FLORENCE PRICE, TEACHER

Last month’s publication of the posthumous completion of Rae Linda Brown’s long-awaited The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price (ed. Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr.)[1] marked a new milestone in the ongoing Florence Price renaissance. But the amount of work left to do in order to achieve a reasonably full understanding of this composer’s life and works is nothing short of vast. Among those desiderata: knowing the music she wrote for teaching, understanding her work as a teacher, and understanding her influence as a teacher.

Teaching was pervasive in Price’s life as a musician. Her work on the music faculties of Shorter College and Clark College is routinely cited in biographical studies, as is her relationship with Margaret Bonds (although the latter was apparently never a formal teacher-student relationship). But in addition to these activities she taught music privately for some forty years, from shortly after her return to Arkansas in 1912 until her final years.

The evidence we need to pursue this line of inquiry is easy to access. Price published some of her pedagogical works during her lifetime, two important collections devoted specifically to her easier pedagogical works for piano have also been published by Lia Jensen-Abbott (Albion College) and Barbara Garvey Jackson,[2] and a previously unknown Etude in C has just been published.[3] Dr. Brown’s biography identifies some of her students as well.

But the stakes are high and the rewards great. How high, how great? Just imagine yourself, sometime during the four decades or so that Price was teaching piano, as one of the dozens of fortunate students were introduced to the world of the piano, and that of music generally, not only through the usual pedagogical repertoire composed predominantly by White men (most of them European), but rather through works that Florence Beatrice Price had composed specifically for teaching lessons like yours. Then consider that some of those students’ own pupils would have Price’s music, not Czerny’s or Bach’s, as their musical foundation. I can’t help but recall Henry Brooks Adams’s famous adage about this sort of interaction: “a teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”[4]

The recently published Etude in C is something of an outlier in Price’s piano teaching pieces.[5] It’s not just a good piece of music for student pianists, but one that actually adopts the air of a concert etude. Here’s what Jonathan Bellman (University of Northern Colorado, Greeley) had to say about it:

the challenges are: chord-blocking, memory, evenness, agility, and above all confidence in getting around the keyboard.” But the Etude is also “clearly written to be ‘fun’ for youngsters: with sudden funny ‘wrong’ notes, big pauses, glissandi at the end, etc. . . . Once a student breaks the speed barrier and knows the feeling of playing fast without tension, the piece would function well as a study in the kind of technique used in Liszt’s Paganini étude №4 in E major, in its revised version; it takes on a wonderful, glittering texture and sound-world.

The diligent group of people who have kept Price’s name and reputation alive in the sixty-seven years since her death, even as mainstream historians have marginalized or outright ignored her, have done a marvelous thing: they have ensured that the four decades of Price’s work as teacher did not just leave their influence on her students, that her effect on eternity was not severed. We need to learn her music, including her pedagogical music, and to treat it with the same sort of scholarly and musical seriousness that has already been afforded to other piano pedagogues such as Chopin.[6]

Now, with more of Florence Price’s music than ever before accessible and a full-length biography to provide the necessary context for that music, it’s up to today’s world to rise to the challenge she left us.

[1] Rae Linda Brown, The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price, ed. Guthrie P. Ramsey, jr. [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2020.

[2] See Lia Jensen-Abbott, ed., A Collection of Florence Price’s Piano Teaching Music, Vol. 1: Beginning Pieces (Fayetteville, Arkansas: ClarNan Editions, 2015; Abbott, A Collection of Florence Price’s Piano Teaching Music, Vol. 2: Beginning Pieces (Fayetteville, Arkansas: ClarNan Editions, 2016); Barbara Garvey Jackson, ed., Florence Beatrice Price: An Album of Piano Pieces (Fayetteville, Arkansas: ClarNan Editions, 2016); Garvey Jackson, Florence Beatrice Price: A Second Album of Piano Pieces (Fayetteville, Arkansas: ClarNan Editions, 2017);

[3] Florence B. Price, Etude in C, ed. John Michael Cooper (New York: G. Schirmer, 2020).

[4] Henry Brooks Adams, The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography, ed. Henry Cabot Lodge (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1918), 300.

[5] The Etude survives in a single undated autograph in the Special Collections division of the University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville (shelfmark MC 988b Box 5A, folder 12). Like the autograph for the Preludes that survives in the Margaret Bonds papers in the Booth Family Center for Special Collections of the Georgetown University Libraries, it is written on PHILADA paper, which Price rarely used after about 1932. However, at this original writing the manuscript had no title and no named author. Price inscribed “ETUDE” and her name in pencil, apparently at different times, later on. Also in pencil at the top of the autograph is the pencil annotation “C.S.” (which may stand for “copy sent” — — indicating that Price prepared another manuscript, now lost, for publication for some other use), as well as the pencil annotation “V. [illegible].”

[6] See Jeanne Holland, “Chopin the Teacher,” Journal of the American Liszt Society 17 (June, 1985): 39–48; Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, Chopin: Pianist and Teacher, as Seen by His Students (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Jim Samson, “Chopin and the Traditions of Pedagogy,” in New Paths: Aspects of Theory and Aesthetics in the Age of Romanticism, ed. John Neubauer, Janet Schmalfeldt, Scott Burnham, Susan Youens, and Jim Samson (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2009), 115–28.

Originally published at https://cooperm55.wixsite.com on July 15, 2020.

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A musicologist with a passion for social justice, bringing unheard music to life for performers and listeners, and teaching.

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John Michael Cooper

John Michael Cooper

A musicologist with a passion for social justice, bringing unheard music to life for performers and listeners, and teaching.

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