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The Gymnopedie Project


In the spring of 2005, several of my piano students got a short musical visit from an eccentric Frenchman named Erik Satie. Mr. Satie passed on in 1925 after a life of controversial artistic pursuits, some of which included short piano pieces. Among his first such pieces was a set of three he entitled "Gymnopedie". These odd little pieces seemed like just the thing for a creative voyage, because, as you'll hear in a moment, the pieces are very tuneful, and easy to grasp. That is not to say they will universally make a good impression on you--nor did they on my students. However, I like a challenge.

I generally began the lesson by introducing Mr. Satie, and giving a brief background on him (depending on the student I might digress more or less into elements of his biography that they might find interesting.  You can do this yourself on the Satie page).

Then I would play the first of his three Gymnopedie(s). You can listen to any or all of them here. Note that in some respects they sound pretty similar.


Trois Gymnopedie
Gymnopedie no. 1  
Gymnopedie no. 2
Gymnopedie no. 3

After the performance, I would ask for an initial reaction. I caught a student or two trying to be diplomatic--that wasn't necessary, I assured them. You don't have to like everything just because a teacher plays it in class! However, liking or disliking something is not a good place to stop, despite the importance our society seems to attach to the almighty opinion. Being able to explain why you liked it or why you didn't; what you would have appreciated more of, or less of...that, at least, gets us further on our way to that ancient Delphic injunction: Know Thyself.  Which is about to come in handy....

Now, I would state melodramatically, we are going to write our own Gymnopedie!

The act of musical creation seems so remote to so many people, and yet, it seems to me, that everyone ought to engage in it from time to time, particularly while growing up and learning so many other fine things. Not everybody is going to be able to write like Mozart; but then, nobody writes like Shakespeare either, and yet we assign essays, poems, and other writing samples in class anyhow. There is something about using a medium to express your own ideas that makes it so much more alive than if you only ingest the thoughts of others.

As it happens, Satie's piece is ripe for imitation, since, as I pointed out to my students, it mostly consists of a one note melody, with very little rhythmic complication to worry about. In other words, simple quarter notes will do. The unusual, but rather monotonous, left hand accompaniment pattern is something that I will take care of myself. Their task was basically to write a tune. If you have never written anything before (and some of my students hadn't) this is a nice way to get some results without a lot of preliminary.

Composers have used other composer's pieces as models for their own pieces, particularly when learning their craft, so this is a time-honored procedure. What the students will be doing is creating phrases of music--short musical ideas, really--of about the same length as Satie, and joining them together. If the student is a little older we try harder to concentrate on the overall form of the piece, but, once the initial fun of coming up with characteristic ideas wears off, trying to develop them can get difficult. Since Satie himself rejected standard models of development, and since his harmonies are so "nontraditional", we were able, in most cases, to nicely sidestep this dilemma, which we will focus on another time.

As I mentioned, the students had various reactions to Satie's piece. Some described it as "boring". I was ready for this. Satie, I said, may have actually been trying to be monotonous on purpose! (you can read Stephen Whittington's interesting essay for thoughts on this) However, this would not do for some. Part of the challenge was in deciding when to insist on doing things Satie's way--after all, this was supposed to resemble a Gymnopedie--and when to let the student break out of the boundaries and explore a little, or a lot! 

Each lesson was different, as I sought to encourage or coax each student through a tough spot, or a "lack of inspiration" (the first problem--"I can't thank of anything good!" "Well, here's what Satie came up with for the next four measures (drumming one note and holding it for a long time) "So I don't think you have anything to worry about!") or just sat back and watched the experimentation take hold until suddenly came an idea that the student thought was wonderful, a small musical representation of something inside herself. Given Mr. Satie's quirks, and our own general zaniness, there were plenty of times we amused ourselves.

Which meant we were having fun.


The student's Gymnopedies are below:

     Meghan was sure she wasn't going to be able to think of anything good. It's a common difficulty. I explain that composers don't always have really great ideas to start with--sometimes what is interesting about a piece of music is what you do with your idea.  So she chooses a very simple five-finger pattern--up the scale and back down. It just happens that it takes five notes to reach the top, and our piece is going to be in three beats per measure. That makes the top of the hill on the second beat of the second measure, which makes the emphasis of the top note and the emphasis of the most important beat quietly fight each other, which is what we often call syncopation. So this is already going to sound kind of cool. Then I offer her some choices for what she can do with her theme--repeat it, move up a note or two, or down a note or two, and repeat it (this is called a sequence), turn it upside down, play it backwards, slow it down, speed it up, or come up with something entirely new. She decides to turn it upside down. So far the piece is doing a lot of step-wise movement, with no jumps. She decides to throw in a big one right where the ear is starting to get tired of all those close steps. It is a great idea. Then she repeats that phrase down a step. We run out of time in the lesson, but we've got a nice Gymnopedie already, and they don't have to go on forever.

Here is Meghan's Gymnopedie



     Elizabeth is a few years older, and she is a little twisted :-)  Like several of my students, she finds the piece pretty enough for background music, but not all that attention-grabbing. Interesting, I tell her. Satie intentionally wrote some music that he didn't want people to actively listen to--sort of the first elevator music. And he may have been intentionally trying to hypnotize people here, too. Liz decides she likes the idea of messing with people's ears, and she writes an entire Gymnopedie based on a snakey theme that is pretty similar to Satie's but saves any soulful melodic skips for the second phrase where I can't help adding some interesting harmonies. The entire section is repeated, just like in the Satie--Liz is older, and besides having a longer attention span, is more able to work with the larger form of the piece, which, after all, is the most difficult part to get right for everybody who has ever written anything (almost). It is relatively easy to come up with an idea, somewhat simple to play around with it once you know how, and tough to organize it effectively, especially on a large scale. She enjoys writing the coda, which seems never to end, or do what you expect it to do.

Here is Elizabeth's Gymnopedie


     Miranda not only found the Satie boring, she decided to do something about it. Her piece reminds me of a cross between a Gymnopedie and and Mazurka (Polish dance; Chopin wrote several).  There is a little rhythmic snap in her opening idea that makes it move. We threw in a loud bass kick on the tail end of the phrase and had a good laugh. Basically, her piece is based on two melodic ideas, both of which have that infectious dotted-rhythm. The first ends with an authoritative leap.  Miranda wrote another piece during the same lesson (both hands) that was also very electric.

Here is Miranda's Gymnopedie


     David was a young man who didn't even like playing the piano a year ago. After a year spent discussing galaxies and military divisions and all manner of things that music has much to do with--it helps if you have a little imagination--I unleashed a monster! David decided to make his Gymnopedie even stranger than Elizabeth's, and went right for the chromatic. Then a flood of ideas came forth; the next week, David insisted on writing them all down himself, despite never having composed anything before. He got a surprising amount of it written correctly, and wrote quickly. Unfortunately, getting all those ideas to peacefully cohabitate in one piece proved a challenge beyond our reach. So the present piece is kind of short, and since I had to move out of state, that ended our lessons. I really hope David is still composing. This should remind our educators that if we keep looking for hidden talents in our students, and ways to reach them, we may unlock a real excitement, when everything changes in a week--or a lesson.

       Here is David's Gymnopedie


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