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Introducing your Students to Modern Music

One of my biggest concerns in classical music today lies in the area of education. While most kids have at least some familiarity with the masters of the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras, there is little exposure to early 20thcentury composers (usually limited to Prokofiev and Britten), and no exposure to living composers. For some time this has baffled me, as while the general populace has the opinion that modern classical music is dissonant, unorganized nigh-noise, someone who has been through formal training should be aware that there are more similarities than differences between the modern master and the classical master. As such, I offer three pieces by living composers that can be paired with works by the classical masters for an effective lesson.

When choosing these pieces I kept three basic rules in mind:

  • The piece must be under 10 minutes.
  • The piece must be generally consonant.
  • The composer must be living and generally highly regarded.

John Adams – Short Ride in a Fast Machine

Short Ride in a Fast Machine :: Composed by John Adams :: Animation by Victor Craven

This short energetic piece is built entirely off small rhythmic motives, from the pulse of the woodblock to the syncopated rhythms in the brass, and can serve as an excellent introduction for minimalism. The motives are clear and transformations are relatively easy for the ear to follow. I would recommend pairing this with the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, and discuss with the class the similarities and differences in each composer’s approach.

Jennifer Higdon – Piano Trio: I. Pale Yellow

J. Higdon - Piano Trio - Pale Yellow

Lush, rich melodies dominate this work, as the ensemble shifts almost seamlessly between playing in a melody, harmony, accompaniment scheme into a contrapuntal setting. Each player is in the spotlight at times, as the melodic line drifts from one part to the next. In a lesson, this piece could be paired with another chamber work, such as Brahms’s Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major, Op. 87 to serve as an introduction to chamber music, or with a classical symphony such as Mozart’s 40th Symphony in G Minor to discuss the difference between chamber and symphonic works, especially in regard to the use of instruments.

Nico Muhly – I Drink The Air Before Me: First Storm and Storm Centre

Unfortunately, there aren’t any videos of this on Youtube, but I did find the pieces on Spotify (as well as the others) and will share the link at the bottom of this post. This work is excellent for discussing program music. Nervous, energetic bursts from the instruments, convey all of the excitement and energy of a violent thunderstorm. Pair this with the Presto movement from Vivaldi’s ‘Summer’ and discuss the similarities and differences of each composer’s representation.

This is of course only an introduction into thinking of contemporary music in a different light. Start branching out and seek pieces that can be used in your lessons, and to introduce your students to living composers. Can you think of any other pieces to use like this? How will you use modern music in your classroom?

Spotify playlist: Three Great Pieces to Introduce Kids to Modern Music