Do you have any pieces of music that live especially close to your heart?

Pieces that were first learnt a while ago, maybe when you were young, that somehow you keep returning to?

For me one such piece is Dr Gradus ad Parnassum from Children’s Corner Suite by Claude Debussy. I first learnt it when I was 13 or 14 and it was one of my Grade 8 pieces, just as it is in the new ABRSM 2017-18 syllabus. I can clearly remember sitting practising all the semiquaver passages slowly with the aim of getting them as even as possible.

I returned to the piece when I was at college, this time as part of the Children’s Corner¬†Suite – the complete suite is available on IMSLP. My teacher, a wonderful man called Harold Parker, took my playing to new places. Like all great teachers he inspired me with his obvious passion for the piano and his insistence on playing to the highest of standards at all times. He helped me to develop a range of colours and sounds that I just hadn’t been aware of or previously explored.


The ability to inspire and deepen a pianists interpretation is central to the messy process at this level. When learning any piece of music it is so important to go further than just the notes and instructions on the page. As Deborah Rambo Sim points out:

‘composers are limited by the constraints of squeezing an emotionally charged aural art form into a highly structured visual representation’ [1]

In other words, it is impossible to write everything about a piece on a score. This means that every pianist will develop his/her own interpretation – and even that might vary from day to day!


As curious piano teachers we have to make sure that lessons engage our own imagination as well as the imagination, creativity and curiosity of our pupils.

We have to encourage our pupils to develop multiple interpretations of a piece. This can happen by getting them to question their own playing:

‘what happens if…..?’

‘what might you do differently there?’

‘how could you create….?’

For example in the following passage (b. 17) what is the difference between the LH staccato quavers and the tenuto quavers? Why has Debussy written this? What might this passage sound like?

Extract from Dr Gradus ad Parnassum

By exploring all the details and experimenting with the possibilities, performers become less fixed in their interpretations and potentially more interesting in their performances.


Depth of interpretation also comes from knowing something about the composer and his inspiration.

The Children’s Corner Suite was written in 1908 at a time when Debussy had young children himself. Although the music is not written for children, in a similar way to Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood, the pieces are meant to be evocative and remininiscent of childhood.

Interestingly, all the titles are written in English. According to Paul Roberts, one of the leading authorities on Debussy and his music, Debussy was an Anglophile to the extent that his own children had an English-style nursery complete with an English nanny!

In his book Images Roberts points out that the collection of pieces was written at a time when Debussy was looking back at the music of French composers Couperin and Rameau. He also says that:

‘performing [the pieces] is to experience exactly that challenging sense of exposure, that awareness of refined pianism and musical expression held up to scrutiny that we should feel when playing Mozart’ [2]


Dr Gradus ad Parnassum is the first piece in the collection. The title refers to Clementi’s well known book of (possibly rather boring) exercises Gradus ad Parnassum or Steps to Mount Parnassus. Paul Roberts suggests that by adding the word ‘Dr’ to the title Debussy is actually paying homage to Clementi rather than making fun of him.

The opening bars conjuror up the image of an industrious student slaving away diligently at his finger exercises. Boredom sets in after a while and the pace slows down. The pupil even ‘messes around’ a bit and transposes the main idea, indulging in a bit of hand crossing and dreaming. Eventually the student realises s/he has to get on and sets off once again with enthusiasm and an ever-increasing speed, ending with a thunderous and satisfying C major chord pattern!

Thunderous ending of Dr Gradus ad Parnassum

Since becoming a piano teacher myself Dr Gradus ad Parnassum has remained a teaching favourite. In doing so my understanding of the music has continued to deepen and evolve. I don’t know about you but it is one of things I just love about my job!


This post brings to an end our ‘messy’ explorations. I hope you have enjoyed our journey together over the last eight weeks looking at the eight principles that lie at the heart of a ‘messy piano’ approach. Whilst I was in the middle of writing the series my husband pointed me in the direction of a recent article on BBC Newsnight which extolled the creative virtues of messiness – it appears that I am not alone! CLICK HERE

I would encourage all of you (even the neatest amongst us!) to embrace some element of messiness at the piano and in lessons.

This blog post was written by Dr Sally Cathcart | Co-Founder The Curious Piano Teachers

[1] Playing beyond the notes, p. 1. Deborah Rambo Sinn. 2013. OUP

[2] Images, p. 207. Paul Roberts. 2003. Amadeus Press


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. The Name, Email and Comment fields are required

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.