Not Just Piano! In conversation with composer Carol Barratt
Carol Barratt, composer and piano teacher, has an unrivalled reputation as a writer of piano music for young people, and is known the world over for her ground-breaking piano method books. However, there is much more to Carol's talents as her recent work has proved. She is now diversifying by writing across a broader spectrum of musical styles and for a wider range of instruments. We spoke to Carol about her aims as a composer and some of her recent projects.
You are best-known for your extensive piano writing. Do you feel that you have become typecast?
Having taught and written for piano for so many years, it is inevitable that I might become typecast. I chose to teach piano privately for many years and thoroughly enjoyed it. However, my background is really as a composer. I studied composition and orchestration at the Royal College of Music and was awarded the Martin Musical Scholarship for Composition by the Philharmonia. Since my days of the Chester Piano Books I have decided to move on and my recent collaboration with Boosey & Hawkes has really enabled me to return to my roots,writing for many more instruments (and voices) of varying standards.
You have recently written the Bravo series of instrumental books for beginners. Why did you want to write for beginners in particular?
In comparison to the large amount of beginner piano repertoire available, instrumentalists, by and large, seem to play arrangements - there is a startling lack of original material written for the "less popular" instruments. I believe that beginners don't want to be patronised and don't need to be written down to. And, although there is a place for playing arrangements of well-known themes, young players really respond well to playing original material. I have embarked on a long-term mission to write new pieces for most orchestral instruments, taking particular note of, and exploiting, each instrument's particular idiosyncrasies.
The pieces in Bravo! take the student progressively through the early grades, and are intended to encourage the student to perform - rather than merely play - whenever the opportunity arises. The pieces are designed to be played with keyboard accompaniment wherever possible as this helps the pupil develop an awareness and appreciation of different musical styles and a sense of harmony, not just melody. So far I have written books for trumpet, trombone, flute, clarinet, saxophone, bassoon and percussion, and string books will be published this year. Even the snare drum and timpani pieces have accompaniments. Many percussion teachers have commented on this, saying how encouraging it is for percussion players to perform in school concerts, or festivals and to be able to give a polished performance. After all, you wouldn't expect a beginner violin piece not to have any accompaniment would you!
Many of the books in the Bravo! series are now used by examination boards; and although this wasn't my main objective, it shows that teachers think they work!
Why did you choose to write for instruments other than piano?
As a composer many people think you can't write for an instrument you don't play. I wonder if Haydn suffered that when he wrote his trumpet concerto - not that I class myself in the same league - but you know what I mean!. The first time I was aware of this attitude was when I was giving a piano workshop about 15 years ago. There happened to be a copy of some saxophone solos that I had just had published lying around. A piano teacher said "Oh, I didn't know you played the saxophone". I said "I don't!" She didn't look impressed. I refrained from telling her about my extensive background as a composer.
How do you approach writing for other instruments
Firstly I usually research the instrument for a couple of months. For the Bravo books I learnt the first few notes in the way that a beginner would learn them, plus basic aspects of technique. I then wrote two or three pieces to be tried out - and after that, off I went! I always insist on working closely with an editor of my choice who must be both a good performer and a good teacher. I have been very lucky with the editors that have worked on Bravo including David Campbell (Clarinet), Colin Clague (Trumpet), Leon Taylor (Trombone), Karen Street (Saxophone), Margaret Ogonovsky (Flute), Anna Meadows (Bassoon), Jackie Kendle (Percussion) and Edward Huws Jones (violin).
Your recent projects have been very varied. Tell us a bit more.
I also love writing for voices, whether setting my own text or other people's poetry. In fact my love of writing words led me to writing the libretto for an opera by Karl Jenkins called Eloise (Karl is my husband, so at least I was handy!). I have also written a song cycle for baritone and piano, Six songs for Singing and a piece for female choir, The Glory of the Garden. I have just completed a trumpet piece commissioned by the International Trumpet Guild called Cantilena and am just about to start work on a song for a new vocal collection.
So are you still writing piano music?
Absolutely! I still love to write easy music that's fun for beginners. The Cat's Pyjamas, a fun collection of easy pieces that can be mixed and matched was even awarded "Educational Publication of the Year" by the Music Industries Association. I have also written two collections of quite difficult piano preludes that I'm particularly proud of, Fantasy Preludes and Pattern Preludes, and also an easy piano picture book version of Peter and the Wolf .
What's in store for you over the coming months?
I am now really enjoying the variety of projects I'm working on. I would really love to "do a Hindemith" and write a sonata for every instrument. A magazine article once stated about me "No-one has written more pieces for so few notes". Hopefully I am now allowed to use more notes on more instruments!
This article was first published in the April 2000 issue of Music Journal, the monthly magazine of the Incorporated Society of Musicians.