First experiences with the Catalogue of Ornamental Patterns


The catalogue was offered to selected piano students at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague, all of them technically advanced. None of these students practises technical exercises on a frequent basis. The confrontation of the students with the catalogue did not happen within the framework of a specific didactic project; rather it took place as an addendum to their regular classes, and as a result of their interest in the topic. Therefore, the contact was open-ended: they were in no way obliged to work with the patterns.

Three of the students are classical pianists. Playing improvised preludes had been a subject of their improvisation classes earlier that year. These students were already quite capable of improvising a simple ‘Czerny-style’ prelude; the catalogue helped them to enlarge their repertoire of patterns to a certain degree.

The two other students are jazz-pianists, who are also very experienced in classical music. Their reactions were quite different from each other. One of them (with an Asian background) saw the catalogue mainly as a collection of exercises and used the word ‘boring’. The other one (European) showed a keen interest. Though this student was not really enthusiastic about improvising preludes as such, he managed to use the patterns for ornamentations in existing music, like the Nocturnes of John Field. This student had been provided with both an earlier and the latest versions of the catalogue. He made the very interesting remark that he actually preferred the earlier one, since this version (which consisted of examples of patterns, literally as they occurred in various pieces) made it easier for him to understand the context of a specific pattern.

These first experiences made me realize once more some old educational truths:

-Exploring a locus communis, in this case: early 19th century ornamentations, only works when the student sympathizes with its musical possibilities. In other words: the motivation comes from real music. When I am exploring a locus communis for my own sake, this motivation comes unconsciously. When concept of a locus communis is used as a pedagogical tool for others, this motivational background should not be forgotten.

-The same process takes place on a smaller scale, namely in the presentation of a locus communis. As a researcher, one strives for abstraction in order to satisfy one’s desire to grasp the topic in its most essential form. In teaching, there is always the tendency to use this ‘deepest insight’ as a point of departure, so to speak in a deductive way. The same happened in much music theoretical teaching in the 20th century: in the teaching of modal counterpoint after Knud Jeppesen, where the idea of cantus firmus became a quintessential melody rather than the practice-derived backbone of a polyphonic piece that the term originally indicated; in Hugo Riemann’s theory of harmonic functions, that originally tried to explain existing chord successions, but was widely used as a tool to write harmony (already by Riemann himself – though at his time the connection with the living music was probably still existing, resulting in an ‘unconscious motivation’); and also in the work of Riemann’s opposite Heinrich Schenker, for whom the Ursatz became a dogmatic criterion by which to judge both compositions and performances. This process is very much connected with the signalled reification (Verdinglichung) as described in paragraph 3.3 of the principal text.  

To overcome the difficulties mentioned above, a method of teaching should be developed that addresses both the endless variations of the real music and the concepts that the teacher finds worth isolating from it. It is the inductive process that counts, because for a musician concepts are more useful as a view on music than as a reality as such.

Concretely this means that, rather than being the first material to provide the students with,  the Catalogue of Ornamental Patterns should be a summary of a module that encompasses well-chosen pieces, accompanying texts and exercises.