The Piano Lesson (grade 3)

The Piano Lesson was commissioned by the North Carolina South Central District Band Directors Association for the 2021 All-District Band and was inspired by Romare Bearden’s The Piano Lesson (Homage to Mary Lou).

Romare Bearden (1911-1988) has been recognized as one of the most creative and original American artists of the twentieth century. Although he worked successfully in a myriad of visual media, he is probably best known for his collage technique and his support of the African American experience. He was born in Charlotte, North Carolina (where there is now both a street and a park named after him) but spent many of his formative years in New York City, where his family home often served as the meeting place for members of the Harlem Renaissance, allowing him to rub shoulders with such luminaries as W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, and Duke Ellington. Bearden’s love for jazz became central to his visual art and, in fact, the Mary Lou that is referenced in the title above is actually the famed jazz pianist and composer, Mary Lou Williams.

Bearden’s The Piano Lesson (1983) provides a striking image that is likely influenced by memories of his youth in North Carolina, depicting a music teacher and her student hard at work. It is also almost certainly influenced by Henri Matisse’s The Piano Lesson (1916), but, whereas Matisse’s work seems austere and even cold, there is a warmth in Bearden’s depiction, both in the vibrant colors and the teacher’s active engagement with her pupil.

For me, the image immediately transported me back to my own experiences as a youngster taking piano lessons, complete with painful memories of struggling through Hanon scale exercises. Almost always, as I forced myself to practice, both my mind and my fingers would veer away into daydreams and improvisations. In my piece, I have attempted to express the essence of this experience, beginning with the omnipresent and controlling pulse of the metronome and some initial piano scales, but quickly blurring those aural images and entering a much more joyful and extemporaneous world, one that hopefully conveys the warmth and happiness of Bearden’s marvelous art.