Clavier Companion - July/August 2017 - 42
William L. Gillock
A letter from William Gillock to a piano pedagogy student
transcribed and edited by Henry Doskey
March 29, 1979
Many, many thanks for your good letter and your invitation
to contribute whatever pearls of wisdom I may have
found useful in composing supplemental pieces for piano
Will you permit me to philosophize a bit...? Since you have
taught so much of my music, you are probably more aware
than I that the composition process with me is far more
intuitive than intellectual. Your request for an insight into what
really happens has caused me to analyze and soul-search for
answers that I had given little or no thought to previously.
Thanks for "shaking me up!" I may have something of interest
to talk about on my next workshop tour!
The first question I have asked myself is: "What are the
functions of supplemental literature that the usual pieces
in reading books or other 'study' books do not serve?" The
answers, in the order of their importance to me, are:
1) To provide a musically thrilling experience at a level
that is playable for a particular age, musical understanding,
and technical advancement. I believe more pupils have
learned to play well because of exciting literature than for
all other reasons combined. If a piece seems worthy of
the effort...the pupil is more likely to give willingly-even
enthusiastically-the time and thought necessary for a
beautiful performance. The well-chosen, self-motivating
supplemental piece provides the opportunity to achieve
artistry and refinement of detail in performance. Whereas
the pieces in the reading or study books generally focus the
attention of the student on a visual or technical experience,
the supplemental piece should be an experience in thrilling
sound-the ultimate goal of all his studies. And on the
subject of thrilling sound, I feel it is the responsibility of the
teacher to see that the pupil hears his piece played well.
Sound can be taught only by imitation. At first, the teacher
will need to lead the pupil phrase by phrase, even note by
note; but from these specific experiences the pupil will learn
to generalize. This type of teaching can be successful...only
if the pupil's heart is in the learning process. This requires
a piece that he wants desperately to be able to play well.
2) To provide an experience that will lead to the later
understanding of master works... Especially written pieces
in the styles of the master composers, or periods of musical
history, or in various forms, serve an obviously useful
purpose. I call this type of piece "something to grow on."
3) To reinforce reading concepts and/or technical
skills and help them to become a fluent part of the
musical vocabulary or physical accomplishments. My
teacher, N. Louise Wright, used to say "Theory is not
worth two cents unless it has an immediate musical
What makes some pieces more successful than
others? This is a question that I think can never be
answered completely. The subtle turn of a phrase,
a bit of colorful harmony, the unexpected surprise,
and exciting rhythmic treatment-to what and how
the taste and personality of the young musician
Aside from musical qualities that are indefinable
and elusive. And which have different meaning to
different people, there is one qualification that I would
demand of all pieces I would teach in the early years:
they must be pianistic. They must feel as if they are
written for ten fingers and eighty-eight keys. For this
reason, I never permit a piece to be published until
I have played it several times a day for at least a
month. During that time, I often re-arrange or simplify
to make the piece easier to play. However, one rule I
observe religiously is never to sacrifice musical quality
to simplification. This, again, is something that N.
Louise Wright instilled in me.
I think I am always trying to write pieces that sound
harder than they really are because I know these are
the ones teachers take to their hearts and cherish, and
children love them for public performance.
In my writing for the early levels, I like pieces that
have a natural rhythmic flow. The pupil must, above all
else, achieve this...and I see no point in complicating
the pursuit of it. I especially avoid in my writing for the
first three years pieces where the downbeat occurs
on a rest or a tie. I like to use strong accents and
crisp staccato touches. Rhythmic subtlety, such as in
AEOLIAN HARP or FRENCH DOLL, is for a select few.
A singable melody is also characteristic of my work.
Because melody has been an important part of the
evolution of music in our western culture, it has a wide
appeal. We relate to the "song and dance" of the folk
music in which so much of our culture is rooted.
As to which comes first in my composing, the
concept or the musical idea, the ratio over the nearly
forty years of my career would probably be about