonder whether the music itself can signify race/culture, and I wonder if it is, like you say, an oversimplification, or what could also be called essentializing. So excited to have discovered your blog!

    1. Shelagh, I hope you return again! I'd love to get in touch about your research and if you'd ever like to write something on the subject here, please let me know!

  2. It makes me feel better to know I'm not the only piano teacher out there feeling this way. I've started using Alfred's Premier Piano Course and have encountered many pieces that I feel are portraying various cultures in a less than positive way. I've written a letter to the publishers, but other than skipping over those pieces, or making them a teaching opportunity for my students, I'm not sure what else I can do.